CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS - When Richard met Rosie: the sale of The Express. Will Northern & Shell and Express Newspapers be a good match?

Britain's national press welcomed the news last week that 'soft porn king' Richard Desmond had bought Express Newspapers with glee. All, that is, except the staff at Ludgate House, who received the news with undisguised horror.

Britain's national press welcomed the news last week that 'soft porn king' Richard Desmond had bought Express Newspapers with glee. All, that is, except the staff at Ludgate House, who received the news with undisguised horror.

After months of hard toil, the staff on the daily paper feared that editor Rosie Boycott's hard work would be swept away by Desmond, who rapidly installed his editorial director, Paul Ashford, as the editorial director of the three Express Newspapers titles.

Despite Ashford's statement that there will be no immediate editorial changes, few believe that Boycott will withstand the new order, given the apparent philosophical schism between her and Desmond.

The official line is that following an initial meeting with Desmond last Wednesday night, Boycott was convinced of Northern & Shell's commitment to the group and could see 'no reason not to work with them'. Only time will tell.

Add to any editorial uncertainty the reported tension among the ad sales teams prompted by the triumphant return to Ludgate House of Stan Myerson, Northern & Shell's group ad sales director. Myerson, the deputy group ad sales director of Express Newspapers from 1986 and assistant to the managing director for a stint before he left Blackfriars in 1995, apparently received a mixed reception from his former employees.

In the furore that surrounded the acquisition at the end of last week, neither Myerson, Desmond or Express Newspapers' managing director, Andy Jonesco, were available to comment on the intended plans for the sales operation.

Rumours that Jonesco and the ad director, Richard Bogie, have already moved offices abound, but nothing as yet is confirmed.

'There's been lots of fist-shaking and desk-thumping already, many of the sales reps aren't sure that they want to stay. Lots of people down there remember Myerson from before,' one source said.

While no one doubts that this deal represents a coming of age for Northern & Shell, there are many both inside and outside of Express Newspapers who continue to struggle with the notion of this most unexpected of buyers.

But can Northern & Shell's acquisition really be such a bad thing; isn't this just a chronic case of media snobbery? Could, in fact, Desmond be the man to draw a line under Express Newspapers' chequered history and kick it successfully into the 21st century?

Northern & Shell, the publishing house founded by Desmond 26 years ago, has made the 49-year-old Londoner one of Britain's richest publishing tycoons. 'The Express has been crying out for investment for years,' Steve Goodman, press director of MediaCom TMB, said. 'Potentially, he could be their knight in shining armour.'

It may be an unpopular opinion in the immediate aftermath of the deal, but Desmond's deep pockets and aggressive strategy have worked wonders for OK!. Launched in 1993, Northern & Shell's flagship celebrity title battled against established rival Hello!, until last year's 37.7 per cent sales increase to 551,901 copies put it ahead of Hello!'s 495,349 circulation for the first time (July to December 1999, ABC).

Having worked hard to establish a place for himself in the mainstream magazine market with OK!, the Express Newspapers deal could also furnish Desmond with the necessary respectability to enable his planned stock market flotation.

'Desmond is very ambitious and an aggressive entrepreneur,' Colin Gottlieb, a managing partner of Manning Gottlieb Media, said. 'He's shown how he's quite capable of taking Hello!, shoving it in the mud and giving it a good kicking. He might not be what everybody aspires to as a newspaper proprietor, but he is a proven marketer within the populist press. If he can inject some pace and fun into the mid-market and give us an alternative to the Daily Mail, then I'd welcome that.'

Although it is acknowledged that Boycott has made headway with The Express editorially, and the Daily Star's circulation has recently climbed, the long-term circulation patterns across the group are far from promising.

One press director commented: 'As it stands, The Express is such a limp-wristed competitor in the mid-market that we don't even include it on our schedules. It's so off-radar, I don't hear clients even mentioning it anymore.'

Desmond and Co are working hard to reassure their new employees. Express Newspapers will continue to operate from Ludgate House, and Desmond and Ashford have reiterated that they have no intention of taking the paper downmarket. It appears The Express will remain a page three babe-free zone, although the Daily Star may benefit from Northern & Shell's top-shelf experience.

The Express will also be able to draw upon OK!'s celebrity links to provide a much-needed boost in celebrity and entertainment news, and regular tie-ups with OK! are anticipated.

What the papers need most is sustained investment. Press buyers interviewed for this piece referred to the laughable investment The Express had received under former proprietors Lord Hollick and Lord Stevens. 'The money is crucial,' Gottlieb said. 'If they've got the money to turn it into a vibrant paper and really push it hard to the market with around pounds 30 million to pounds 40 million spent above the line over two years, then maybe he's got a chance.'

Ultimately, as one insider said: 'Yes, it will be painful for the people who work here now, but at least Desmond will try to make a go of it. And he couldn't do much worse than Hollick or Stevens.'


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