Johnston Press goes digital with Highfield

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 former 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 and Mr Highfield will have to oversee its refinancing next year.

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, where 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."

On joining, he will be awarded £500,000 in Johnston shares as part of the remuneration package for executives. They will vest in three years.

A spokesman for Microsoft said Mr Highfield would "work through a handover" with Andy Hart, the general manager of advertising and online in the UK. At Microsoft's request, Mr Highfield was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Microsoft announced a restructuring of its business in the UK in April, and held conversations with Mr Highfield about how his role could change. It was during this time that he was approached by Johnston.

He is a high profile figure in the UK's technology market. Before moving into the technology group's UK offices in Victoria, Mr Highfield was at the BBC, where he was director of new media and technology.

He also ran online TV business Project Kangaroo, which was less successful after it fell foul of Competition Commission regulations and was eventually sold off.

The former colleague described Mr Highfield as "genuinely decent. He is very bright and able, but he is also very tough". He oversaw the creation of the iPlayer, the BBC's hugely popular video on demand site. He was also editor of BBC Online.

"He ran the BBC's websites so he knows about online content, which is what Johnston Press will have targeted him for," the former colleague added.

"Much of his work at Microsoft came out of head office. He has always wanted to run his own business and this gives him the chance to take charge of an old company that needs to transform."

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