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Marmite Montgomery's undimmed love affair with newspapers

04 Dec 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Marmite Montgomery's undimmed love affair with newspapers

If David Montgomery successfully takes ownership of JPI Media, his ambitions will only grow, writes Raymond Snoddy

At the Daily Mirror where David Montgomery was once chief executive, journalists nicknamed him Rommel because, after all, wasn’t Monty meant to be on our side.

Quite apart from old jokes there is no doubt that the long-standing newspaper executive and owner is a Marmite figure – certainly to those who lost their jobs in cost-cutting drives over the years.

But then name a newspaper executive who hasn’t been forced to cut jobs.

The remarkable thing about David Montgomery, an Ulsterman with a taste for opera, is that at the age of 71 his love affair with newspapers, and his willingness and ability to buy them, is undiminished when he almost certainly is under no personal financial pressure to do so.

In the latest shuffling of newspaper assets Montgomery emerged as the leading contender to buy the 200 titles of JPI Media – the old Johnson Press as was - as JPI sold its i newspaper to the Daily Mail for just under £50 million.

There is no mystery about the disposals. JPI largely made of by the bondholders of the heavily indebted Johnson Press essentially took over the running of the company to try to get their money back and were always going to sell when they judged the time was right.

The surprise is that Montgomery should have emerged as a pensioner proprietor in pole position to take over papers such as The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post.

It’s happened partly by default. Reach, owners of the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express have apparently pulled out and Newsquest’s new American owners lost interest in the purchase.

It is still remarkable that Montgomery, whose newspaper adventures included founding the Mecom group in Europe and Local World in the UK, should be in the race to buy JPI Media with his new publishing company, National World.

If Montgomery is successful in his bid it is fairly clear what will happen next.

You don’t even have to guess what is likely to happen. We have it set out in Montgomery’s own words.

National World is seeking to create “a modern platform for news publishing by implementing a new operating model using the latest technology.”

The vision goes on that this would involve “combining digital technology innovation and traditional print assets to grow revenues by aggregation of audiences and reduce costs via shared services.”

For years Montgomery has been arguing for the need to modernise the structure of newspapers and embrace the idea that digital technology is an opportunity rather than a threat.

His ideas have included what he sees as “liberating” individual journalists and turning them into editors taking greater responsibility for, at least in local newspapers, assembling a wide range of stories, many generated by local organisations and individuals.

The reference to greater sharing to cut costs, will send a shiver down the spines of many JPI journalists.

While sharing, as opposed to unnecessary duplication of similar stories can make economic sense, it will almost certainly lead to further job losses.

The wise thing to do would be to liberate journalists from unnecessary duplication of mundane desk work or the recycling of press releases and get them out to produce new, vibrant stories from their communities.

As long as he does not go in for a slash and burn approach, Montgomery may just have got his timing right with National World.

As Tracy De Groose, executive chair of Newsworks, argued at last month’s Society of Editor’s conference, there is now a window of opportunity for newsbrands to win back some of the £1 billion in advertising revenue lost to digital over the past decade.

Trust in established newspapers and their digital arms has soared as belief in the trustworthiness of social media has plummeted.

There is a opportunity to differentiate skilled accurate reporting from the amorphous “content” now being bundled up and sold to advertisers.

For such a thing to happen there has to be a continuing investment in properly trained and paid journalists rather than endless cutting of numbers.

The completion of the sale of the i to DMGT has once again raised the spectre in some academic and political quarters of a right-wing newspaper group gobbling up the i and adding to the weight of the Conservative press.

This misses the point. For rather obvious reasons we are in an era of newspaper consolidation and the real monopolists hail out of California as newspaper groups battle for financial viability.

It therefore follows that the same holding group will increasingly bring together titles of very different political persuasions.

The Reach acquisition of right-wing titles such as the Daily Express to sit alongside the left-leaning Daily Mirror shows how such a thing can work.

Alison Phillips, editor of the Daily Mirror, told the Society of Editors conference how it is managed by setting up protocols to decide what is shared and what is not to avoid “a big grey mush.”

There are even agreements over which exclusives can be shared or retained by individual titles.

Inevitably there is sharing over areas such as sport, fashion, pictures and TV listings and that has cost around 100 jobs.

But Phillips believes a Daily Express reader is very different from a Daily Mirror reader and there is absolutely no cross-over between the two and she has not received a single complaint from readers about the impact of the acquisition.

Likewise the readers of the i, many of whom did not read a daily newspaper before, and do not want to be told what to think, are completely different from those who read the Daily Mail, now in full election campaigning mode.

It would be a crazy business decision to undermine the editorial independence of the i and one that would quickly jeopardize a £50 million investment.

DMGT is not a crazy business organisation.

Even if the industry takes the advice of De Groose and unites behind the total reach argument – 44 million adults a week accessing newsbrands - there will still be further consolidation, sometimes creating unlikely bedfellows.

As for David Montgomery, if he manages to take over the 200 JPI Media titles don’t imagine for a moment that his ambitions will end there.

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23 Jan 2020 

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