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

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 ITVlocal.com, 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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Finance Account Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Finance Account Manager with...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Display Account Manager

£25,000 to £35,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: The Company Our client are th...

Sphere Digital Recruitment: Sales Director

£80 – 120K : Sphere Digital Recruitment: Sales Director – Ad tech - £80 – 120K...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair