The boss of regional publisher Johnston Press has ruled out the introduction of a Times-style paywall on the grounds that it would hit search engine rankings and hence user engagement.
Ashley Highfield has made clear his intention to move the largely print-based newspaper company to a “digital first” strategy and wants each of its 255 titles to derive at least 25pc of revenue from digital within three years.
But he has come out against the introduction of the kind of paywalls that have been introduced by Rupert Murdoch’s News Internatonal titles, including The Times.
Speaking at media conference organised by The Guardian, he also held out the prospect of some JP daily titles going weekly, suggesting a scenario in which they were “digital daily, print weekly” by 2020.
On paywalls, Mr Highfield said: “The danger with content behind a paywall as News International did is that it is not indexed, you then fall off the social graph and then no one cares what the Times thinks.
“It can be a spiral, a dangerous place to end up. Regional [newspapers] are about community, engaging with communities, and you have to be by and large free to do that. It is interesting but nothing we are about to follow soon.”
He said Johnston Press’s 140 mobile apps will also remain free and have added 2m new unique users. “Mobile and web will be free all the way,” he added.
Mr Highfield also said he envisaged Johnston Press titles evolving from “newspaper first to digital first” and perhaps by 2020 to a “digital daily, print weekly” scenario.
“We need to make a digital transition, we need to do it and need to do it quickly,” he added. “But this is not a panic situation. I don’t believe in a glide path to oblivion, but I’m not saying we don’t have to grasp the nettle. [Regional newspapers] are social, local and mobile but we just haven’t claimed that territory. It is going to be hard but there is survival.”
Mr Highfield’s predecessor John Fry presided over an unsuccessful online paywall experiment three years ago.
Six of the company’s local websites moved to a subscription model for a trial period but the level of take-up was so low the idea was swiftly abandoned.