MEDIA PERSPECTIVE: Hollick must either sell or learn to love the ailing Express

Pounds 100 million, eh. No, that's not Bob Offen's pension, it's the latest eyeball-popping bid for Express Newspapers.

Pounds 100 million, eh. No, that's not Bob Offen's pension, it's the latest eyeball-popping bid for Express Newspapers.

And the papers' owner, Clive Hollick, says it's still not enough. Or, at least, he would say that if he was even admitting that the papers are up for sale. Which he isn't. Although, of course, they are.

Hollick has already spurned one suitor, or rather two: the Barclay Brothers, publicity-shy proprietors of The Scotsman. It seems their pounds 75 million-ish cheque was a little on the weeny side. Hollick, apparently, wants at least twice as much for his paper jewels.

So the latest bid - strangely, also from a couple of siblings - looks set to go the same way. The Hinduja Group (two brothers whose business spans oil, banking and media) have hauled a pounds 100 million wedge on to the negotiating table.

But why, why, why? Why in this crazy digital/interactive/new-media whirl is Express Newspapers such a hot prospect? It's not even as though the whizzy new-media bits are up for grabs; Xilerate, the newspapers' online business, is staying put at Hollick's United News & Media.

The Express is not an immediately obvious attraction. Take away income from the group's printing assets and the papers themselves would be on their uppers. OK, on the editorial side, The Express is cleaner, with a clearer sense of identity. But stories abound about the dissatisfaction of the editor, Rosie Boycott, at how the issue of a sell-off has been handled. Her staff are said to be demoralised - not much of a brand-building formula.

And sales? The latest circulation figures, out this week, hold no surprises.

Sales for last month slid by 1.5 per cent on last September, and across the past six months they have fallen more than 2 per cent year on year.

Disaffected staff, working on a product whose popularity is fading, that doesn't make a profit and that is being stripped of its hold on the new-media future: it's not surprising that over the past couple of weeks the titles have been described as 'on their last legs' or that The Guardian wondered if Hollick might come to be known as the 'worst proprietor in modern press history'.

Certainly, Hollick seems to have little emotional investment left in Express Newspapers. But what he does have left is more than one million readers who still buy The Express. Despite the need for greater investment in the editorial product, despite some seriously dodgy advertising, despite a wavering editorial positioning, despite all of this, there are still more than a million punters putting their hands in their pockets each morning.

While The Express's circulation keeps its head above the million mark, then Hollick might yet get a fair few million for the group. But if he doesn't get on with it, then both the paper and his bank balance face seriously diminishing returns.

- claire.beale@haynet.com.



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