The Media Column: Despite a torrid decade for the regional press, are we about to witness a 'renaissance'?

Ashley Highfield, chief executive of Johnston Press believes the company has reached a 'digital tipping point' and is optimistic about his print titles

When BBC bosses talk of sweeping up the news reporting role of a declining regional newspaper industry, Ashley Highfield, chief executive of Johnston Press, the second-largest publisher of local titles in the UK, thinks back to the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013.

“The Sheffield Star had the headline: ‘We will never forgive her’. But the Grantham Journal [of Thatcher’s birth-place] splashed with ‘Margaret – world and Queen set to mourn.’”

The BBC might have universal ambitions but it can never bridge that 61-mile gap, argues Highfield, whose empire includes The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, as well as 154 paid-for weekly titles and 37 free newspapers.

“That’s why we worry about the BBC thinking its role is to cover all regional news. Local news is about reflecting local opinions and they can be quite polemical and vociferous. You can’t just run the whole thing from W1A with a single editorial policy.”

Highfield knows all about the BBC’s ambitions – he was the corporation’s head of “future media” who launched the iPlayer. He landed at the Edinburgh-based Johnston in 2011, via a stint at Microsoft, attracted by the challenge of turning round a media business apparently in terminal decline.

The company was saddled with unmanageable debt, the result of a buying spree before the credit crunch, declining revenues and no digital strategy for combating the web-induced collapse of the traditional classified advertising business.

Johnston has shed almost 1,600 staff under Highfield’s watch and the NUJ continues to gripe at his £1.65m pay package, up 7 per cent this year.

But Johnston’s chief executive, who addresses a Society of Editors conference in Manchester, talks optimistically of a “renaissance” in Britain’s regional newspapers, with Johnston set to return to “top-line growth”, despite reporting a pre-tax loss of £23.9m for last year.

Digital revenues rose by 20 per cent, rising from £24m to £28.8m, and the company claims it has reached a “digital tipping point”, after online recruitment advertising outstripped the decline in print.

Johnston will reverse that decline by becoming a “multimedia marketing services business”, Highfield said, through innovations such as a “digital kitbag” advertising service for small- and medium-sized local businesses, which sells Google Adwords to lift companies to the top of Google searches.

The future of news may be mobile but Highfield is not writing off print yet. “Ostensibly, our portfolio now will be the same in five and ten years’ time and they will all still be printing,” he claimed. “It’s a profitable business, a good margin. Print adds the quality imprimatur to what we do online. I haven’t closed a paper in my four years here – but some titles could be combined in future.”

A shake-up, called the “newsroom of the future”, which sends journalists “out in their communities”, reporting back to news and sports “content hubs”, and incorporates “a community of contributors” uploading stories, pictures and videos to another hub, will release more money for “investigative journalism”, Highfield promises. Some content will be shared – it was “ludicrous” for a former Yorkshire Post editor to argue against sharing a property feature with the Wakefield Express on the grounds that it could cannibalise sales, he said.

But Highfield will not follow Trinity Mirror, which this month axed 25 jobs in the Midlands and said its journalists in Coventry and Birmingham will now be judged on how many web views their stories rack up. “My worry would be that judging an individual journalist by page views would tend to produce the creation of ‘clickbait’ stories and listicles. I’ve no problem with what BuzzFeed does, but that’s not us.

“If a deeply important piece of investigative journalism doesn’t generate the same number of hits as our biggest viral story of the year – the opening of a cat café in Edinburgh – that’s fine by me.”

The SNP’s electoral earthquake and the independence referendum that preceded it has energised Johnston’s Scottish papers. The demand for a strong local voice “is here to stay”, the chief executive said. A pre-election “manifesto for Yorkshire” published in the Yorkshire Post continues to provoke debate.

Highfield, a Ferrari-driving petrolhead who believes that Top Gear will thrive in Chris Evans’ hands, will carry that message of confidence to today’s conference. “The last decade has been pretty torrid but the future doesn’t have to be, providing the industry recognises that we are better working together – because the real competition is coming from Amazon, eBay… and the BBC.”

The group’s chief executive, who has discussed the BBC’s intervention in the local news market with its director-general, Tony Hall, is offering a radical new partnership. “We can help the BBC’s reach by taking some of their content and putting it in front of audiences they find difficult to reach. We could be commissioned to create content in areas like sports coverage, like news about local teams, such as Sunderland, that the BBC could put on their website.”

He added: “If we get it right, it could be a new symbiotic relationship with the BBC, based on trust and very clear parameters. That’s where it’s always fallen down before. The BBC needs to work collaboratively with the rest of the ecosystem, to work out what it should and shouldn’t do.”

Given Ashley Highfield’s vision for a multimedia future, isn’t it time for the Johnston Press name, established by William and Arthur Keith Johnston in 1826, to go? “There are two things wrong with the name – the Johnston family are no longer involved in the business and the word ‘press’. When we get the business back to growth, we’ll probably look to change it.”

Smartphones tighten grip on news delivery

The 2015 Digital News Report, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, illustrates the challenge facing Johnston Press (see left) and other traditional news outlets.

Facebook, Google and Apple are increasing their control over readers’ “eyeballs” as smartphones become the primary source of news and information.

The proportion of all respondents who said they either read or shared news on Facebook in the past week grew from 35 per cent to 41 per cent, year on year. In the UK it rose from 22 per cent to 29 per cent.

Facebook, which has launched an Instant Articles feed, allowing publishing partners, including The New York Times, to publish stories within the social network, is far more popular than YouTube and Twitter in the battle for news consumption.

Nearly half of the 20,000 respondents, across 12 countries, admitted to accessing online news from only one source – in the UK 51 per cent use the BBC news app.

But although 70 per cent of smartphone users have downloaded a news app, only a third actually use them on a weekly basis.

Emerging news brands that have relied on pop-ups and banner advertising to generate revenue will have to think again. In the UK, 39 per cent of respondents have installed ad-blocking software to stop irritating intrusions.

Desmond fires up a challenge to Sugar

Richard Desmond used to be a reluctant interviewee, but the Express Newspapers boss has made up for his reticence with an entertaining round of chats to plug his  new autobiography.

Aside from the £580 bottle of wine he invited an FT writer to put on expenses, we learnt that he uses photos pasted on a child’s cardboard cut-out of a Formula One race track to rate employee’s contributions at meetings.

But a darker side emerged to the publisher who hates being called a pornographer, when he described Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham, whose name is misspelt throughout the book, as “a Jew that doesn’t want to be a Jew”, in Media Week.

Reading Desmond’s account of his bust-up  with Sir Alan Sugar over the set-top-box project YouView (“he squared up to me and proceeded to prod me with his right hand… Alan, you know what? Fuck off, you’re fired”), it occurs that the newspaper mogul may be auditioning to step into his rival’s shoes as the boss on The Apprentice.

Twitter: @adamsherwin10

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