Independent News & Media profits up 68 per cent

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Independent News & Media, the international newspaper group that owns The Independent and The Independent on Sunday, yesterday announced an unprecedented 68.2 per cent surge in profits for last year, boosted by a strong performance in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Pre-tax profits rose from 85m to 143m euros, with good progress reported virtually across the board.

In Britain, the recovery at the Independent newspaper titles continued apace, allowing Brendan Hopkins, chief executive of the UK operations, to express confidence that the group would achieve its three-year plan of returning the titles to profit by the year ending next March. Advertising revenues for the titles so far this year were up 20 per cent, he said, and there were some weeks when the two titles were already profitable.

Mr Hopkins said circulation and revenue gains had fully vindicated the group's view when it took full control of the titles two years ago that it could turn them around.

Since the start of the year, four out of five of the group's markets - Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the UK - have continued to boom, with all four of them achieving double-digit growth in revenue. There are also encouraging signs of recovery in South Africa.

Dr AJF O'Reilly, the chairman, said that after a challenging start to last year, when many economies were only emerging from the Asian crisis, the group "achieved steady and sustained performance growth, demonstrating the vitality and breadth of our market-leading brands".

The current year would bring further growth and exciting developments, he said. The restructuring plan is achieving significant savings in traditional media, while Independent Digital is producing tangible results in the new media arena.

The group is considering whether to float its fast-growing WAP software operation, iTouch, at some stage this year in an IPO that analysts think might value iTouch at more than $500m. iTouch has begun an international roll-out of its range of value-added services.

Elsewhere in new media, the group's "prudent but expansive" strategy for development is already paying big dividends. The group's 46 websites worldwide are achieving 40 million page impressions a month, of which 8 million are for The Independent's website, making it the 20th most visited UK site.

Coincidentally yesterday, Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, ordered a mandatory reference to the Competition Commission of the group's acquisition of The Belfast Telegraph. Mr Byers is required by legislation to order the investigation, which is mandatory for most newspaper acquisitions. The commission has been told to report by 9 June.