Archant, the publisher of dozens of titles including the Eastern Daily Press, London’s Ham & High Express and the former owner of the anti-Brexit weekly the New European, is up for sale only 18 months after being sold to a private equity group.
The Norwich-based newspaper group, one of Britain’s oldest publishers – co-founded in 1845 by the mustard magnates the Colman family – was sold to the investment group Rcapital in August 2020 in a deal that promised a “bright future” for the company as the pandemic accelerated the decline in its already strained finances.
Rcapital, which during its short period of ownership sold the New European to a consortium including the former New York Times chief and BBC director general Mark Thompson and the ex-Financial Times editor Lionel Barber, has put out an information memorandum to prospective buyers and is understood to have appointed Ulmus Advisory to oversee the process.
It is understood that interest has been expressed by several groups including National World – the owner of more than 100 local and regional titles including the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post – which lost out to Rcapital when Archant was sold.
Newsquest, the UK’s second biggest regional player, with 200 titles, including the Argus in Brighton, the Northern Echo in Darlington and the Glasgow Times, has also expressed interest.
Reach, the owner of the Mirror, Star and Express national papers and almost 200 regional print and digital titles, including the Manchester Evening News and Liverpool Echo, is another potential suitor. Bids are due by the end of the day on Friday.
The involvement of Reach, which has the largest combined online readership of any UK newspaper group and in December overtook the BBC as the biggest news website by audience, could cause regulatory issues.
While the publisher does not own print titles that overlap with Archant, which also owns about 75 specialist magazines such as London Bride and Pilot, it has made a big investment in the region, launching the competing digital brands NorfolkLive and SuffolkLive backed by 50 journalists as part of plans to launch local news brand in every county in England and Wales.
If Reach were to succeed, the company has the deepest pockets to make a bid, it could trigger media plurality concerns with the industry regulator, Ofcom.
Like other regional publishers, Archant has been hit by the growing shift of readers and advertisers to digital platforms. The company makes about £50m in annual revenues, down from almost £100m in 2017, and is barely profitable. It is expected to be sold for about £5m to £10m, the same price range as National World paid for JPI Media in December 2020, a business that was sold for £160m by the Barclay brothers in 2005.
When Rcapital announced its takeover of Archant it described the deal as a “one-of-a-kind” investment. The private equity group owns 90% of Archant, with 10% owned by the Pension Protection Fund, as part of a company voluntary arrangement to unburden Archant from its pension and life assurance scheme.