Belfast Media Group set to redesignate as a social enterprise

The Belfast Media Group offices on Hannahstown Hill
Gary McDonald Business Editor

THE Belfast Media Group is to relaunch its business under a new name and as a type of social enterprise.

The publishing company, headed by former Sinn Fein finance minister Máirtiín Ó Muilleoir and whose titles include the Andersonstown News, has been re-incorporated as Meáin Feirste.

It is understood he intends to establish the new entity as a community interest company (CIC) and to transfer all assets, trading business and staff from the existing operation.

And that will also potentially enable it to be eligible for certain types of grant-aid.

A CIC is a special type of limited company which exists to benefit the community rather than private shareholders.

It can be set up when the company provides a ‘community interest statement’ explaining what the business plans to do.

It must be set up under an ‘asset lock’, which is a legal promise stating that the company’s assets will only be used for its social objectives, and setting limits to the money it can pay to shareholders.

The Irish News understands that Meáin Feirste is currently establishing a board for community and business interests, as well as an international advisory board.

But at the moment its only listed director is Mr Ó Muilleoir (61) , who since stepping down from front-line politics has spent much of his time in the US wooing potential investors to join the Belfast Media Group (BMG).

It is believed that Meáin Feirste intends to have the CIC formally set up by the end of this month, after which it says it will "apply for grants".

The transfer of staff from BMG would then follow once business trading conditions return to normal, most likely by the summer.

The vision of the new company is to move towards a premium digital offering, including "pay-to-view" options for subscribers.

It plans to transition from print - where its current titles include the Andersonstown News, North Belfast News, South Belfast News and New York-based Irish Echo newspapers - to predominantly digital.

This move will involve what it says is a "retraining and refocussing" of its current staff of around 30.

Meáin Feirste's stated aim is also to maximise event sponsorship, display advertising and classified advertising as well as ensuring maximum return from its print editions, which it will use "to enhance the group's reputation and attraction to readers and advertisers".

In common with the wider print media sector, Belfast Media Group has seen declining income from traditional advertising, classified and paper sales.

In the year to March 2018 (its last set of publicly available accounts) its profits shrank to £234,500 on a reduced turnover of £1.5 million.

Originally established as Nuachtain in 2003, the business changed its name to the Belfast Media Group in 2009.

In October 2019 the group opened a consultation process with its staff, and Mr Ó Muilleoir confirmed that he was seeking a buyer for the company.

Its headquarters building and print hall on Hannahstown Hill had earlier been put up for sale for £750,000 as part of a planned relocation, which (like the sale of the business) never materialised, and it was later taken off the market.

However, is currently advertising for a number of offices within the Hannahstown Hill building to be rented at prices between £70 and £80 a week.

Mr Ó Muilleoir was unavailable for comment.

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