Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield has called on regional press groups to bury their traditional rivalries and usher in a new era of collaboration.
Addressing the Society of Editors’ regional seminar, Ashley said the regional publishing groups had in the past failed to identify the ‘real enemy’ by continuing to focus on competing with each other rather than with the likes of Google, Facebook and Buzzfeed.
He held out the prospect of greater content-sharing across regional groups – highlighting football as one area for possible collaboration – as well as saving costs by collaborating on website development.
Opening this morning’s session, Ashley said: “The threats to this industry are not from each other.”
He said previous attempts at cross-industry collaboration, such as the combined classified platform Fish4, had “spectacularly failed to identify who the enemy was.”
Ashley suggested that the industry could launch new niche websites based around themed content pooled from all their local sites.
“Why not pool all regional press football coverage into one endeavour, for instance?” he suggested.
Within his own group, Ashley highlighted the Newsroom of the Future project as being about collaboration between different titles.
For example, he said the Yorkshire Post and the Sheffield Star, which historically competed against each other for scoops, would no longer do so.
He told the seminar: “We do need to be inspired by competition, but it’s just not each other.
“Being best at what we do, but doing it together, is the only way to succeed.”
Here is the full text of Ashley’s speech.
Good morning. I’m honoured to have been asked to speak at the Society of Editors seminar this morning – thank you for having me here.
By coincidence, it was a year ago today we concluded the £360m refinancing deal at Johnston Press …a pivotal moment in our history, and the start of what’s been an incredible 12 months for our industry.
Local media has been on the world stage for all the right reasons in the past year (unlike our national counterparts) – and we, as an industry, have risen to the challenge of delivering exceptional content, time and time again – the Tour de France, the Commonwealth Games, Scottish Independence referendum and of course the General Election.
The Elections in May truly cemented the shift to the digital delivery of news – but this wasn’t, as some thought it would be, the coming of age for Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Vice or other digital aggregators. When the chips were down, the votes cast, people wanted to know what was going on from media sources they trusted. And in an election where the national picture was hopelessly misleading, an election described by one newspaper Op Ed as ‘a set of contemporaneous bi-elections’, the people turned to us, local and regional press. Politicians realised this too, spending more money with us than they had spent in 2011 across all news publishers, national and local. And much of this new money was spent on targeted hyper local digital messages.
And as interest in devolution in Scotland and beyond shows no signs of abating, it’ll be interesting to see how we rise to the challenge: Our Yorkshire Post editor Jeremy Clifford will be talking today about this, how we build on an industry-first last year when the Northern Echo, Newcastle Journal, Yorkshire Post and Manchester Evening News all came together and published The Pledge – calling on the Government to say what they will give to the North.
I was recently even further North, up in the Outer Hebrides – home to our northernmost title, the Stornoway Gazette – and I was asked by the head of the council there if I thought we were now more a digital business or still primarily a print one.
I replied that we were neither. And in that community, where we still sell papers into 90% of homes, I said that we were what we had always been: The glue that binds the community. Supreme tellers of local news. That we were in the business of informing people. Inspiring them. Campaigning for them. Encouraging them.
And above all else, championing their Islands, their towns, their cities, with superb journalism.
The truth is, if we have nothing relevant and of quality to say, then no one will listen. And without an engaged audience we do not have an advertising business, indeed we don’t have a business at all.
Shortly after joining Johnston Press back in 2011, I outlined our ‘Vision for 2020’ – a world where our consumption came from mobile as much as anywhere else, where digital audiences far outnumbered print (yet where print was still critically important), and where as much as half our content was contributed or submitted.
This would be a world where our business would need to be leaner, reflecting that digital revenues – whilst growing fast – were still going to be smaller than print, and we would need our workforce to be of a sustainable, lower level – relying more on the technology, and more on the community.
Well, every one of those predictions has been realised – but they have come true now, in 2015, not 2020.
And this incredibly fast pace of change has meant that we have had to make necessary adaptations, which have often included reducing the number of people in our teams.
Ever-evolving digital platforms – laptops, tablets, mobiles, and perhaps now, watches – are our future. They are driving vast audience growth – helping us to nudge toward 30 million monthly readers.
But we must never confuse the methods of delivery with what makes our industry unique.
Anyone can produce a website or indeed print a paper. What makes us special, what gives us value, is our knowledge of what our readers want, or perhaps don’t know they want but need, and then the content we choose, that we filter, that we aggregate, to give to them to fulfil that need. And that requires a relentless inquisitiveness nature.
There’s a wonderful quote from social philosopher Eric Hoffer, which goes:
In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
As an industry, more than ever, we all need to learn.
At Johnston Press, those in our newsrooms are currently going through an incredible period of transformation to meet the demands of our ever-more sophisticated readers.
Our Newsroom of the Future initiative is about recognising that we can’t expect ever greater output with fewer staff.
We, like many other media organisations, acknowledged we had to fundamentally change and improve the way we do things. Many journalists tied to their desks, sometimes unknowingly working on the same press releases as their colleagues in nearby offices, is neither productive nor fulfilling.
Our Newsrooms are already reaping the benefits of the Newsroom of the Future changes, producing a better, more focused way of working. And there are enough editorial staff from JP here today so that you don’t need to take my word for it: ask them.
The two news team structures – ‘news desk’ and ‘community content’, which are at the heart of the changes, have enabled journalists to improve the quality and increase the quantity of contributed content coming in from our communities, whist also allowing reporters more time to focus on the news and issues that are really affecting their communities.
Collaboration is easier, sharing is increasing, digital stats rising helped by ChartBeat screens in all the newsrooms, print quality improving from being able to get ahead of ourselves, and crucially, work-life balance is improving. It’s not perfect, we’ll make mistakes, but we are really trying to build a better mousetrap.
Sharing. It used to be thought of as the antithesis of the Scoop. Not now. In the world of social media, the scoop may be confined to history anyway. We can break a story online, sure, but our real value comes in the insight we add, and the way we amplify the story. And that frequently and increasingly requires collaboration never seen in our industry before. This is the culture Newsroom of the Future aims to foster.
Look, we all realise that a local news story in a local paper does not always travel well to neighbouring papers – newspaper readers are hugely proprietorial when it comes to circulation areas.
But a great online story can gather audience across a vast area – without in any way diluting the number of views on the originating site. I was in the Isle of Man visiting our team there recently: the TT races there are keenly followed in our titles in Northern Ireland and the North West in particular, and breaking stories, often unfortunately about breaking bones, can be told across many titles.
Our teams are now sharing content across the portfolio like never before. Content about a pile up on the M1 that is as relevant in, say Chesterfield as it is in Mansfield, only needs writing once. Yet up till now that strip of tarmac separated our journalism teams.
That’s not jeopardising the DNA of localness…it’s giving our readers a better experience as vital journalistic resource is freed up to focus on the next stories and in-depth issues.
I’ve been really heartened that our teams are not only embracing this new way of working – they’re increasingly looking at additional ways to share content and help colleagues.
Growth in social news in the UK is the fastest in the world – and you all know that a news story – a motorway pile-up, a rollercoaster crash – is now more likely to break on Twitter and Facebook, which is why we must continue to look at increasing ways to amplify the news, to add analysis, comment and, in a way Twitter and Facebook can’t, an emotional context.
Now that our teams are able through technology and new ways of working to more easily share – what’s the obvious next step in the evolution of collaboration?
I truly believe that we can, as an industry, share with confidence and help each other.
Informally we already do help each other out, for example, and sorry to continue the car crash theme, but if there is a fatal RTA and the victim is from another news area then we do share content with other publishers, – so if we can do this informally why can’t we have a more formal content sharing understanding.
Trinity share their features content across their titles. JP shares its Weekend lifestyle coverage – is there further scope to go down that route? Can we come together to do some of the things that PA, and in the digital age Taboola, Outbrain do for us?
How should we, as an industry, work more collaboratively with the BBC? They’re not going to go away, so lets put the relationship onto a clear, commercial, regulated, defined footing. One that works for both sides, and crucially, for our readers/licence fee payers.
You’ll hear from another of the JP team, Joy Yates, later on, about how we’re faring with a content sharing scheme up in the North East with the BBC, and whilst there’s work to do, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
What we have, as an industry, are shared values and we are working to a common cause. Combining expertise, and resource, and experience will mean we can travel faster and more effectively.
I would like to see all the regional and local media players working ever closer together on issues as diverse as web platform development and delivery, on sales, on measuring audiences, and on gathering and mining data.
Together we can capture significant economies of scale. We can innovate and transform. We can build an infrastructure which reaches every corner of the UK.
We are not rivals. We are not competitors. Most of our titles operate in non-competitive markets. Our competition is Google, Facebook, RightMove, Gumtree et al.
And, for collaboration to truly succeed, we can learn from the experiences of the past.
The founding five companies of Fish4, now a multi-million pound business wholly owned by Trinity Mirror, spectacularly failed to correctly identify who the enemy was.
The enemy in the Jobs recruitment market came from digital – Reed, Monster and TotalJobs, and by ignoring them, the regional press chose to continue fighting an old, non-relevant civil war amongst itself.
Against this backdrop, the revenue from print was still pouring in and, like crack cocaine, so anaesthetized the group that they couldn’t hear the digital footsteps coming.
Identifying the enemy is ensuring we have a clear idea of who our real competitors are – it’s not each other.
Aristotle said the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Surely that was never more true of the local media industry today.
We are already making huge strides in this direction.
When Johnston Press, Newsquest, Local World and a number of smaller publishers launched the advertising digital trading platform 1XL, we gave advertisers a one-stop digital shop covering more than 800 local newspaper websites and a monthly audience of some 50 million.
None of this joint working takes anything away from that which makes each of these organisations individual: their relationship with their local audiences.
On the contrary, if we are to protect our journalism in a changing world it is more important than ever that we streamline the costs of platforms and delivery so that working in collaboration we better meet the needs of our advertisers.
1XL: massive scale, but highly targeted and hyper local. Simple to get your head around – a great big bucket of quality inventory to rival AOL and Mail Online, but very sophisticated too.
So what else could we do? let me share some of my thoughts on industry collaboration.
I, like my industry colleagues, heartily welcome PAMCO – Publishers Audience Measurement Company – which replaces NRS and sets out to achieve an effective and robust system of cross-platform measurement. A single audience figure for your title across print and online.
By capturing growing audiences for news and magazine brands across all platforms, this new approach will truly reflect today’s multi-media landscape, and enable us to better monetise our digital audience, and report larger, growing audiences to pretty much every one of our titles. It can’t come quickly enough.
What else? Well, why are we all, individually, spending millions of pounds on websites, which are always going to struggle against the investment that the likes of the BBC or the Guardian with their not-for-profit remits are able to make? Could we not share some of the costs, without our websites and apps needing to look the same. After all we all print on each others’ printing presses – lets move this relationship to the digital age.
And is there a reason the industry can’t join forces to create aggregated sites around distinct content areas. We’ve launched WOW24/7, our ‘Time Out for Outside London’, why don’t we all work together on this?
I like Local World’s newly-launched quirker.co.uk – the weird and wonderful website for a young, digital audience which takes the quirkiest stories from its portfolio and packages them on a website. But on its own will it fare any better than Trinity’s UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d –which struggled because of high operational costs. What if there was a content-themed site featuring the best of these stories from all of our collective local titles. Could we then start to take on the mighty Buzzfeed?
And how about coming together on the initiatives that are still so much at the heart of the communities we all serve. The Local Business Awards or Local Hero campaigns. None of us wants to stop doing them – quite the reverse. But collectively perhaps we could campaign harder, champion louder, and dial it up into something of national scale?
Why not pour all of our football coverage into one digital endeavour, especially the content outside the premier league that defines the limits of the National’s backpages. Our local sites football coverage would continue, become stronger, but be supported by a wealth of additional content: stories amplified, traffic increased, and the user experience is all the better for it. Just a thought.
And how could we better work together on the knowledge of our audiences that we are amassing?
Data is increasingly the bedrock of our industry’s success – understanding in some detail who our readers are and might be, what their interests are – and what type of content they find most compelling.
We have always talked about geographic communities as the ones that we serve first. Communities of interest, and of demographic niches, will prove equally critical as we strike up new multi-media conversations with the Millenials, the Mid-Lifers and the Older audiences.
Let’s work on a common strategy across publishers for how to do digital news and look at how to adopt a common view on our future not being ‘mobile first’ or ‘digital first’, but content first. And why not extend that to having a coordinated paid strategy?
Schibstead, The regional publisher in Scandinavia that has successfully transformed its business, owns daily title VG, and they have invested considerably and now use clever algorithmic analysis to work out what content, what stories, drives paid subs online, then ring fences that content out into VG+, a premium paid web site.
The threats to this industry are, as I’ve mentioned, not from each other – we’re rarely if ever each other’s competition. My thoughts on the BBC are well documented but our fight needs to extend beyond the BBC. Joining forces through industry wide bodies such as the Society of Editors are crucial. And the new NMA – the News Media Association – which brings together the old Newspaper Society and the National Publishers Association – is key, and I’m looking forward in my new role as vice chair of NMA to help lead the charge.
And finally – here we are with hundreds of years of collective experience of the media industry, and the best and most respected news publishing industry in the world: Why not take this knowledge, and our emerging experience of how to successfully transform for the digital age and sell what we do best – package it into a one-stop shop for anyone wanting to set up a local title anywhere in the world – ‘newspaper in a box’….Sounds far-fetched? So did Facebook.
We can all bring our businesses back to a growth of sorts by cutting costs faster than revenues fall – and out of necessity we have had to do some of that in the most difficult years.
Or we can draw in new audiences and build new revenues with them. That is real growth. Sustainable growth. The type of growth we are now starting to achieve.
We may have fewer journalists today – and that is unlikely to change.
But those that we do have must have the time, and the freedom; the information, the technology, and the confidence to do what we have always done with such distinction – report on the news with flair and integrity, to take risks, to be brave, to comment provocatively, to entertain.
If we do, then a new generation of audiences will trust and depend on us as much as the generations before them. We can continue to make a real difference to the lives of every single person touched by the stories we write, the video we film and the services we deliver.
Keeping at the heart of our communities, being the best at what we do best, but doing it together, is the only way to succeed.