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Johnston Press declares future lies ‘beyond print’

By Hamish Mackay |

January 28, 2012 | 3 min read

Johnston Press chief executive, Ashley Highfield, has declared that he was appointed to the job after the regional publishing group decided its future lay “beyond print”.

Interviewed by commentator and broadcaster, Raymond Snoddy for InPublishing magazine, former Microsoft top executive Highfield explains: “Yes, I have absolutely no previous newspaper experience but the board had already made the decision that the future of Johnston Press lay in moving the organisation beyond print and that was explained to me in the first sentence.

“Not closing down print but moving beyond an almost entirely solus print operation”

Highfield points out that although he is not a newspaperman, he has run two of the largest online news portals in the UK - MSN and BBC online, where he was editor-in-chief responsible for several hundred online journalists.

Snoddy quotes Highfield as insisting he has a digital strategy but says it would be “premature” to say in any detail how he is going to implement it.

Writes Snoddy: “His approach is clear enough and it involves building on the strength of local newspapers, the provision of the sort of news and information that helps a community talk to itself. But above all else, he says it is important to be agnostic about the medium used.

“’If we can get over that we are a disseminator of information whether that means print, online, iPads, phones and possibly even local television, that is the cultural shift that has to be made”.

Highfield is also keen to emphasise that he will also be looking at what medium is most relevant, possibly even choosing different routes to the consumer at different times of the day.

“Under such a scenario, for instance, meaty planning applications could be analysed and discussed in the print editions with the latest news on who is playing at the local venue relayed on phones and iPads.”

Snoddy further quotes Highfield as saying: “The fundamental thing is understanding our audience needs and meeting those with the right content in the right place and the right medium at the right time.”

On paywalls and charging for online content, Highfield comments: “Watch this space”.

He adds: “The fundamental aspect of the business is that every newspaper in the group has a healthy margin over 20 per cent and all up the business is very profitable. The challenge is, can you migrate that business into the digital realm quickly enough before profits decline.”

Highfield believes it is a “huge and common mistake” for observers to assume that declining profits in the regional press means there is no demand for local and regional news. There was enormous demand for local and indeed hyper-local news.

“The challenge is making sure that content is available cost-effectively in whatever form consumers want to consume it.”

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