i's right as UK readies a new wave of regional competition

A week in which UK regional publisher Newsquest gained a new owner and the company Ken Doctor calls "America's worst newspaper owners" took control of Tribune Publishing, has ended with quality tabloid daily i falling to the Daily Mail.

It seems the final indignity in the break-up of an empire carefully assembled by the canny Scots from the Falkirk Herald.

If what is now JPIMedia have been good custodians of i, its creditors at least have reaped the benefits, selling the quality tabloid daily for £49.6 million (A$94.8 million), more than twice the £24 million for which Johnston Press bought it from Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev.

Britain's newest daily - it was launched in 2010 as a low-cost quick read from the publishers of the Independent - has always shone brightly. It's hard not to love its snappy design, tight subbing and down-to-earth content, qualities which have earned it a succession of accolades over its short life.

Its acquisition by the Daily Mail and General Trust is less sure; what is certain is which of the two the new owner would sacrifice should dwindling circulations demand a choice.

As for the rest of JPIMedia, the decision of Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror) that it no longer wants to bid, leaves the way clear for a "merger" with new-Gannett-owned (as in Gatehouse controlled) Newsquest, which was thought only to want the regional titles in any case.

Both deals are likely to require regulator approval, the latter largely expected to focus on Scottish operations, in anticipation of which Newsquest has agreed that The Scotsman and Edinburgh Evening News could operate as a separate business, pending a decision.

For its part, Reach - understood to have offered around £50 million for JPIMedia - will compete rather than capitulate, having announced plans to recruit 50 journalists and launch new websites in centres including Sheffield, Newport, Bradford and Sunderland, cities in which JPIMedia's Sheffield Telegraph and Sunderland Echo, and Newsquest's South Wales Argus (Newport) and (Bradford) Telegraph & Argus still hold sway.

As a trainee journalist in Portsmouth in the 1960s, I remember the Echo - and neighbouring Hartlepool Mail - as incongruous partners with the Evening News in the company on which I learned early skills. In Falkirk, the Johnston family - armed, as I somehow recall, with a new Solna offset press - were just starting their march south.

Decades before, the newspaper barons of the day had agreed the 'gentlemanly' but arbitrary death of rival mastheads in a 1930s attempt at curbing expensive competition, but over which the new phenomenon of 'reader power' would sometimes prevail, as it did when Camrose and Rothermere contrived a deal over Bristol and Newcastle.

Competition regulator notwithstanding, today's regional media seem set for a new round of competition, even if it's of the "fail fast" variety; more concerning is the fall of i from proud independent to subsidiary of the Daily Mail, a publication - as the world knows from its headlines - not noted for its quality or brevity.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: The first edition of i as it appeared in 2010

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