Johnston joins the digital revolution

Tim Bowdler is investing £10m in Johnston Press's 300 titles to bring 24-hour rolling news to local and regional papers. He tells Andrew Murray-Watson why
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The Independent Online

For reporters on the Skegness Standard (circulation 11,000), covering a major fire at the town's Lucky Strike Arcade, every second counted. The next day's paper had already gone to print, but in the brave new world of local media, the digital editor was crying out for copy and photographs to put on the title's website.

And other content was already flooding in. The massed ranks of "citizen journalists" in the East Coast town were emailing in videos of the blaze from their mobile phones. By the time the inferno was under control, the Standard's website had footage of the firemen in action.

The Skegness Standard is one of Johnston Press's 300 local and regional titles; the stable also includes the Yorkshire Post, Sheffield Star and The Scotsman. Despite their relatively small size, these titles are at the forefront of the digital revolution sweeping the newspaper industry. Tim Bowdler, the company's chief executive, said last week that £10m would be invested over the next year to enhance digital services.

As the largest regional newspaper publisher in the UK, Johnston Press is exposed to the continuing decline of print advertising, as the internet bites chunks out of the company's revenues.

National titles, with the Telegraph and Times leading the way, have been ploughing tens of millions of pounds into bolstering their online presence and introducing new ways of working for cynical old newspaper hacks. Out has gone a single deadline at the end of the day, and in has come 24-hour rolling news, podcasts, blogs and the like.

But there has been a perception that sleepy little local and regional newspapers, filled with the proverbial "cat stuck up tree" stories, have neither the ambition nor the expertise to adapt to new technologies and new working practices.

Not true, says Bowdler. All of Johnston Press's larger titles, and most of its smaller papers, now have newsrooms that are as much dedicated to updating the websites as they are to putting out the next day's paper.

"It is not just text going on the site," he explains. "We are adding video and audio as well. We have reporters leaving the office with a hand-held camcorder under their arm as well as a notepad."

According to Bowdler, "the vast majority" of his editorial staff have embraced the change, despite the widely held opinion that newspaper reporters are sometimes more resistant to change than most.

"Suddenly, we are in the business of breaking news again," he says. "That is something that we have not done for a while, and our journalists are loving it."

But the transition to new media has not been all plain sailing. Earlier this year, the National Union of Journalists instructed its members not to undertake any of Johnston Press's multimedia training until it had reached an agreement with the company over health and safety and workload concerns.

The union argued that it was one thing going into a trouble spot with a notepad and pen, but another to enter a potentially dangerous situation with a video camera. However, after talks, Johnston Press satisfied the union's concerns.

Media commentators have been divided over whether local newspapers will be able to stop their traditional readership turning to the web in search of information that, until the dawn of the internet age, was the bread and butter of small publications. For example, why search the classified pages of the Skegness Standard for a second-hand car when there is eBay? Why look at 100 job adverts in the local paper when it is possible to browse a million vacancies at the touch of a mouse button?

In the latest half-year results, Johnston Press's profits fell 4.8 per cent on the back of a 1.5 per cent drop in advertising revenues. An operating profit of £96.7m was down on the £101.6m of the previous half-yearly period.

Digital revenues rose in the past year by nearly a third, but still only accounted for £7.3m of revenues, or 2.5 per cent of the company's total turnover. This comes purely from online advertising, including classified job ads. Johnston Press has created a national online recruitment business called JobsToday that exists in the same format on all its local newspaper websites.

But Johnston Press, and its editors, don't just have to worry about local newspaper rivals. Increasingly, the big fish in the UK media industry are looking to increase local news and advertising provision. ITV, for example, has launched, a website dedicated to regional news across the UK. And last week The Sun newspaper was poised to take on local newspapers by customising its website using its MyStreet feature – a service that links regional news to advertising.

"The barriers to entry in a digital world are lower than they are in print," says Bowdler. "But we have a unique advantage because our resources on the ground are unmatched."

Fortunately for Bowdler, it appears that investment in online content does not mean a cannibalisation of his print market.

"There is some overlap between our newspapers and our websites, but online readers tend not to be readers of the papers. For us, that is great."

But will Johnston Press's websites ever become more important than its newspapers?

"I can envisage that happening," says Bowdler. "We really are on a long journey where digital and print are equally important parts of the business.

"I can see us becoming a broad- based media company with a local TV and a local radio business. But print will remain fundamentally important."

The paid-for titles, the frees and the websites

Johnston Press was established in Falkirk in 1767 as F Johnston & Co. It has 18 daily newspapers, 164 weekly newspapers, 127 free titles and 317 local websites. In the financial year 2006, its turnover was £602.2m and its operating profits were £186.8m. The company paid a dividend of 9.3p per share.

Total readers across all titles: 13 million.