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Johnston Press eyes weekend readers as it looks to the i to break broadsheet monopoly

Johnston Press CEO Ashley Highfield

Commuters may not be enough to sustain the i newspaper and so owner Johnston Press wants to create a brand for the weekend where premium titles The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph and the Observer reign unchallenged.

Should it decide to launch a Sunday edition then it would be the latest throw of the dice for the regional press giant that saw group sales plummet 3% year-on-year between July and October. Given the drop would’ve been worse were it not for the i’s 4% sales uplift in September, it makes sense that the publisher would lean on its flagship brand’s legacy in innovation to flourish beyond the business’s point of inflection.

It's a bold move extending a print publication in a market that is lagging. Even bolder considering the reason that there is limited competition at the premium end of the weekend market is because it demands a lot of resource, with newspapers owning entirely separate divisions to support the content.

That model, forged on longreads and investigative stories, has not adapted to changing consumer habits where readers have increasingly less time, reasons Highfield. He thinks this means there is an appetite for a paper that doesn’t overload on content, a paper that will be read all the way through rather than “thrown away halfway”, and is reasonably priced. He cited the i newspaper's success in the Saturday market, which he intends to overtake its weekly sales over time, as evidence of this.

It's a concept that is not without its obstacles, given the nature of the i’s relaunch under new ownership, which saw it stripped of the brand that first defined it. The importance of having a strong brand behind a newspaper launch was key to the i newspaper’s original launch in 2010 as a sister to the Independent and more recently Trinity Mirror’s subsequent failure to carve a niche out for its mini tabloid The New Day earlier this year.

"When most people think of the weekend papers, they likely imagine a family divvying up the supplements round the breakfast table," said Liz Duff, head of broadcast at behavioural planning agency Total Media.

"Yet there’s a huge portion of urban millennials for whom the weekend involves jumping on public transport to get back home after a night out, or on the way out to a bottomless brunch. If the i can execute a strategy to continue to offer bitesize news at a bitesize price to busy people on the move, they could do very well. It’s an interesting proposition for advertisers too."

Building for the future

It’s been seven months since Johnston Press acquired the i newspaper and Highfield, the man responsible for the deal, admits the awareness of the paper is “still pretty low” as it has battled with getting the product “out of the shadow” of the Independent. However, there are early green shoots of change as seen by the paper’s hefty contribution to its publisher’s quarterly sales. Without the i, Johnston Press’ figures would’ve been down 16% instead of the 4% it posted.

While the publisher has invested heavily in the paper, increasing its headcount from 17 to 50, its success in growing the paper has largely been eclipsed by its crumbling regional press.

In August, following the publisher’s half-year results, it cut the valuation of its title and print assets by 45 per cent to £224m and increased its debt to £209m, up from £183m a year ago. Consequently, the publisher has seen its shares tumble around 80% over the past 12 months.

For all Highfield’s optimism for the future, the acquisition of the i came amid the publisher's streamlining strategy, which has seen several titles - including those in the Isle of Man - sold. Yet what the former Microsoft executive is keen to get across is how the purchase of the i can act as catalyst to grow the publisher’s regional papers by turning it into a distribution mechanism.

A brand to save the rest

As his first and only national brand at Johnston Press, Highfield plans to use the i as an umbrella brand where content feeds in from its 173 titles. Since most (85%) of the newspaper’s audience are outside of London, having that local foothold makes sense.

The media boss also revealed plans to create packages around the i to help boost its less profitable papers. The first of these offers will be released to Scotland, which will combine the i with the Scotsman.

Meanwhile the publisher’s recently formed investigations unit will be used to create national stories that spin out across the local network “through osmosis”, Highfield says.

Having a national element to sell to advertisers is also where the newspaper has managed to partially offset declines in print advertising, rather than relying on postcode and geo-targeting as it has done before. Stripping out the i’s gains in its latest quarter, Johnston Press’ digital advertising revenue slipped 3.4%, while combined print and digital revenue slumped 11.8%.

Johnston Press doesn’t have the scale other newspaper publishers have, and is therefore sitting on the outside of the troubled publisher alliance dubbed Project Juno, but it is quickening efforts to pitch to advertisers why the combination of reach and targeting is the “future package”.

The challenger brand

The i newspaper today is not a far cry from its humble beginnings under Russian billionaire Evgeny Lebedev’s media empire. Despite Johnston Press raising the cover price from 40p to 50p, the newspaper’s price point and concise articles is what makes it one of the few successes in print, continuing to “defy expectations”, says Total Media's Liz Duff.

The publisher’s overall circulation revenues increased 18.8% in the 17 weeks to October 29, which it said was due to strong volumes from the i newspaper.

It commands a fifth (21%) of the UK’s quality market in print during weekdays, third only to The Times and the Telegraph, according to the latest ABCs, and has nearly double the circulation of the Guardian during weekdays.

The news brand’s authority in the weekday market is in part due to it being a shorter, more snackable format that appeals to commuters, according to its editor Oliver Duff who has been in the role since 2013.

This is where Duff sees its advantage over long-established titles, with a format that was first created as a by-product of people’s online reading habits at a time when social media was at a tipping point.

“We are growing in print and digital because we are a product for the age,” Duff said.

Highfield adds that other newspapers are “too big” and are more likely to get thrown away as people spend less time reading. It is this thinking that Highfield is applying to his weekend push, where Sunday papers are almost double the size of their weekday counterparts.

“Six months ago I didn’t think the DNA of i would play into a Sunday paper. I am increasingly wondering if people have the time on a Sunday. I wonder if the weekend market is changing,” he speculates.

A brand created for the digital age gets its first website

Just a few months after the i acquisition, Johnston Press unveiled the first inews dedicated site. The site has been designed to mirror the ‘quality over quantity’ mission of the paper rather than “playing the volume game” by succumbing to clickbait, Duff says.

“There are diminishing yields in advertising this way,” he continued. “The question we ask when we create content is would someone be willing to pay for this.”

Five months since launch, the site is celebrating 2 million unique browsers, according to the editor. Given how pivotal online now is as a conduit of pushing content at scale out to potential readers, Johnston Press can breathe a sigh of relief that it has managed this reach amid so many other publishers, while also opening up space for advertisers to trade on.

Whether that thinking can be applied to a print paper in the premium Sunday space - one of the only areas to come out of 2016's print sinkhole without suffering much loss - is another matter. But in a post-truth world that has shaken the news industry to its core, perhaps the i on Sunday will hit a zeitgeist.

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