More than 35 jobs are to go after Northcliffe Media announced it is closing two of the seven newspapers it tried to sell to the KM Group.
In a move which may force the hand of regulators, the regional publisher is axeing free weekly the Medway News along with the part-paid-for East Kent Gazette, both part of its Kent Regional News & Media subsidiary.
The move comes after the Office of Fair Trading effectively blocked its bid to sell the KRNM division and its seven weekly titles to local rival the KM Group.
Media regulator Ofcom had previously warned the OFT that papers could close unless the deal went through.
The other titles affected by the deal – which appear to be safe for now – were the Herne Bay and Whitstable Times, Isle of Thanet Gazette, Thanet Times, Folkestone Herald and Dover Express.
The KM Group withdrew its bid to buy the titles from Northcliffe on cost grounds after the OFT insisted on a full inquiry by the Competition Commission.
Today’s announcement by Northcliffe managing director Steve Auckland is likely to have far-reaching repercussions for the local press industry.
Ministers and MPs are now bound to come under pressure to step in to relax competition rules rather than allow the two newspapers – and possibly others – to go to the wall.
A company statement issued at 3pm today read: “Northcliffe Media has announced the potential closure of the Medway News and East Kent Gazette as part of a review of its activities across Kent and the wider South East.
“The restructure is in response to the collapse of the proposed sale of Kent Regional News & Media following referral of the transaction to the Competition Commission by the Office of Fair Trading in October.
“This review has concluded that continuing to publish the Medway News and East Kent Gazette is not financially viable. Subject to consultation with staff both titles are likely to cease publication in early December.”
Steve Auckland added: “As a result of the OFT’s decision on our proposed sale of Kent Regional News & Media to the KM Group we have no choice but to consider closing these titles with the resulting job losses.”
Today’s outcome was accurately predicted by Ofcom in a local media assessment carried out prior to the OFT decision.
It said: “If advertising revenues, circulation figures and profits continue to fall at their current rates, then absent the merger, KMG and KRNM may in the future be forced to close or merge titles or perhaps even cease operating altogether, thereby resulting in a worse outcome for consumers.
“The evidence available to us suggests that the target business and the regional newspaper business of KMG will struggle to achieve profitability in their current form, which might lead them to respond by closing newspaper titles or reducing quality or both.”
Since the collapse of the deal, the KM Group has also announced up to 10 job losses at its own titles.
According to the most recent ABC figures, the Gillingham-based Medway News had a circulation of 53,235.
The East Kent Gazette, which covers Sittingbourne and the surrounding area, has an overall circulation of 13,975, of which around 7,900 are paid-for sales and the rest free pick-ups.