The odd couple: why the Mirror and the Express may soon merge

By Matt Gray

12th September 2017

On Friday last week, the news broke that two of the UK’s largest tabloid publishing houses could be about to merge. The Trinity Mirror Group, owner of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and over two hundred regional titles, is in talks to acquire the publication roster of Northern & Shell, which includes among its ranks the Daily Express, the Daily Star and celebrity magazine OK!

If the merger goes through, it will place several popular national tabloids, with a combined daily readership of close to 3 million people, under the same roof. As the Guardian reports, the combined publications would make up 30% of the Sunday newspaper market and 25% of the ‘dailies’.

Of course, this isn’t the first instance of consolidation within the media industry. Buyouts have long been the glue keeping local print titles in the UK afloat, and such activity has created three news giants in the form of Newsquest, Johnston Press and the Trinity Mirror Group.

Precedent also exists in the national press. In 1993 the Guardian Media Group acquired the Observer, and the two titles have since become synonymous, sharing much of the same news desk and with content from each title jostling for position on theguardian.com. At the other end of the political spectrum, a series of acquisitions beginning in 1981 eventually brought together The Times, the Sunday Times and the Sun into arguably the most powerful and controversial media company in the country: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp UK.

The Trinity Mirror / Northern & Shell talks are the first of such scale in some years, which begs the question: why are they happening now? Market saturation for national newspapers is a key factor, as BBC News’ Media Editor Amol Rajan writes. Eleven daily papers and 10 Sundays are competing for dwindling circulations, leading publishers to feel the pinch as advertisers travel from the printed page to the webpage. In this context, consolidating titles to offer advertisers a larger, united market therefore makes complete business sense.

Yet the move is not without controversy or intrigue. Writing this weekend, Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s long serving media columnist, lamented how “two ailing flagship titles will be forced into a shotgun marriage as commercial necessity displaces proprietorial commitment”. Indeed, much can be made about the differences between Richard Desmond – the owner of Northern & Shell – and Trinity Mirror’s chief executive Simon Fox, as well as the journey both men will have taken before considering this merger as a viable option.

Desmond’s reputation as an abrasive, aggressive media mogul is well known, and in true press baron style he has spent 17 years moulding the Daily Express into his own image. From backing New Labour in the early noughties, the Express is now ardent in its support of UKIP, and the paper infamously encourages its journalists – glossy magazine-style – to cover well-worn sensational stories about health (particularly new “causes of cancer”), celebrities and royalty.

Simon Fox meanwhile has followed a mixed career path, with roles in banking, electrical retail and as chief executive of HMV. In five years at the Trinity Mirror Group he has driven the company’s consolidation activity and kept the Daily Mirror’s left-leaning political stance in place, despite populist pressure. Yet he has drawn fierce criticism for his attempts at media innovation. Under his watch, the New Day launched, floundered and failed within a period of just nine weeks, and viral news sites such as UsVsTh3m also sunk without a trace.

What unites the two is their hunt for profit, which explains why despite personal animosity – Desmond having told the Trinity Mirror CEO to “Fox off” when a sale was first proposed two years ago – they are now in serious talks. Having spent years making severe cut backs to their respective organisations – both to support staff and editorial staff – each man seems to have reached a final point of hindrance.

However, while Desmond can simply wash his hands of the media industry, having seen his personal income decline in line with his papers’ circulation (the Daily Express readership alone has fallen from 1 million in 2000 to just 400,000 today), Fox must satisfy shareholders whose nerves are jangling as sales fall. Trinity Mirror clearly view further consolidation as the most sensible option to address this, even despite the wildly contrasting political stances of their own papers to the ones they hope to acquire.

Several questions are yet to be answered, including the potential value of any deal; the i speculates a £130m buyout, only £5m more than the amount Desmond paid for the Express titles in 2000. But the most important questions consider how the two editorial teams will exist within the same group.

How will the groups merge, and whose job will be on the line as a result? Will the Mirror adopt the populism of the Express, or will Desmond’s ideology be scrapped in a dramatic switch from right to left? Will any titles be binned outright; such as the waning Star titles?

It will be fascinating to see how this deal progresses, whether it can be turned into a roaring success, or – as Roy Greenslade suggests – whether it will simply “delay the fateful day of doom for newsprint”.