Five daily newspaper titles owned by Johnston Press are to switch to weekly publication from next month in what is being billed as a relaunch of its entire regional publishing business.
The Scarborough Evening News, Halifax Courier, Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Peterborough Evening Telegraph and Northants Evening Telegraph will all make the change from late May.
The company says it plans to relaunch of all of its 170 paid-for titles and their associated websites by the end of 2012 to embrace what it calls “platform neutral” publishing.
In an announcement issued this morning, it said the initial phase of the initiative will focus on five centres currently producing daily print titles – Halifax, Kettering, Northampton, Peterborough and Scarborough.
From next month the Northampton Chronicle and Echo will be published on Wednesday, the Scarborough Evening News and the Peterborough Evening Telegraph on Thursday, and the Halifax Courier on Friday.
It is not known how many jobs will be lost overall, but insiders have told HTFP there will be at least nine editorial redundancies in Halifax and six in Scarborough – more than a quarter of the editorial staff in each case.
Announcing the changes, JP chief executive Ashley Highfield said: “In my first few months at Johnston I have been greatly encouraged by what I have seen in our local operations. Our publishing strategy going forward will ensure that we give our local audiences what they want.
“While providing our existing audiences with an even better product, both in print and online, we will extend our audience by increasing our online content and making it easier to access in the most relevant ways as technologies continue to evolve.
“Johnston’s focus has always been on local and we will increasingly benefit from that core expertise with the rapid growth in both social media and in demand for access from mobile devices.
“We are committed to remaining a local company: that means local journalists and sales people working across the UK and Republic of Ireland, staying close to the communities and businesses they serve.”
Ashley, who joined the company last November from Microsoft, has identified “platform neutral” content as the key component of a strategy designed to “better monetise the digital opportunity”
He said further details of the strategy would be unveiled on 25 April 2012 to coincide with the group’s 2011 annual results announcement, which was delayed from earlier this month pending further talks with the banks over a refinancing deal.
The daily-to-weekly switch, which is expected to lead to significant job losses across the five centres, will see seven-day publishing online combined with a “bumper print edition” once a week.
At the same time the websites will receive what the company is calling a “light touch re-launch” with improvements to the home page and improved social networking and commenting functionality, with further changes planned for July 2012.
The National Union of Journalists has reacted to the announcement by praising the company for its “boldness” while pledging to fight any compulsory redundancies.
Deputy general secretary Barry Fitzpatrick said: “This is a bold strategy of Johnston Press at a time when new solutions are needed. But Ashley Highfield must not lose sight of the fact that it will not succeed without quality journalism.
“If jobs are lost, this will happen. We need to know a lot more details. How will the weekly paper and seven-days-a- week daily digital output integrate and how will it affect the working practices of staff?
“Johnston Press is clearly making savings on print but how will it recoup money lost from cover prices and advertising revenue? I hope that it isn’t rushing into an ill-thought-out strategy because it is being put under pressure by the banks.”
General secretary Michelle Stanistree said the union would be looking to meet Mr Highfield at the earliest possible opportunity.
“We are not against looking at innovative solutions to changes in the newspaper industry, but the lack of consultation with staff and the union is not the way to go about it. We will robustly fight any compulsory redundancies,” she added.
Johnston Press has now become the latest regional publisher to go down the weekly publication route following a series of similar changes by Northcliffe Media last year.
The Lincolnshire Echo, Exeter Express and Echo, Torquay Herald Express and Scunthorpe Telegraph all moved from daily to weekly in the second half of 2011 while earlier this year, Trinity Mirror’s Liverpool Daily Post also made the switch, changing its name to The Post.
The five JP titles going weekly are by no means the smallest in its portfolio. Although the Scarborough Evening News sells just 10,637 copies, the other four all sell in excess of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph’s 14,883.
That is more than the Shields Gazette with 14,164, the Hartlepool Mail with 13,387, the Wigan Evening Post with 6,754 and the Doncaster Star with 2,111.