Daily Mail draws up short list of six for £1.5bn sale of regional titles

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The Independent Online

The private-equity groups Candover and Cinven and the trade player Johnston Press are among the half dozen bidders to have made it into the second round of the £1.5bn auction of Daily Mail & General Trust's regional newspapers arm Northcliffe.

Only about half the original contenders are still in the running, made up of a mixture of trade and financial groups. These include Chris Oakley, the former Regional Independent Media director backed by Candover, the ex-chairman of Newsquest Jim Brown who is backed by Cinven, and the aggressively acquisitive Johnston Press.

Mr Oakley has a proven track record of regional press buyouts, having worked with Candover first to scoop Midland Independent Newspapers in 1991. So too does Mr Brown, who led the £206m KKR-backed management buyout of Reed Regional Newspapers in 1996.

David Montgomery, the former managing director of the Mirror Group, is also thought to be still in the hunt. He submitted an offer through his Mecom investment vehicle but, like bidders that failed to make the cut, may still forge a fresh consortium with others involved in the auction.

Bidders were told last week whether they had progressed to the second round of the auction, and are now waiting for DMGT - the owner of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday - to disclose up-to-date monthly trading figures for Northcliffe and projections for full-year profits. Rival publishers Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press - the market leader and number four player in regional newspapers respectively - have already sounded the alarm over dwindling classified advertising revenues, notably in the key recruitment sector.

Analysts reckoned that some bidders may have come in high simply to ensure they remained in the game, but could trim their offers after picking through more detailed financial information on Northcliffe.

One leading media executive said: "There is a lot of manoeuvring going on, both among those who got through and those that didn't. This is such a big deal, everyone will need partners."

Lord Rothermere's decision to put Northcliffe's 105 titles and 16 per cent market share, making it one of the four leading groups in the sector, up for sale earlier this month was likened by some in the media industry to an unsentimental heir selling off the family silver.

DMGT is demanding that bidders agree to acquire Northcliffe unconditionally, meaning that any winning buyer from among the existing leading players would be taking on considerable risk that the competition authorities would then object to the deal. Therefore any trade bidder will need to line up a partner ready to take on part of Northcliffe's regional newspaper empire, should the competition authorities come out against an outright purchase by them. A purchase by Trinity Mirror, Newsquest or Johnston Press would cut the existing four dominant groups to three.

Johnston has already shelled out more than £500m on acquisitions this year - including £160m for the Scotsman group - and is thought to need the outside financial muscle of a private-equity partner.

Northcliffe, founded by the first Lord Rothermere in 1928, continues to be DMGT's most profitable division. It notched up operating profits of £102m in the year to October, out of DMGT's pre-tax profits of £253m.

But a root-and-branch review of the business convinced DMGT that to maintain its position would require it to lead continuing consolidation within the regional press. DMGT is not willing to pay the price that would require.

Instead, the group is choosing to compete with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Trinity Mirror for a bigger slice of the increasingly lucrative online advertising market. It already owns the companies behind the primelocation.com property website and the jobs site officerecruit.co.uk.

Much of the proceeds of the sale of Northcliffe are earmarked for shareholders - including the Rothermere family which has a 25 per cent economic interest and voting control.