Newspaper group profits hit record

The current financial year has started positively in all areas of Independent newspapers global operations, chairman Tony O'Reilly informed the group's AGM in Dublin yesterday.

"With the Irish economy continuing to grow very strongly and the southern hemisphere's ecomonies weathering the fall out from South East Asia, we expect the out-turn for the year will be an improvement over 1997," he added.

Pre-tax profits rose by 36 per cent last year to a record level of just IRpounds 1m.

Dr O'Reilly said Princes Holdings the Cable & MDS company in which Independent has a 50 per cent stake, now had over 140,000 customers and a capacity for 500,000 homes passed, equivalent to half the households in the country.

He said he hoped to be able to announce some interesting news on developments in this area in the next two months but he did not elaborate as to whether to this referred to Princes Holdings' anticipated bid for Cablelink or the possiblity that the company might take a Stock Exchange flotation.

Referring after the meeting to a possible link to cabling, group chief executive Liam Healy said Princes Holdings other 50 per cent holder, Clear Channel of the US, was interested in expanding its operations in Ireland and that Independent was equally interested.

Asked about reports that the Daily Mail might be about to establish a national daily title in Ireland in partnership with Ireland on Sunday, Mr Healey said every new entrant would pose a threat but that it would have a tough fight against the likes of the Star, the Mirror and the Sun.

In terms of the groups core Irish titles, he said all papers, including the Sunday Independent, needed regeneration over a period but that design changes should be gradual and should not be noticed by readers.

The new Saturday magazine which has brought sales to a record 182,000 on that day, was only up and running for six months, he said, and like any start-up operation was incuring initial losses. But he stressed that it would make profits soon. The Sunday Tribune in which Independent has a 29 per cent stake, was making considerably lower losses than before.

Mr Healy said that the group had not yet decided how much to invest in the London Independent and the Independent on Sunday. "It's a question of evaluating what's required in terms of bringing the titles back to profitability in a three to five-year timescale. But we will support them for whatever is needed."

Earlier Brendan Hopkins, managing director of Independent Newspapers UK, said sales on the daily Independent had stabilised significantly at 220,000 while sales on the Independent on Sunday had risen by 7 per cent since the titles were purchased outright earlier this year.