Johnston Press plan for survival: Social, Local, Mobile

The man who launched the BBC iPlayer on-demand service, who then jumped ship into Project Kangaroo before bouncing into Microsoft as a VP for UK Consumer and Online landed as the CEO of Johnston Press on 1 November 2011.

Yesterday Ashley Highfield announced his plans to improve the viability of Johnston Press’ stable of 18 daily and 245 weekly newspapers, along with their 273 local websites, taking five daily papers weekly by the end of May.

Long term, he sees that there is a fundamental and continuing consumer and advertiser need for local media. He recognises the need to build two way “trusted platform[s] to access and share information” as well as feeding the staple of news (front pages), sport (back pages) and entertainment (the bit in-between).

However, “print is becoming a smaller part of the mix” and audiences will “consume our media mostly from digital and mobile devices” as well as becoming “more active in contributing content”.

our vision for this business – multi-channel, trusted by consumers, produced in partnership with communities, and useful and high value in making local lives and markets function effectively.

By 2020, he expects Johnston Press “to earn equal amounts from digital and print products” reaching increased digital audiences.

The result is that we will be a much more profitable business – perhaps not as large as Johnston Press in the past, but certainly a sustainable business performing a unique function in the economy and society, and delivering positive returns for our shareholders.

Local print journalism is definitely not dead. Highfield points to research showing that in 2011, “25 local newspaper titles in the UK that increased circulation, nine of these were your papers, Johnston Press publications”.

In the shorter term, Johnston Press are going to “re-launch every paid-for title in the business” during 2012 featuring “major improvements to the design, a significant marketing campaign, and big improvements to the processes we use to produce our content”. Update – The allmediascotland blog has learnt that four Johnston Press titles are excluded from the proposed design revamp and relaunch: The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, the Yorkshire Post and the Belfast News Letter.

Prices may rise to eliminate what he sees as under-charging for some titles in the UK.

And it’s not as if consumers won’t pay. Our experience is that price increases generally do not have an adverse impact on circulation – consumers will pay, often up to 95p for a local, well produced weekly product.

Advertisers will pay too. Extra traffic to websites containing local information, news and “audience knowledge” will allow Johnston Press to charge more for advertising.

Internally, multiplatform operations across print and online will be the norm. Highfield wants to build on the 50% online audience growth (mostly mobile) in the last quarter of 2011 through:

  • new daily iPad apps for all of our bigger titles; [the Scotsman iPad app is deemed to be successful, “already ahead of plan this year in terms of the number of paying subscribers”]
  • new improved websites carrying news updates and fully integrated with social media networks;
  • mobile sites for all of our paid-for titles;
  • and for the vast majority of our titles, weekly print newspapers to allow in-depth coverage of the issues that really matter to communities.

The News Letter will be hoping is expecting to remain daily: time will tell.

He also sees the opportunity to collate material from across their UK and Republic of Ireland titles into “vertical content” websites to “create a compelling destination for people interested in that particular niche”.

Highfield finished by reaffirming Johnston Press’ commitment to remaining a local company: that means local journalists and sales people working across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, staying close to the communities and businesses they serve”.

Microsoft COO Kevin Turner – Highfield’s old boss – adapted a Tomas Edison statement and used to say:

strategy without execution is hallucination!

Pipe dream or solid plan?

So far, no mention of closing or amalgamating titles. And online paywalls have been rejected (though iPad apps attract a monthly subscription).

Betting the house on younger readers wielding tablet devices and loyal readers continuing to buy a weekly paper when the daily is removed may be Johnston Press’ only chance of survival.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.