Johnston Press CEO Ashley Highfield says staff morale has suffered amid cuts but journalists understand what the company is up against

Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield has admitted that staff morale has suffered amid extensive job cuts in a plan to turn the regional publisher’s business around, but insisted that journalists understand the tough conditions the company has been fighting through.

CEO: Ashley Highfield

Speaking to The Drum after a keynote speech at MediaTel’s Media Playground event, Highfield accepted that significant changes across the business – which has struggled under a mountain of debt as well as navigating through the digital publishing revolution – had affected the morale of staff but said that journalists were aware of what the company was up against.

Highfield was speaking just days after the publisher announced that the editorial teams of the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News would soon merge with up to 45 jobs expected to go. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) described the move as a “disastrous decision”.

“I’m not saying that staff morale as we go through some of these necessary changes isn’t going to be affected, it is, and times are tough, but I don’t think there’s a journalist who doesn’t realise that, particularly in the regional press,” he said.

“You know times are tough but the changes we’re making are necessary to preserve the future of this business, and it’s not about dumbing down, at all.”

During his keynote, Highfield spoke of the publisher’s emerging strategy of sourcing significant chunks of its editorial from free content submitted by local community members.

When asked whether that sent out the wrong message to the journalism trade at a time when the publisher was cutting jobs, Highfield argued that the policy instead freed up time for its employed journalists to do more investigative reporting.

Highfield added that the strategy would enable journalists to be more focused on original content creation and move them away from dealing with press releases and curating user-generated content.

Highfield declined to specify how the new system worked and how it would take journalists away from dealing with press releases – often dubbed ‘churnalism’ in a critical nod to the practice of rewriting news submitted by press offices – but described it as an “innovative model” and said details would be released soon.

“The aim is to help journalists to be able to spend more time on doing the stuff that they love, which is broader features, more investigative journalism, and to enable us to better deal with the increasing avalanche of PR releases and contributed content,” he said. “Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with those two, but we’ve got to have a better way of doing it.

“We are working on the plans at the moment but not that we want to share yet because I think we’ve come up with an innovative model in dealing with it.”

Financial figures released by Johnston Press last week showed that the publisher’s digital audience has continued to increase along with digital ad revenue, helping the business slow the rate of overall decline to three per cent. Highfield told the MediaTel conference that he expects digital advertising revenue to make up 25 per cent of total ad revenue by next year and that the business could soon return to growth.

“Print has been so much the larger part of the business, so you need to get digital growing pretty rapidly to make up for the decline,” he added. “We’re getting to that digital tipping point. If you turn the clock back two years, revenue decline was at about 15 per cent. Our numbers last week showed revenue decline has slowed to just about three per cent.

“We reckon that by mid next year on the current trajectory we will beat the point of inflection and start to grow again.”

Speaking about the deal Johnston Press signed with Sky Adsmart earlier this year – which will give Johnston Press advertisers access to local TV advertising while enabling Sky to tap into the regional markets – Highfield said: “We’ve started to build a good and deep relationship with Sky.

“Their chief marketing officer is on our board, they took an equity stake when we were refinancing earlier this year and we’ve become their exclusive partner in regions for Adsmart.

“They looked around to see who their ideal partners would be, realising that for themselves to put a field sales force in around the country would be expensive. They came to us, we’ve got a good tack record for upselling into digital.”

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