Ashley Highfield's first six months at Johnston Press have been something of a baptism of fire, with huge changes taking place under the new CEO from the redundancies of long-established editors at some of the company’s highest profile newspapers, such as The Scotsman editor in chief John McLellan, to several local daily newspapers moving to a weekly format, and the complete overhauling of the company's digital strategy to introduce paid-for apps and a refreshment of each title’s web presence.
Johnston Press desperately needed dragged into the 21st Century when Highfield took the helm. The second largest publisher of newspapers in the UK, its business was built along traditional publishing lines, highly dependent on local classified, recruitment and cover price sales to service its massive debt.
Highfield therefore, as one of the most respected figures on the UK digital scene having held high level roles including UK managing director of Microsoft and director of new media and technology at the BBC, was well placed to take on what many have called one of the toughest jobs in newspapers.
And he was by no means under any illusions as to how tough the job at hand would be. Nor does he deem the changes he’s made thus far as anything too ‘radical’. “There’s a lot to be done, but I do think that it’s a reasonable strategy,” he stated.
Highfield went on to explain: “My ambition is for all of our titles to be more relevant in this digital age, not less relevant, and to reflect the fact the community is becoming more important to people. They spend more of their time and more of their money within their communities. They want trusted brands to help them make the decisions to lead their lives and that means a great role for us in not just the provision of news, not just community engagement, but also in entertainment and advertising opportunities. We should still be right at the heart of the community and if you take that definition you can see quite clearly why we should have some of the territory that we have allowed Facebook and Mumsnet and Autrotrader to take from us.”
Unlike others within the industry, Highfield does not predict the imminent death of the printed word, but does believe that each title needs the correct content delivery strategy, including the use of apps and online to break and report news in different ways.
“I don’t see a world that doesn’t have, at least, weekly newspapers with an in-depth round-up of news and huddles of advertising as well, with big property sections and entertainment guides. That is a sustainable model as far as I can see,” he reveals.
He also admits that despite a number of the company’s regional titles going weekly, he does believe that there is a ‘viable’ model for daily, regional newspapers.
“We still need to find what that model is and it’s not a model for everywhere. The strong feedback that we were getting from our readership in places where we’ve made the decision to move from printing on a daily basis, is that daily newspapers weren’t the most effective means of giving people what they wanted anymore. I don’t think that not having enough journalists is the reason. For a certain size of town, it’s much better to have a weekly product in print and a daily offering in digital. There are cities where there is a need and a future for daily newspapers.”
Elaborating further on the digital strategy going forward, he is quite sure that the paid-for app route will drive new revenue for the company: “We are going to focus on people who take apps to also take the newspaper and we are going to focus on the people who take the newspaper to also take the app and we will bundle in one with the other to offer the full experience of the title.”
He adds that his current focus is to arrest the company’s print decline, while he must also grow its digital revenues at a rate that overtakes the printed revenue decline, which will see the relaunch of all of the company’s newspaper website in the coming months. “I think that we will show good progress on both those fronts by the end of this year,” he declares.
Asked what he meant when using the term ‘Platform Neutral’ recently in describing his strategy, Highfield says that he used the term as he did not wish to describe the strategy as being ‘digital first’.
“Most of the time we should be digital first, but most of the time you can break a story quicker on the web, but it doesn’t always mean that we have to be digital first as there are times when you might want to hold an exclusive back for print, and there are sometime when print can better deal with a story in more depth. What I wanted to convey by the phrase was that we should look at the story first and foremost and then look at how we use all of the different media to disseminate that story and make them all work together and that’s really what platform neutral is. Maybe it’s more platform agnostic or an integrated approach. Maybe that’s a better way of looking at it.”
He also revealed that, despite the recent cull in editors, he still believes that the role of editor is the still an extremely important one within the digital age.
“It’s still the key role on all of the titles of Johnston Press and Peter Charlton is the group editor and Paul Napier is moving from one of our most senior editorial roles into the central digital role, which is very exciting.
“I see the role of editor is changing because they are moving from a print deadline world to one of continual communication and engagement with their audience. This has been happening for years. Most of our editors, if not all of them are already au fair with how to play the print world and the digital world. The changes that are continuing to happen, as we roll out our news website and onwards will allow our audience far greater participation in terms of not just sharing our content, but actually commenting their own posts and photos much more easily. That’s probably the shift, from a light touch engagement with our audience to one where we curate quite a lot of user generated content in with, and always part of, and never superseding, our own journalists’ content.”
On being linked with the role of succeeding Mark Thomson as director general at the BBC, Highfield says he would have to say 'no'. He’d be flattered to be offered the chance, he admits, but he already has “an exciting job to do”.