Stephen Foley: The man from Auntie could save Johnston

 

Outlook Ashley Highfield's career took a turn for the disappointing after the end of Project Kangaroo, but he has bounced back.

Since the Competition Commission squashed the idea of the BBC collaborating with ITV and Channel 4 on internet video, Mr Highfield has operated in the bureaucratic obscurity of Microsoft, with the heavily trafficked but barely noticed MSN UK among his charges. Now, with his inspired appointment to run Johnston Press, he has a much more interesting train set to play with.

Can the man who brought us the BBC iPlayer save local newspapers? Johnston boasts "unique local content created by teams of local experts who believe that Content is King". Certainly its 273 local websites, accessed by more than 7 million Britons each month, are important and potentially extremely valuable. But no king keeps his throne without access to his people, and Mr Highfield is a master of delivery mechanisms, a great experimenter, with not just the iPlayer but red button content and other innovations to his name.

We don't yet know what grand vision for Johnston's struggling local newspapers the man from Auntie presented at his job interview. He can't tell us because Microsoft won't release him from his contract until September. But there are many ideas fizzing in local news, from harnessing citizen journalism to borrowing the ideas of Groupon and others for earning revenues in partnership with local businesses.

A glance at Johnston's debt load suggests the board might have been better tempted to hire a good finance guy to run the show, as it heads into refinancing efforts. But if Mr Highfield can articulate an enticing vision of the digital future, Johnston might find a new army of shareholders willing to back him.

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