Speaking to the website on the day he set out his detailed vision for the future, he defended his recent series of daily-to-weekly changes saying he remained committed to daily newspapers.
Ashley, left, also responded to questions about the recent departures of some of his most senior editors, saying it was not about individuals but about creating a simpler structure.
And he confirmed that most of the remaining paid-for broadsheets within JP would convert to compact format as part of the ongoing relaunch of all the paid-for titles, although he made a specific exception for the Yorkshire Post which has already undergone a redesign.
Ashley spoke to HoldtheFrontPage publisher Paul Linford yesterday lunchtime after delivering his strategy presentation to investors.
Here are some key extracts from the interview.
PL: To begin with, can you answer the burning question which a lot of our readers have been asking over the past week – namely what you mean by the term “platform-neutral?”
AH: It’s a bit of a clunky phrase. It’s possibly a sign of our times that there isn’t a better phrase out there. It means being able to write once and publish many times, to think of a story not in terms of its media distribution but in terms of what you are trying to convey. The audience is using a number of different devices, and we are trying to reflect that in the way we write and the way we publish. It’s about not being fixated on one medium.
PL: You have spoken about striking a balance between print and digital but you have also spoken about a ‘digital first’ strategy. Is there a potential conflict there?
AH: I don’t necessarily see a dichotomy between the two. You can have a balance but because of the frequency of digital it will almost always be the first medium to cover a story, although there are certain circumstances where you may want to run a story in print first.
PL: Although you have ruled out taking any more dailies weekly in 2012, your strategy presentation to investors states that there will be ‘few’ daily print products by 2020. Do you believe regional dailies are finished?
AH: I don’t think they are finished. I have been clear that we have no plans to move any further newspapers from daily to weekly, I can’t say we won’t ever do that because change in the market happens, but we are committed to daily newspapers. I hope and expect that with the relaunches of our paid-for titles we can give them renewed longevity.
PL: What were your criteria for selecting the five existing daily titles that are going weekly next month, given that they are not the worst-performing in terms of circulation?
AH: We didn’t look at it from that negative perspective. We looked at it from from the point of view of which of those titles would thrive well in an environment where you have a bumper weekly edition and a daily iPad edition. We put a lot of time and energy into looking at it.
PL: Do you think it is unfortunate that there is no longer a place for journalists of the calibre of John McLellan and Simon Reynolds in a company like JP?
AH: This is not something I intend to see happening as a trend going forward. I am investing in journalism. There will always be some restructuring and I don’t want to get into the individual cases but those were decisions not made against individuals. They were made on the basis of making a simpler, flatter organisational structure.
PL: You also spoke in your strategy document about a greater proportion of content being user-generated. Does this inevitably entail fewer journalists?
AH: It doesn’t inevitably entail that, no. But I think we have got to continually look at the macroeconomic climate and that will inevitably mean a smaller JP than what we have today.
PL: You talk about a smaller JP. Might you consider selling off any part of the business?
AH: We don’t have any plans to sell off any parts of the business.
PL: What about The Scotsman? Some commentators would say that acquisition has brought the company nothing but trouble.
AH: The Scotsman is a tremendously valuable brand. We have got to work out how to exploit that brand. It’s got a tremendously loyal base, it’s got a tremendous website and unique user base, it’s got a strong international diaspora. What we’ve got to do is work out how to strengthen that brand. It is going to be at the vanguard of some of our development.
PL: In terms of the ongoing relaunch, will all the remaining broadsheets become tabloids, and will all the relaunched titles be getting cover price increases?
AH: Most of the broadsheets will move to compact but there may be exceptions. Most of the paid for titles will see cover price increases but again there may be exceptions in one or two markets. It is unlikely we will relaunch any newspaper as a broadsheet, but a broadsheet like the Yorkshire Post will stay a broadsheet with its current design.
PL: There is reported to be much dissatisfaction among editors about the plans for more centralised design templates. What if any progress has been made in trying to resolve this?
AH: Good progress. I met with our editorial review group yesterday and went through how we make sure we have the optimum balance between local editorial control and the investment we are making in design. The important thing was for the editors to see what the new designs are looking like and the reaction was incredibly positive. People are hopefully going to be surprised and delighted by the designs.
PL: And if they aren’t?
AH: They will be.