Media group Johnston Press today said its £24million purchase of the i newspaper had been approved by investors as it posted a rise in annual profits.
The Edinburgh-based publisher of the Northumberland Gazette, Berwick Advertiser, Morpeth Herald, News Post Leader and News Guardian said almost 99.9 per cent of shareholders had voted in favour of the acquisition, agreed last month with Independent owner ESI Media.
Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield said the acquisition was “incredibly exciting” for the group, which also owns The Scotsman, Yorkshire Post, Edinburgh Evening News, Scotland on Sunday and scores of local newspapers and websites.
“It gives us scale, with a combined Johnston Press plus i daily print circulation of over 600,000 papers, making us the UK’s fourth largest news publisher, and thus numerous revenue and cost synergy opportunities,” Highfield said.
“Further, not only will the i contribute positively to earnings but it will allow us to accelerate growth in digital, and help stabilise our circulation revenues. In conjunction with the planned asset disposals this will enable us to continue to reduce debt levels and cut financing costs further.”
His comments came as Johnston Press reported an adjusted pre-tax profit of £31.5million for the 12 months to 2 January, an increase of 22.6 per cent on the previous year.
Total revenues were 6.8 per cent lower at £242.3million, with print advertising down 11.9 per cent on a year earlier, but digital advertising grew 12.4 per cent.
The company’s digital audience grew by 40.7 per cent to 22.6million in December, up from 16.1million for the same month in 2014, while its total audience across print and digital was up 19.8 per cent year-on-year to reach 31.9million. The fourth quarter saw Johnston Press launch redesigned websites for The Scotsman, Yorkshire Post, Sheffield Star and Portsmouth News, with “significant audience uplift”, and the new design will be rolled out to more brands this year.
Net debt reduced by £14.8million to £179.4million during the year, and has fallen by about £300million since the start of 2013, helping to drive down financing costs.
Highfield added: “We have reduced costs to maintain profitability, reset our portfolio and refocused on priority markets with attractive audiences that offer the best opportunity for growth.
“Success in driving our national display advertising business in 2015 and the roll-out of our local display advertising Sales Force initiative gives me confidence for the future despite the fact that the market remains difficult.”