2 September 2014

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JP results: Ashley Highfield’s strategy in full

New Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield, left, has embarked on an ambitious strategy to transform the largely-print based business into a “platform neutral” operation.

The move will entail a relaunch of nearly all the group’s 170 paid-for newspaper titles, with redesigned print products alongside new-look websites.

Here is an extract from his chief executive’s statement in today’s annual report dealing specifically with future strategy.

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We aim to put digital at the heart of Johnston Press. Newspapers will remain our primary revenue stream for many years to come, but the web and apps, accessed from PCs, tablets and smartphones, are becoming as important, if not more so, as an access method for an increasing percentage of our audience.

We have embarked on an ambitious plan to re-launch all our titles as far more integrated digital and print hybrid offerings, refreshed and revitalised in print, with new web, mobile and iPad offerings. In some cases the internet will become the hourly and daily pulse of a community and we will move to printing the physical paper just once a week – with overall audience uplift and a considerable increase in profitability for those titles. In all communities that we serve we aim to have a web audience at least as big as our newspaper circulation and to use print to actively cross-promote the web and vice versa, thus remaining relevant in a digital age, while not alienating our heartland audience.

It is clear the Group must undertake further radical change in its operations to be appropriately structured for the future and in recent months our strategic focus has been the subject of a great deal of work. Since joining the Group I have taken time to visit as many of our sites as possible. Our dedicated staff deliver a vast amount of good work and it has been extremely useful to meet a large number of them. I have found some titles are already handling web production, digital cross-promotion and digital advertising upsell very effectively and the re-launch of titles will ensure best practice is spread right across the Group.

We will also look to make much greater use of subscriptions and the bundling of content across a variety of platforms. In some cases, as already stated, the re-launch project means the move of some of our titles from daily to weekly publication. This is clearly a significant change and in each case it is based on detailed research into the readership habits of that community. It is vital that we develop a far greater synergy between our printed publications and online offerings – recognising the different ways that our users access content at different times of their day and week – through a further modernisation of our websites, with a particular focus on mobile devices. In December 2011 we completed the roll-out of specific mobile sites for each of our titles and that was followed by the introduction of our iPad app for The Scotsman early in 2012. The early signs are encouraging, with two-thirds of users of the mobile sites aged under 35.

Our aim is that these steps will allow us to create local portals providing a range of trusted information and media resources for the communities where we publish. Location-based services will be a key driver for becoming the information provider of choice, where local advertisers remain central to our offerings.

We are very much aware that in all aspects of these developments careful choices will need to be made regarding our use of resources, and our re-launch programme aims to be self-financing (after repayment of modest seed investment). Not least as there is a significant opportunity for cover price increases when we re-launch in many markets.

Looking a little further ahead, Johnston Press must look to diversify into new areas of business where we can put our existing strengths to good use. The introduction in 2011 of our successful Find it and DealMonster offerings showed what can be achieved and we will look at finding similar new business niches. These will be characterised by localness and a broad appeal to social media.

We have built a huge repository of valuable content from all our newspapers, held in a single database, all indexed with excellent metadata. The opportunity is therefore there to aggregate and publish this content around specific interest areas, creating new websites, and we will be launching the first of these in 2012.

Clearly there is much to do to reshape our business, and to succeed we must increase the pace at which we adapt to the new environment and continued rapid change in our sector. Although the prospects for the economy remain downbeat in the short term, I believe we can return Johnston Press to being a growth business through the twin track approach of re-launching and revitalising our papers while simultaneously growing our websites, and taking full advantage of the opportunities created by technology and the changing media demands of our users to deliver innovative propositions.

In cities and towns throughout the British Isles, we are a trusted brand in communities. I believe that in a world that values local communities more not less, where smartphones (and iPads) are becoming ubiquitous and social media intrinsic to people’s lives, we are in a unique position to capture much of this new value being created across advertising, paid-for content and transactional revenues.

10 Comments

  1. furryoldgreybadger

    Oh, So it’s all going to be OK now…. had me going for a second!

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  2. KellyC

    “Newspapers will remain our primary revenue stream for many years to come”

    How many years? Five? 10?

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  3. Scribbler

    Kelly C, for as long as people need to line their budgie’s cages.

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  4. innocentbystander

    “Location-based services will be a key driver for becoming the information provider of choice,” Hmm… is that why JP are closing weekly offices, scrapping regional editions and shifting ad production and classified sales departments to faraway places.
    Also, how exactly will website content be “refreshed and revitalised in print”, and why will readers be prepared to pay more for it?

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  5. Steve Dyson, Birmingham

    Very interesting stuff. In fairness, Highfield’s overall strategy is at least that – a strategy – and he seems to be acting quickly and decisively. It had better be right, of course, as the momentum he is building means there is little chance of going back.

    That said, this is a strategy for a plc and, therefore, with profits and a financial turnaround in mind, there’s nothing wrong with that for FTSE-watchers. But some critics might maintain that the survival of the regional media needs a different approach.

    Because the regional media, as many before have said, is largely made up of newspaper readers, not i-pad addicts, and those readers are often poorer, older and more vulnerable members of communities. And it is those readers who are having their printed media changed beyond recognition.

    Again, none of that is to say it shouldn’t happen with Johnston – they are where they are for many historic reasons and mistakes. But it does again highlight the need for new entrepreneurial projects to re-establish the democratic nature of real local media.

    There is one thing that Highfield has said that jars badly. In one paragraph he makes reference to the need to take care of traditional readers: “…while not alienating our heartland audience.” He then goes on to detail how that “heartland audience” will be treated: …”there is a significant opportunity for cover price increases.”

    I’m not trying to be too critical here, but this makes it feel like traditional readers will be taken for an expensive ride, and I wonder how long they will take that before becoming totally “alienated”.

    Good luck with making this work, Johnston Press, but please do heed some of the sense in the inevitable shrapnel that will be flung your way. You’re not monsters – you’re a plc working with a product that has to change.

    But with the vast majority of revenues still in ink and paper, you might have to more than doff your cap to the old world.

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  6. The barber of Seville

    Hmm. Platform neutral. Is Highfield’s beehive ‘gel neutral’ d’you think?.

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  7. Erico, Peterborough

    Share price 5.57, down slightly this morning. Might be worth joining Sir Ray Tindle and taking a bit of a punt on Ashley turning things around. Stick a quarter of your ISA allowance into JP shares and see what happens over the next five years.

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  8. Hi Pad

    This bloke has no idea about newspapers having absolutly NO background in the biggest portion of his business. The same goes for the rest of the top brass. Dailies are being treated like weeklies with all having to share the same templates. How are you going to make a daily paper look different every day and attract readers? Answer, you won’t. The downfall of JP papers is now going to accelerate very quickly. It is stated that nine of the newspapers this year that increased in sales were JP titles. Will we be saying the same this time next year?

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  9. hawkeye, middleearth

    Admire him for having a plan. But all will fall down without hundreds of extra reporters, who do most of the work now.

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  10. Worried Employee

    I’m with Hi Pad, If Johnston Press aren’t interested in the newspapers anymore and feel “the web and apps, accessed from PCs, tablets and smartphones are becoming as important” (Mr Highfields words not mine and what a lot of people don’t have access to) then sell the newspaper side, I’m sure the reporters would be up for that. Reporters and sales staff will be happy to do the job they enjoy (for someone else if necessary) and you can concentrate on building up the online brands that you are so keen on, If you sell now it will prevent you from watching your newspaper readership decline. allow another business that believes in the print side to take over (you never know, one day you might be able to say “I tried to warn you” but I very much doubt it) Loyalty means everything to “ordinary” people. You forget about the loyal newspaper readers in your statement, just make sure the younger age group are catered for. I’m all for change but when the change is not in the best interest of the customer, readers and advertisers, it needs to be looked at again by a third party (someone who knows and has worked in the field of newspapers) me thinks!

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