Desmond print sale would mean curtains for the Daily Express but where would the rest go?

When Richard Desmond bought Express Newspapers a decade or so ago he caused outrage in Fleet Street with his rough ways. These supposedly included meeting delegates from the Telegraph with a goose-stepping routine and his butler interrupting meetings to bring him a banana on a silver platter.

But Dessie looks like he’s going to have the last laugh (as well as the first).

Having extracted £200m or so personally from the Daily and Sunday Express and the Daily Star he’s putting his Northern & Shell print empire up for sale (while characteristically emphasising that he’s sufficiently rich not to need to).

There have been talks apparently with Associated’s Lord Rothermere on the sale of the Express titles and Desmond will have noticed that lots of magazines (he owns Hello! and New! What a pity he never launched Old!) have been changing hands for decent money.

Last year he bought Channel 5 for what already looks like a bargainous £104m (his purchase coincided with the TV ad boom) and, although he’s already started to use print content in some shows on the station knows full well that this strand isn’t going to bring him the hundreds of millions a sale might do.

It’s hard to know exactly where the money comes from in his print empire (or even if there’s quite as much as he says there is). But a diet of ferocious cost-cutting seems to have produced reasonable returns from the national titles, especially the red top Daily Star. OK! makes money and New! got off to an OK start. Celebrity, though, may be losing its appeal at last.

Decades ago Ruper Murdoch predicted that the UK newspaper industry would eventually boil down to just two groups, his own News International, publisher of the Sun, the News of the World, The Times and the Sunday Times and Associated, publisher of the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and (in those days) the London Evening Standard.

For once Rupert wasn’t right. The Mirror (then Daily Mirror) hangs in there, as do owner Trinity Mirror’s Sunday Mirror and Sunday People. The Guardian is still with us (just) and, thanks to Dessie, so are the Express titles and Star.

Murdoch reckoned his Sun and News of the World would see off the Trinity Mirror titles while his Times, backed with a hugely-expensive price-cutting campaign, would see off the Guardian (if he ever thought about it) and certainly his enemy number one the Daily Telegraph.

But, under the wealthy Barclay brothers, the Telegraph has thrived, making more than £50m in 2010.

Murdoch may even have fantasised about The Times taking out the Financial Times, but he’s had to buy the Wall Street Journal to try to do that (and is no nearer succeeding).

Murdoch would have no interest in the Express titles but he would like to buy the Daily Star, if only to close it.

Which is exactly what Associated would do to the Daily and Sunday Expresses if it got the chance, finally bringing to a close the century-long struggle for middle market domination between Associated’s Harmsworth clan and the Beaverbrook family-founded Express titles.

A soaraway Sun incorporating the Daily Star might put on 800,000 copies (there’s no guarantee about these things of course) and the Daily Mail might gain 600,000 Express copies (its chances would be rather better because there are only two mid-market dailies).

The question is, what are these circulation-boosting titles worth?

That depends on whether there are any potential buyers outside Murdoch and Rothermere. A private equity company might have a crack at them.

Or Desmond might change his mind and not sell. But to trouser about £1bn or maybe even more out of a declining industry in a little over ten years is the kind of result that would appeal to the combative but always pragmatic North London tycoon.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.