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Sunday 25 February 2018

Business Post price up as challenges increase

Pressures mount for new chief executive over advertising and circulation crises

Jody Corcoran and Dan White

The sense of paranoia that many describe at the small circulation The Sunday Business Post became a little more acute this week.

The financially struggling title has been forced to raise its cover price by 7pc - up 20 cent today, bringing it to €3.20. That's a steep rise for what is effectively a second newspaper purchase for many of its readers.

Whether readers consider the paper to be worth it remains to be seen.

The price point is one of many peculiarities about the title, which in July lost its managing director, the experienced industry player Paul Cooke.

Cooke was widely seen as the man who almost single-handedly saved the title and managed to get the many competing egos to get along.

Insiders described how Cooke used his charm to get rivals to get along for the sake of the business.

"I heard of instances where people would only communicate by email. It was important that kind of thing was ironed out," said an insider.

Cooke's successor, advertising executive Siobhan Lennon, was only announced this week, and she has an uphill battle on her hands.

She also has the mammoth task of soothing the various interests involved from shareholder Conor Killeen - a former director of the Quinn Group - to the testosterone-fuelled newsroom.

Many industry professionals wonder how much longer a print-centric title, which proclaims to be pro-business but has a left-leaning bias, can survive. Ms Lennon was the paper's main salesperson and presumably her former position will now be filled.

She takes up the role of chief executive of Sunrise Media, the publisher of the paper. Sunrise also owns the Cork-based printing company Webprint Concepts.

The main shareholder in Sunrise is Conor Killeen's Key Capital, which bought the newspaper out of examinership in 2013 and gained control of Webprint last year by purchasing its loans from vulture fund Cerberus.

Cerberus is currently embroiled in a controversy in Northern Ireland related to its purchase of the Nama Project Eagle loan book concerning 850 properties for a knockdown £1.3bn.

The Sunday Business Post first hit the streets in 1989 when four business journalists came together to set up their own specialist business newspaper. The publication has had a chequered history over the past 27 years, with ownership of the title passing through several hands.

The newspaper always had a nationalist hue, but in its most recent incarnation it appears to have become the unlikely champion of Sinn Fein. There are frequent contributions by ex-Blackrock College boy Eoin O Broin, now a Sinn Fein TD.

O Broin, who is seen as the man who will compete with Mary Lou McDonald for the Sinn Fein leadership when Gerry Adams eventually steps down, uses the paper as a platform. He is not seen as close to Adams and many see the articles as an attempt to boost his profile ahead of a leadership pitch.

Thomas Crosbie Holdings (TCH), former publisher of the Irish Examiner, paid Trinity Mirror €10m for The Sunday Business Post in 2002.

The newspaper came on the market again in 2013 when TCH went into receivership. As part of that process, an examiner appointed to The Sunday Business Post sold the title to Key Capital and Mr Cooke for just €750,000.

Mr Killeen is a former chairman of stockbroker NCB and ex-director of the Quinn Group. In 2004, a year after taking part in a management buyout of NCB, he and two colleagues quit the firm and sold their combined 10pc stake to its management and the Quinn Group. He served on the Quinn board for four years before resigning as a director in December 2008.

Mr Killeen founded corporate finance and wealth management outfit Key Capital in 2001.

Last July, Key Capital merged The Sunday Business Post with Webprint to form Sunrise Media.

Mr Killeen was quoted at the time as saying that there was a "compelling" business case for combining the two businesses. However, the post-Celtic tiger era has not been successful for The Sunday Business Post. Its circulation was just 31,364 in the first six months of 2016, down 5pc on the first half of 2015 and by a massive 46pc on the first half of 2009, when the title sold an average of 57,783 copies every Sunday.

The Sunday Business Post doesn't have a sports section. Back in 1989, the original founders justified this omission on the grounds that the paper was a niche publication and its readers could read about sport in other titles.

However, the days when readers could be relied upon to purchase several Sunday newspapers have passed. In the digital era, the challenge is to get readers to buy even one print newspaper.

According to a source familiar with the situation, The Sunday Business Post has examined the possibility of adding sports coverage from time to time, but has come to the same conclusion: "You don't get much advertising from sport."

When the new owners acquired The Sunday Business Post in 2013, the newspaper had annual losses running at more than €1m. The decline in circulation was offset by a number of price rises. Now there is yet another price rise.

Meanwhile, Ms Lennon was given the job of sorting out The Sunday Business Post's advertising. She was quoted last week as saying that "we are profitable". But the profit of under €100,000 in the year to the end of June 2015 is akin to a small provincial publishing house.

At a time when newspaper publishers are seeking to increase the proportion of their revenues coming from digital, the logic of tying The Sunday Business Post to a print business has been questioned.

Growing online revenues is taking longer than expected and there is speculation Key Capital may attempt to sell the paper and the rest of Sunrise Media in the short term.

Insiders pour cold water on the notion that Key Capital is getting ready to sell all or part of Sunrise soon, but there have been unconfirmed reports that Key Capital is seeking an investor for the business.

Whoever the very brave white knight is remains to be seen. But they will need deep pockets and much patience to deal with the competing egos.

Sunday Independent

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