Former Sunday Express editor eyes News of the People title as publisher Trinity Mirror confirms discussions on joint venture
A consortium fronted by Sue Douglas, the former Sunday Express editor, has tabled a proposal worth up to £10m to take a majority stake in the Sunday People – and may rebrand it News of the People.
Sunday People publisher Trinity Mirror confirmed on Thursday that it had held “very preliminary discussions” about putting the title into a joint venture with Douglas’s consortium.
Douglas, who has teamed up with ex-ITV executive Rupert Howell, is understood to have held discussions with Trinity Mirror about a possible joint venture in the run-up to Christmas.
It is thought that the business plan includes the possible rebranding of the tabloid to News of the People, a hybrid of Sunday People and News of the World.
Douglas has officially registered the web domain for www.newsofthepeople.co.uk.
It is also understood that there is a desire to use the same masthead as the now defunct News of the World, and also the same fonts.
Other names are believed to be under consideration including News on Sunday.
“Trinity Mirror plc can confirm it is in very preliminary discussions regarding a joint venture for publishing the Sunday People. There is nothing further to report at this stage. A further announcement will be made as and when appropriate,” a Trinity Mirror spokesman said.
Douglas’s firm, Phoenix Ventures, secured funding of at least £10m late last year and has the backing of individuals including Brian Kennedy, the millionaire owner of Sale Sharks rugby club.
Phoenix Ventures declined to comment.
Keith Harris, the football financier and chairman of investment bank Seymour Pierce, is also backing the venture and has been touted as a potential non-executive chairman if a deal can be reached.
Trinity Mirror, which is run by former HMV chief executive Simon Fox, is not thought to have rejected the proposal although talks have not taken place since the Christmas and new year holiday break.
“I can confirm that we have been approached by an external group who have expressed an interest in working with us to invest in and develop the Sunday People,” said Fox, in an email to staff. “These discussions are at a very preliminary stage and may or may not come to fruition. Any decision about whether or not to progress will be taken once we have carefully considered the impact on our colleagues, readers and investors.”
Fox added that the news of the potential deal will naturally be “very unsettling” for the staff at the Sunday People, “and I would reiterate to them that no decisions have been taken and we will keep the team fully informed should this move forward”.
Phoenix Ventures, the parent of Phoenix Newspapers Limited, is understood to be looking for a deal to take a majority stake in a Sunday newspaper.
This marks a shift from the strategy of seeking outright ownership, and the need for £20m in funding, that Douglas adopted when first making approaches to publishers early last year.
The Sunday People has emerged as the preferred target, however Phoenix also held arms length talks about a potential deal for Richard Desmond’s Daily Star Sunday.
Phoenix also looked tentatively at the Independent on Sunday, although it is not clear if any approach or talks were initiated with owner Alexander Lebedev or his son, Evgeny, who runs the Russian businessman’s UK newspaper operation.
The Sunday People is perceived as the best fit for Douglas’s vision of launching a digital and print venture designed to target the 1.3 million-plus buyers of News of the World that gave up purchasing a Sunday paper after Rupert Murdoch closed the tabloid in July 2011 at the height of the phone hacking scandal.
As a standalone title the Sunday People is not plugged into a seven-day operation at Trinity Mirror, unlike Desmond’s Daily Star Sunday.
Fox, who joined Trinity Mirror in September, has shown he is keen to eye partnerships that prove advantageous in supporting the future of the its titles.
In November he reached a £14.2m deal to take a 20% stake in David Montgomery’s Local World regional newspaper publishing venture, although Trinity Mirror did not put its own local newspapers into the business.
Matt Nixson, the former features editor of the Sun, is understood to be linked to Douglas’s project.
Nixson was dismissed by Sun publisher News International after an accusation by his employer that he made a £750 payment to a prison guard for information about Ian Huntley, the Soham killer, in 2011. Nixson has consistently denied bribing a prison officer.
In October News International settled the case with Nixson, and agreed to pay his court costs and an undisclosed figure for damages.
A dummy copy of the rebranded newspaper is understood to have been presented to the Trinity Mirror board, using the News of the World fonts and proposed title.
It is not clear if there would be any issue over copyright with News International, the owner of the News of the World brand.
It is understood that Douglas initially approached Rupert Murdoch about potentially acquiring NoW when it was shut down in July 2011, however talks did not get far as News International was decided that a re-entry would be made into the Sunday market. News International launched the Sunday edition of the Sun in February last year.
Douglas is understood to have approached a number of former News of the World staff about potentially being involved in the venture, as well as those from other titles.
It is thought that the business plan includes pricing the title at £1 and seeking a weekly sale of 1m from launch.
James Scott, the long-serving deputy editor of the Sunday Mirror, was appointed as editor of the Sunday People in June. The title’s deputy editor is Nick Buckley.
Sales of the title have proven resilient in a tough market with the Sunday People outperforming direct rival the Daily Star Sunday, according to recent sales figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
Officially audited Sunday People sales for November were 445,594, down just 1.8% month-on-month, while the Daily Star Sunday dropped 5.35% to 368,268.
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