Johnston taps digital guru to save its newspapers

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The regional newspaper publisher Johnston Press surprised the market yesterday with the appointment of Ashley Highfield, the architect behind the launch of the BBC's iPlayer, as its new chief executive.

The publisher, whose titles include The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, has been looking for a new head after John Fry announced his resignation in March. Mr Highfield will take on the role at the beginning of November and will relocate to the company's headquarters in Edinburgh.

The move came as a shock as the Microsoft vice-president has no experience in the regional newspaper industry. Yet he has been brought in to drive the company's digital business, and was courted exactly because he brings different skills from previous managers. One ex-colleague backed the appointment as a coup for Johnston Press, saying he was a "big online player. He really gets new media".

Regional media companies have struggled during the downturn, especially hit by much of their lucrative advertising moving online.

Johnston's shares have plunged 95 per cent since 2007. The group is also heavily debt-laden.

Johnston's former chief executive made tentative forays into the digital world, but the company is now looking to expand further in this area and boost revenue by bringing online what it calls its "strong traditional local print business". Jonathan Barrett, analyst at Singer Capital Markets, said: "Ashley has a consumer media background with a very strong bias to online. This is important to the future of the business."

Mr Highfield will remain at Microsoft until the end of September. He oversees the US technology giant's consumer and online business in Britain. This includes running MSN in the UK. He also spearheaded the roll out of search engine Bing and Windows Phone 7 in the UK.

Ian Russell, the chairman of Johnston Press, said: "His combined online and media sector pedigree will be a major strength in enabling us to grow our business again."