MEDIA: Gannett’s Newsquest acquisition threatens regional democracy

One of the most interesting - but worrying - media stories of the past few days is the #904 million bid for Newsquest by US heavyweight Gannett. It represents the first real acquisitive push into grassroots regional UK papers by a foreign publisher. The deal’s hardly toe-in-the-water stuff.

One of the most interesting - but worrying - media stories of the

past few days is the #904 million bid for Newsquest by US heavyweight

Gannett. It represents the first real acquisitive push into grassroots

regional UK papers by a foreign publisher. The deal’s hardly

toe-in-the-water stuff.



Newsquest owns such illustrious UK papers as the Northern Echo, Brighton

Evening Argus and the Oxford Mail among the 63 paid-for and 120 freebies

in its stable, built on the former Reed Publishing and Westminster

empires.



The third largest regional publisher in a rapidly consolidating sector,

Newsquest is concentrated in lush Greater London, Wiltshire, the

Midlands and the North. Gannett, meanwhile, is best known here for its

1970s launch of a European version of USA Today, a brash broadsheet

aimed at US tourists seeking their baseball fix.



Gannett is attracted by the profitability of the consolidating regional

press - 77 per cent of regional press has changed hands in the past

three years - assisted by the fact that the key buy-out backers, US

Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (with Cinven), have control. They should deliver

this deal without a fight, or reference to the Competition Commission.

Given this lack of checks, it is surprising that Gannett, or other big

US publishers haven’t pounced before. After all, Conrad Black and Rupert

Murdoch have already colonised the national press.



There are similarities between US and UK regional papers beside common

language and publishing techniques. Gannett, with 74 daily titles, likes

to hold a media monopoly in its towns. It has high advertising to

editorial ratios and a big focus on the bottom line. It has heavily

invested in local TV and cable companies (impossible because of

regulatory constraints here) and crucially, is way ahead in translating

its regional presence into e-commerce.



Three quarters of regionals now operate a web site, demonstrating that

the new media does not necessarily obliterate the old. Significantly,

Douglas McCorkindale, vice-chairman and president of Gannett, said of

Newsquest: ’We like the way they create their product, initiating new

products and what they are doing with the internet.’



He means the paper’s web sites, internet auctions, electronic

directories, and involvement in This is Britain - the consortium which

provides content to big portal operators.



So why do I find this acquisition worrying? The news broke as I was

judging the regional press awards: over the past five years in the role,

I’ve observed editorial improvements as the papers are being run ever

more professionally.



Nine out of ten people read a regional paper every week. They are not

just local ’rags’, but a medium for democratic debate and information,

too. I hope Gannett respects that.



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