A newspaper is no ordinary business, it is a trophy asset

The founder of the `Independent' says the dream may be over but the future remains bright
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The Independent Online
FOR ME it was the end of a dream last Wednesday, when Ireland's Independent Newspapers, whose chairman is Dr. Tony O'Reilly, announced that agreement had been reached on purchasing the outstanding shares in Newspaper Publishing, which owns The Independent. One of the objectives of the founders of the newspaper was to operate with a wide spread of shareholders and to do without the traditional tycoon-proprietor. In the event, however, I did not feel disconsolate; rather the reverse. I was delighted. The newspaper had been saved.

But how did we get to this point? In 1986 we raised the pounds 18m capital with which the newspaper was launched from 30 or so pensions funds, unit trusts, life assurance funds and the like. We placed a limit on the size of individual shareholdings. Nobody could build up a position and take us over, or so we thought. Among the first shareholders, however, there lurked one individual whose presence was even more significant than we first believed - Robert Maxwell. His subscription had been disguised by contriving that an investment company would bid for the shares he wanted. We were horrified by his presence, but we failed to see that it was an example of a general rule: national newspapers are trophy assets. Like say, luxury hotels or football teams, owning them confers prestige.

This misapprehension was part, if you like, of a greater error. We understood well enough the iron law - no profits, no independence. But in 1986 we felt entitled to assume that, for the first time in many years, newspapers had become a normal business. Mrs Thatcher had so weakened the trades unions by removing their legal privileges, that the print workers could no longer maintain their stranglehold and Rupert Murdoch had demonstrated their sudden loss of power by his success in decamping from Fleet Street to Wapping in east London, leaving behind his unionised employees.

It first became evident during the severe recession of the early 1990s that the assumption of normality was unsafe. This slowdown in economic activity was particularly painful for newspapers. It wasn't confined to industrial workers in the Midlands and the North as so often in the past; it hit the middles classes (and the South-East) head on. Its impact upon advertising revenues was devastating and its effect upon circulation income was also adverse. Newspaper Publishing proceeded to do what normal businesses do in such circumstances. They cut out any activities whose benefits, seen in a harsh light, appear marginal. They forgo new initiatives. They reduce costs where they can.

We did all those things. Our competitors, however, did not. They didn't cut back at all. That is the point about trophy assets; their owners willingly pay for their upkeep, even in hard times. At all events, we began to feel squeezed. We had made matters more difficult for ourselves by launching the Independent on Sunday just before the recession began. Having made good profits, we fell into loss.

We became short of capital. The iron law began to operate. Not all our existing shareholders were prepared to subscribe new equity. I didn't blame them. Pension funds, unit trusts and similar financial institutions are unmoved by the supposed prestige of owning a national newspaper. Their fiduciary duties force them, quite rightly, to focus solely on the outlook for profits and dividends. The point had thus arrived at which we would have to seek a new type of shareholder. If we wished to avoid being bought by a single individual, such as the late Sir James Goldsmith, or Mr Tiny Rowland, or Mr Mohammed Al Fayed, or whoever, we would have to turn to other newspaper companies, so long as they were not rivals. They could bring us expertise as well as fresh capital. The first two newspapers to join the shareholding group were La Repubblica of Italy and El Pais of Spain. Strengthened by the capital they subscribed and helped by an easing of the recession, the losses were trimmed back and we began to operate at break-even. In financial terms, we were stretched but viable.

The events which led to last week's change of ownership began one Friday evening, on the very day when I had asked our financial director whether he agreed with me that we could get by without seeking a further capital injection. He replied in the affirmative but within an hour or two we discovered how wrong we were.

Rupert Murdoch announced that The Times was to reduce its cover price. A new sort of war had begun. Circulation revenues fell sharply. Losses mounted. Independent Newspapers, publishers of The Irish Independent and The Sunday Independent, and Mirror Group, bought out the original shareholders and injected fresh capital. Once again losses were hauled back. Until finally Mirror Group, seeing that its share price appeared adversely affected by its holding in Newspaper Publishing, whose newspapers are so different in style to its own, decided to sell its holding to the Irish group, which took the opportunity to buy out the other shareholders, including El Pais. The Independent and the Independent on Sunday have fallen in with the rest of Fleet Street in having a single owner. End of experiment.

For everybody involved, the recent years have always been demanding, never less than exhausting and often traumatic. The saving grace, however, has been that the newspapers have never once fallen short of the aspiration enunciated by their titles - to be independent. To my knowledge, no shareholder has ever tried to influence the reporting of the news or the opinions expressed. I believe this will remain the case. The new owner is the largest publisher of broadsheet newspapers in the world, employing more than 2,000 journalists in Ireland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. As well as integrity, it brings two boons, stability and resources. That is why I look forward with optimism while regretting the dream unrealised.