Telegraph CEO Heralds Digital Growth as Takeover Talk Swirls

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(Bloomberg) -- Britain’s Telegraph Media Group expects to pass a milestone in coming days, when it will get more subscribers online than from its newspapers.

The 164-year-old publisher of the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph has hit parity in digital and print, with total combined subscriptions of about 418,000, Chief Executive Officer Nick Hugh said in an interview this week. Hugh has hired dozens of journalists to boost output of exclusive journalism and digital subscriptions have grown by about 81,000 in a year.

“It’s a great position to be in,” Hugh said. “To be able to grow at that rate should give great comfort to the market that actually we will very soon be able to demonstrate a very clear sustainable path to ongoing growth.”

Turning casual online readers into paying subscribers is critical for Hugh to meet a target to reverse the Telegraph’s declining profit.

He says he’ll add at least 100,000 mainly digital subscribers by this time next year, and double operating profit by the end of 2020. That would mark a rebound after the Telegraph’s operating profit dropped by 61% to 8.1 million pounds ($10.4 million) in 2018 on slightly lower sales and added costs from hiring.

The Telegraph, based a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace in London, has become a topic of conversation among European newspaper executives after it emerged in October that Britain’s billionaire Barclay twins are considering a sale or part-sale of the company as part of a potential breakup of their business empire. Companies including National World Plc, Mediahuis NV and Daily Mail & General Trust Plc could be possible bidders.

While “there’s a lot of speculation about the Telegraph being for sale,” no advisers have been hired and there’s no process for a sale of the Telegraph itself, Hugh said, declining to comment further.

The Barclays, who bought the business for 665 million pounds in 2004, are “incredibly supportive of how we transform to a model that’s sustainable into the future, and they recognize that that’s required investment.”

One challenge for Hugh is that online subscribers only pay between a third and a half as much as print customers, he said. But unlike print, digital is growing. The Financial Times’s subscriber base became majority digital in 2012 and the Guardian reported last year that most of its sales are from web readers.

Boris and Brexit

The staunchly conservative Telegraph has been a cheerleader for Brexit and regularly publishes opinion columns by Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- its Brussels correspondent during the 1990s -- and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage. Recent political turbulence has boosted subscriptions, said Hugh.

Before Johnson won the Tory leadership to take the helm from Theresa May in July, the Telegraph paid him 275,000 ($356,000) pounds a year for his columns.

“Of course we’re proud of the long relationship that we’ve had with Boris Johnson,” Hugh said. “Since he’s prime minister, naturally we don’t pay him.”

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