MEDIA FORUM: Can Trinity Mirror become a major-league player?

Could a new chief executive turn things around at Trinity Mirror or is a splitting up of the group's components the solution? Alasdair Reid asks.

The business editors of the Sunday newspapers were in a generous mood at the weekend in their coverage of Trinity Mirror. Although there was a lot of fairly scathing stuff, the knives are not yet out. Which is more than fair - because if half the stories emerging from Canary Wharf are true (and in classic Mirror Group tradition some of its executives have been breathtakingly candid over the past week or so) then this could be a story with a very messy ending.

Plus ca change. The Mirror Group (as was) has been a troubled organisation on and off for almost two decades now - in fact, ever since the gargantuan shadow of Robert Maxwell first darkened its door in June 1984. Since Maxwell floated off into the sunset in 1991, we've been invited to witness a handful of new dawns, most of them awkward, some of them painful - remember, for instance, the austere kill or cure approach taken by David Montgomery?

In that context, the merger of Mirror Group with the regional publisher Trinity back in 1999 seemed one of the happier occasions.

Now, with the announcement that Philip Graf, the chief executive of the group since the merger, plans to depart next summer, there is fresh scope for doubt. Graf indicated that, having spent almost ten years in charge (he was the boss of Trinity before the merger), he had become rather attached to the top job. But he added: "I feel however that the foundations we have laid have created a strong platform for growth and I feel that this period of notice will enable an orderly succession to take place. In the meantime, I shall continue enthusiastically to lead the team during what will be a year of considerable progress for the business."

Few in the marketplace took that at face value. Was he pushed, they asked, confident that they knew the answer. And what was all this flannel about "foundations" and a "platform for growth"? The influential US fund manager Tweed Brown, which holds 5.6 per cent of Trinity Mirror equity, wasn't at all convinced, calling immediately for the company to be broken up - or at the very least demerged into its two component parts.

Beyond Graf's statement Trinity Mirror declined to talk to Campaign about the implications of his departure. However, some analysts point out that the company is currently valued at the same level as the regional-only Johnston Press - which means effectively that Trinity Mirror's national titles are accorded no value at all. A demerger would therefore realise that latent value. In theory.

Lorna Tilbian, a media analyst at Numis, agrees that the group is undervalued but argues that's not surprising at this stage in the economic cycle.

Daily Mail and General Trust is also undervalued, she points out. "The strategy of integrating regionals and nationals is a good one as indeed the DMGT model shows. It's just that it's had 100 years to get it right and Trinity Mirror has had three. In theory it should work. In a downturn you can insulate the nationals from falling advertising revenues by raising your cover prices. Meanwhile regional advertising will hold up. National advertising tends to be controlled on a multinational basis so it suffers but regional advertising - property and retail - holds up. So, in the bit where they have control, the cover price of the nationals, they've been absolute idiots."

According to insiders, the problem at the top is not just one of contending views, but of fundamental philosophical schisms. And that's down to an unfortunate accident of corporate history. Originally, the Mirror Group was going to take over Trinity until the former's share price went on the slide and the tables were turned. But the two sides were still keen on getting together, so they decided that Trinity would buy the Mirror Group, they'd call it a merger and they'd implement the original Mirror Group strategy.

The Mirror's original rationale for buying Trinity was that, although there's a certain knack to producing local and regional newspapers, it's not exactly brain surgery. The beauty of these publications, in raw business terms, is that they're often local monopolies and the real opportunity was all about optimising the returns from those monopolies. Mirror Group managers reckoned there was a hell of a lot of fat that could be trimmed from Trinity.

However, after the merger, Trinity was in charge and began to display a worryingly sentimental attachment to some of that fat. It has been wielding the knife extremely reluctantly - and according to some insiders, the whole process is at least 18 months behind schedule. As a consequence, planned investment in the national titles has been held back. Meanwhile, the serious-minded new editorial direction being pursued by the Daily Mirror editor, Piers Morgan, has not been bearing fruit in circulation terms.

"If you ask media people about the Daily Mirror's serious stance, they'd probably say that it's all very well but The Sun still dominates popular culture," Greg Grimmer, a managing partner at Optimedia, says.

There's also a wild card faction in here too - management consultants from McKinsey have also established a firm foothold in the company. Importantly, they have the ear of many on the plc board. Strange because it is an almost universally acknowledged truth that management consultants struggle to understand media companies.

The story goes that the decision to go ahead with the Daily Mirror's cover price cut was taken following a presentation to the board that proved incontrovertibly that Rupert Murdoch was in no position financially to respond.

Paul Thomas, a managing partner at MindShare, comments: "Everyone knew that Murdoch would at least match them. The Sun at 10p costs him something in the region of £100 million a year but he can balance at least some of that against raising The Sunday Times' price. Trinity Mirror just isn't in that league. It really misread the situation. There are people there who just don't understand how aggressive the market can be."

Trinity Mirror's tragedy, some say, is that those very people could now hold the balance of power. But should the board now be urged to look for an external candidate to replace Graf? And what sort of person should they be looking for if they do?

"Tony Ball's little brother," Grimmer says. "Actually, they should raid Fox in the US or Channel 7 in Australia. Someone whose career won't be ruined back home if they make the odd mistake, someone who won't be worried about British corporate culture."

Tilbian agrees. "Someone with more national newspaper experience than consulting experience. When you go to war you need someone who knows the enemy," she concludes.

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