To Be King of the Fourth Estate

Article excerpt

Who would want to buy a national newspaper these days? Newsprint prices have gone through the roof, a price war has slashed profits, and overall readership is stagnating, despite gains by Rupert Murdoch's (cut- rate) titles.

One should never underestimate the appeal of being a press baron, however. Outsized egos grow addicted to the influence they think they wield - and running a national title is one of the surest ways, on past form, to win that elusive knighthood.

Not that all the men profiled here need or want one. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has his already for services to the British theatre. Mohamed al- Fayed has probably resigned himself to doing without: he is not popular with this government, nor does he have many supporters among Labour.

But ego alone does not tell the whole story. There are, indeed, two huge commercial advantages to owning newspapers: the cash they generate (useful to expand into other media farther down the road) and the powerful libraries of copyright material they create daily. The cash from News International's five national titles helped Murdoch to finance his huge global empire, for example. And both the Telegraph and the Times have shown how their material can be repackaged for electronic resale - on the Internet, for instance.

When all is said and done it must be the idea more than the commercial aspect that appeals. Newspaper proprietors get to bestride editorial offices, hiring and firing editors at will. They sup with prime ministers and with royalty. A sunset industry it might be, but many a happy ending has been marked by a ride into the hills, the sun setting majestically beyond.

TONY O'REILLY

Tony O'Reilly is already a press baron if you look at the holdings of Independent Newspapers, his main media vehicle. He dominates the Irish press and has recently expanded in New Zealand and South Africa. Altogether, the group owns or manages pounds 1bn-worth of newspaper titles.

More to the point, the man known as the Bean King for his control of Heinz, the US-based food company, has managed to buy part of a national newspaper in Britain, the Independent, following a no-holds-barred fight between the Mirror Group and his Irish Independent Newspapers. But close colleagues believe he is still keen to own a UK national paper over which he could exercise direct control. Before joining the battle for the Independent, he took a hard look at the Express (thought to have been for sale for years, if the price was right). He did not like the per-copy production costs, which he calculated to have been roughly twice what the Mirror Group managed.

One rumour has it that Dr O'Reilly could be enticed into bidding for the Express group if he thought he could use a few of the Mirror's cost- cutting tactics. Working alongside the Mirror at Newspaper Publishing, publishers of the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, he has had a close look at how costs can be slashed.

But a partnership is not out of the question, provided he emerged as the senior player. Sir Andrew could be one; so could the Mirror Group. Newspaper Publishing has even been suggested by some industry observers as the perfect acquisition vehicle for taking over the Express. It has plenty of tax losses to line up against the Express group's declining but still reasonably robust profits.

ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has money, ambition and talent. So why does he want to buy a national newspaper?

The answer: probably a mixture of strategy and ego. Sir Andrew, who last week confirmed an interest in the Express group, wants to create an integrated media company anchored by the cash flow from Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard etc. So much for the strategy. But he is also attracted by the influence attending any national newspaper proprietor, following in the footsteps of Beaverbrook, Black, Murdoch and many others lesser and greater. …