Executives heading the joint publisher initiative negotiations have yet to file a report to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), as further issues arise around the viability of one joint sales house versus a number of smaller ones.
The cross-industry initiative, formerly known as Project Rio but now going by a different name internally as advised by lawyers, has faced problems deciding on the structure of the sales house which has held back any submission to regulators.
It means it could be well into 2018 before any launch would be given the greenlight by the CMA, as observers have called its initial Autumn 2017 launch “very ambitious”.
“It still grumbles on,” opined one person close to the discussions. “The conversations continue with all the remaining partners. But there are regulation problems, so the Autumn launch is very ambitious because of how long it takes the CMA to approve anything.”
The initiative has been underway since the middle of 2017 when rival publishers decided to put their differences aside to tackle print's terminal decline as an alliance.
The publishers, which include Trinity Mirror, Guardian Media Group, News UK and Telegraph Media Group, have been at loggerheads to agree on how the sales house will be structured, how revenue will be shared, and how advertisers will be able to trade across the news brands.
Whether or not regional papers would be a part of a combined pot is a source of debate. One source involved in the discussions said that regionals have not been ruled out of the initiative, while another source suggested that the newspaper bosses involved would “rather not include regionals” in an already complex project.
Both the Daily Mail publisher (DMG Media) and Northern & Shellhave taken a back seat in the discussions until issues have resolved. It is thought DMG Media are still open to the idea and could rejoin the initiative when a more tangible product has been worked out.
Should the deal fall through, then it is rumoured that DMG Media and News UK might consider a potential partnership. Trinity Mirror's involvement has also been questioned should its proposed merger deal with Northern & Shell’s Express Newspapers go ahead.
If either partnership was to go ahead and launch a separate, mini-Rio - especially if this involved the two biggest newspapers in the market - the remaining publishers would have to join together for competition to approve the deal.
One media executive raised concerns about the appeal of a number of mini-Rios to advertisers: “The whole concept gets completely watered down and isn't as exciting as it would have been.”
“Advertisers won't get onboard with it until there is a very clear proposition,” they added.
The Drum reached out to the Guardian Media Group, Trinity Mirror, News UK and Telegraph Media Group who declined to comment on the issue. DMG Media and Northern & Shell did not return a request for comment.