The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

How UK news agency was transformed

To see one of the most successful transformations of a UK news business, the former occupants of ‘Fleet Street’ need look no further than the company many of them own. PA Media Group (formerly the Press Association) has been transformed from a traditional news agency to a diversified digital content business in an eventful decade.

It’s owned by 20 existing and former newspaper UK publishers including: Reach, News Corp, DMGT, Telegraph Media Group and Informa. It was founded in 1868 (22 years after the launch of Associated Press in the US) by British daily newspaper proprietors who wanted a more reliable alternative to the monopoly service of telegraph companies. Its first ‘press telegram’ declared: “The Press Association is formed on the principle of co-operation and can never be worked for individual profit, or become exclusive in its character”. It actually once owned Reuters.

PA is now, unmistakeably, a business.

It’s an increasingly international provider of news and media content whose customers – no longer just newspaper-centric services – include a wide range of media, sport, betting and other corporates. Its subsidiaries include the Alamy images library, StreamAMG video streaming, Sticky Content marketing, Globelynx TV interviews network, and the UK’s largest media training company.

Its steady growth, which has seen profit increase from £6mn to £17mn during 2017-23, has been achieved with self-funded acquisitions and by paying-off a longstanding pension deficit with the sale proceeds of: the £150mn Meteo weather group, a 50% stake in Canada Newswire, and its £40mn former Central London headquarters.

Some 12 years ago, more than 50% of PA revenue still came from its traditional newswire and content services for UK and Irish media. In 2023, they accounted for just 26%, with no less than 44% coming from acquisitions made since 2020.

Alamy, acquired for some £45mn in 2020 (and incorporating the former PA Images library) now accounts for 32% of PA revenue. The archive of almost 200mn images and videos, sourced from a network of 100k photographers and 650 picture agencies, was a transformative deal because the UK-based Alamy was generating 65% of its £25mn revenue from international markets, including more than 40% from the US, AsiaPacific and India. What is now PA’s largest business has helped it to increase the total group revenue by 53% and EBITDA by 70% in the past five years, despite the pandemic:

PA Media Group
   Newswire / puzzles/ features26%27%28%31%41%
   Racing/ sports data14%14%15%15%20%
   Alamy images32%30%29%23%
Margin15%14%  15%17%14%
Acquisitions/ % of revenue***44%43%41%32%9%
* Flashes & Flames estimates
**Inc Video, Globelynx, Sticky Content, Training
***Alamy, StreamAMG, Hydrogen

It’s a big change from 2010 when the Press Association had a pension deficit of up to £20mn, 40% more people, less revenue and sliding profits. That was the year when PA was reeling from profit lost through the closure of two London evening newspapers and from the collapse of the UK’s once powerful Teletext service. It was also the year when PA’s CEO Clive Marshall and its non-executive chair Murdoch MacLennan (then CEO of Telegraph Media Group) took control.

Marshall & MacLennan in 2010: a 14-year partnership changed everything

It had seemed an unlikely partnership. Former newspaper production director MacLennan had been a graduate trainee at The Scotsman, and an executive at both the Daily Express and Daily Mirror groups on his way to becoming managing director of the Daily Mail Group. In 2004, he took charge of the Daily Telegraph after the highly-leveraged Barclay family’s now infamous acquisition He squeezed out record profits, having spent a lifetime in the over-heated engine rooms of UK daily newspapers. By contrast, Marshall had been commercial director of PA as well as CEO of its Australian counterpart. He had a background in the relative tranquility of careers publishing and pre-internet regional newspapers, having left school at 16 to sell classified ads.

But what a partnership.

In the intervening 14 years, the former Press Association has become a “new” company in more than just name. PA Media Group has become a welcoming home for a diverse range of entrepreneurial media services. Its converted learn-as-you-go investments into significant acquisitions through light-touch management, a collegiate culture – and the confidence to stay away from high-priced auctions. It has also been good at selling.

During the Clive Marshall transformation, PA’s traditional newspaper customers have lost much of their advertising and readership. But his shareholders have enjoyed more than £120mn of dividends from the growing media services portfolio.

Last year, the CEO announced his 2024 retirement, saying he had been proud of: “The transformation of a 150-year-old legacy media business with high debt and poor financial outcomes into a highly-profitable, diversified news and information business…still with a thriving news agency at its centre.”

This week, his successor was named as Emily Shelley, managing director of Alamy. The former journalist had joined PA as a graduate trainee 25 years ago. It’s easy to believe that the longtime news agency, which has managed to reduce its dependance on the UK market, could eventually become a truly global multimedia content and data provider under the new CEO. There’s a lot to go for. And who knows whether there could be the breathtaking opportunity to re-acquire Reuters News (now an under-loved and complicated ancillary of Thomson Reuters) some 80 years after PA last owned it?

Closer to home, Shelley may have to contend with the fruits of Marshall’s success: a company which (for some hard-pressed shareholders) may be temptingly valued at £300mn. So far.

PA Media Group