The former boss of betting shop chain Ladbrokes Coral is to take over as chief executive of Reach, the UK’s largest regional newspaper company, as the group continues its aggressive acquisition drive.
Jim Mullen will replace Simon Fox in August at the group, formerly known as Trinity Mirror, as it seeks to hoover up assets to offset falling revenues from newspaper advertising.
The announcement came as the company unveiled it had made a £58m pre-tax profit in the six months to the end of June.
This compared with losses of £113.5m in the same period in the previous year after the tough advertising climate forced the company to write down the value of its titles by £150m.
The group’s profits in the first half of this year were boosted by strong digital performance, acquisition synergies and structural cost savings.
This was despite tumbling revenues in newspaper advertising, traditionally the lifeblood of regional papers. They dropped by roughly a fifth in the six months to June compared with the same period last year.
Reach has launched a wave of acquisitions since Mr Fox took charge of the company seven years ago.
One of the key deals was the £127m purchase of UK tabloid newspapers the Daily Star and Express in February 2018, the most significant acquisition on Fleet Street in more than a decade.
It has also been the country’s most prolific acquirer of regional and local titles in recent years, including the Manchester Evening News and about 100 titles as part of its 2015 buyout of Local World.
This month the newspaper group made an offer to acquire titles owned by struggling competitor JPI Media. It owns regional newspapers The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post as well as UK national newspaper the i.
Mr Mullen, who has also worked in advertising for 11 years and held roles in product management and digital strategy at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News International, said he was “delighted” to keep building on Reach’s “digital transformation”.
The company said its combined news sites now gave it the sixth-largest online audience in the UK, reaching about 40m people each month.
Digital revenues, which includes online advertising, grew by 10 per cent to £49m but fell short of the company’s target growth by 5 percentage points.
“We’re still seeing revenues decline, and we’re not yet at the tipping point where growth in digital is enough to offset sliding revenues in print,” said Natasha Brilliant, analyst at Citigroup, adding that the right moment could come after an acquisition.
“JPI Media could be big enough, but it would take a few years,” she said, pointing to the recent offer Reach made for its rival, which fell into the hands of its creditors last year.
Mr Fox said he was pleased with the company’s “robust performance in the first half of the year and with the strengthening of our digital audience”. “There is never an ideal time to leave an organisation, but if there were it would be now,” he said.