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What's next for Johnston Press?

What's next for Johnston Press?

Last July Johnston Press appointed Ashley Highfield, previously head of technology at the BBC and then director of Microsoft's UK consumer and online business, as its new CEO.

The appointment raised two questions. One: why did Johnston Press hire a boss with no newspaper experience? Two: Why would Highfield want to head Johnston Press, which has seen its share price drop from 480p to 5p over the last five years?

Both of these points have been raised by Raymond Snoddy who has published a long interview with Highfield in In Publishing's bi-monthly magazine.

The answer to the first question seems obvious: Johnston Press was investing in a Digital First Future. Other news publishers have done the same; in November Time Warner Inc. hired Laura Lang, formerly of the digital advertising company Digitas, as its CEO.

In his interview with Snoddy, Highfield is clear that Johnston's future is as a diversified media company: "yes I have absolutely no previous newspaper experience but the board had already made the decision that the future of Johnston Press lay in moving the organisation beyond print and that was explained to me in the first sentence".

Highfield, who launched iPlayer for the BBC, ran BBC online and was later in charge of MSN's UK news portal, has extensive experience directing digital jounalists. Roy Greenslade of The Guardian points out that he won the digital innovator internet award from the Sunday Times in 2003, and was named "most influential individual in technology" by in 2004.

As you would expect, Highfield tells In Publishing that he sees the future of Johnston Press as a diversified multimedia company, not exclusively as a print publisher: "If we can get over that we are a disseminator of information whether that means print, online, iPads, phones and possibly even local television, that is the cultural shift that has to be made", he states.

Although Highfield does not reveal the details of his digital strategy to In Publishing, he says he will focus on looking at what medium is most suited to what content. "The fundamental thing is understanding our audience needs and meeting those with the right content in the right place and the right medium at the right time," he tells Snoddy.

Despite Johnston Press's heavy debts (the publisher bought three papers in 2005 for £400 million) and rock bottom share price (In Publishing: "If the share graph were a heart monitor, the patient would be dead") Highfield claims that "every newspaper in the group has a healthy margin over 20 per cent and all up the business is very profitable." Snoddy writes that debts are slowly being reduced, some Johnston papers are increasing their circulation and circulation revenues are falling at a decreased rate. Highfield is also positive about the demand for local news.

But even if the company's financial outlook is not as bleak as commonly assumed, Johnston Press will still need to act fast: "The challenge is, can you migrate that business into the digital realm quickly enough before profits decline," says Highfield.

The Johnston Press CEO has been criticised in the past for not acting quickly enough. Last November Roy Greenslade complained that Highfield had "fail[ed] to spell out wonders of an online future".

Greenslade criticised Highfield for offering "nothing different from what we have heard for years from the digitally-blind ink-stained veterans of the press" after he told The Herald in Glasgow "It is quite clear to me that newspapers in print are not dead."

The In Publishing interview suggests that Highfield has still not really got started with his shift towards digital. Snoddy notes that the Johnston CEO is travelling around company's various properties "before rushing to any premature conclusions" and that his pace seems "leisurely". Snoddy reports that Highfield is unconcerned and "believes there is time to get things right".

Sources: In Publishing,, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, BBC


Hannah Vinter


2012-01-26 18:20

Shaping the Future of the News Publishing

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