Midland waiting at the altar:The Investment Column

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The Independent Online
Midland Independent has become the bridesmaid of the regional newspaper world. In a rapidly consolidating sector where everybody seems to be getting hitched, the publisher of the Birmingham Post has been left waiting at the altar, failing on three occasions in the last couple of years to get into bed with other regional newspaper groups.

The latest abortive attempt, to buy Emap's regional titles, cost Midland pounds 1.4m in acquisition costs. These helped to restrict operating profits in the six months to June to pounds 8.9m, down from pounds 10.7m last time.

A sharp rise in newsprint prices in the first half, trailed in a profits warning in May, added pounds 2.3m to costs, while advertising revenue was "patchy", according to Midland chief executive Chris Oakley, due to "uncertain consumer demand".

Closing two loss-making titles in Leicester and Nottingham cost another pounds 3.1m, pushing pre-tax profits after exceptionals down from pounds 9.4m to pounds 3.7m. The dividend, up 8 per cent to 1.2p, was uncovered by earnings.

Since the half-year Midland has managed to tie the knot by paying Newsquest pounds 12m for seven free newspaper titles in the north Midlands. But Midland still has to come up with the deal that will secure its position in the regional newspaper shake-out.

If Midland fails to make a move it could be snapped up itself. Michael Green's Carlton, owner of Birmingham-based Central TV, is a likely suitor. Midland would be an ideal way for Carlton to develop its interest in US- style local television similar to that being entertained in Manchester by media giant Granada, the Manchester Evening News, Manchester United and cable operator Nynex.

This City TV concept has already been adopted to a certain degree by Midland in conjunction with the Mirror Group's Live TV subsidiary. Birmingham Live now reaches almost 100,000 subscribers and is on course to break even by the end of 1998.

Brokers Panmure Gordon look for normalised pre-tax profits of pounds 16m rising to pounds 20m in 1997, implying a p/e of 17 falling to 13 with the shares at 130p. Hold.