Johnston Press is merging its publishing and digital functions as part of an internal restructure that will see social play a bigger role in supporting local news – as well as the introduction of an online paywall strategy to some of its titles – in the face of crippling print advertising and circulation declines across the regional business.
As part of the restructure, Jeff Moriarty, chief digital and product officer at Johnston Press, will oversee publishing across all platforms rather than looking at digital as a separate entity.
Moriarty told The Drum he will be looking to evolve both the print and digital side of publishing in order to “preserve our print readership for decades to come”. Johnston Press owns 200 local UK papers, including the Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, as well as national newspaper the i.
“We must have an integrated approach, and get the print/digital balance right in each market, in order to continue to grow audiences, optimise revenues and ensure a vibrant mix of news brands that reach national, regional and local customers,” he said.
Regional titles have been the hardest hit by industry-wide declines in print ad spend and circulation. In 2016 print advertising across Johnston Press' titles dropped by 9.2%, as the regional publisher wrote down the value of its publishing and print assets by £344m.
To counter this, the regional newspapers’ online presence will work harder to push readers to buy the print product via marketing and deals.
In smaller markets the publisher will move to a social-only digital approach it hopes will "better support local news," Moriarty said.
The strategy will be trialled by six small newspapers in Scotland, which will use Facebook as their main digital distribution platform. These papers include Arbroath Herald, Brechin Advertiser, Forfar Dispatch, Guide & Gazette, Kirriemuir Herald and Montrose Review.
The papers will ask Facebook users for content and commentary, which will “feed back into the printed product”, said Moriarty.
"Print is a really important medium and we still have a very strong print business, but in smaller markets we need to think about how we support," he said. "We'll see how this works in these regions and make subsequent decisions on a case-by-case basis."
That said, the digital boss recognises that the Johnston Press’ audiences “will continue to move to digital”, and that the publisher cannot continue to rely on its only national newspaper – the i – to deliver its digital growth.
Not one size fits all
At its AGM last week, the publisher said its digital audiences grew by 11% year-on-year to 26 million for the first quarter of 2017, with page views up 17%. This helped boost digital advertising revenues by 10%, when excluding classifieds.
But the regional publisher relied almost entirely on the i to deliver this growth, with total revenues actually declining by 12% when the i's performance was excluded. In the publisher's full year results the i newspaper spared the publisher from a -14% decline in revenue and -9% decline in circulation in 2016.
With this in mind a key part of Johnston Press’ new digital strategy under the restructure will see certain titles turn subscribers into revenue streams with the introduction of online paywalls.
As it stands the company’s 161 sites are all free to access and advertiser-funded. Moving forward Moriarty said the business is considering opening up subscription-based revenue streams that will vary across titles. This could include registered access models, metered paywalls and hard paywalls depending on the type of audiences each title attracts.
“We do have subscribers to the i, the Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post in print but we are looking at ways to develop products that people are willing to pay for digitally as well,” said Moriarty. “The publishing strategy is acknowledging it is not one size fits all. What we do will probably be different from market to market.”
Marketing and events will also be brought under Moriarty's remit.
The changes will also see Richard Thomson promoted to group publishing director, retaining his current responsibilities within publishing and newspaper sales/circulation but also leading the publishing strategy for flagship titles the i and the Scotsman.
Paul Napier, who has been running Johnston Press's digital news brands and recently oversaw the relaunch of the company’s 161 websites, takes on Thomson's former role as publishing director.
Meanwhile Nigel Leigh has been promoted to senior director of commercial products and events, as Johnston Press prepares to scale its commercial product portfolio across all platforms, and bolster its events business.