Johnston Press

Ashley Highfield faces new challenge as Johnston Press head

By Hamish Mackay

November 16, 2011 | 7 min read

Veteran journalist Hamish Mackay explores the coverage given to new Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield.

As he settles in to his third week in his new role as chief executive of Johnston Press, Ashley Highfield continues to be a focus of considerable attention from the media trade press.

On Tuesday, the 244 -year old Scottish company, one of the largest media groups in the UK and Ireland and owner of The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, issued an interim management statement – reporting on trading to date during the period ending December 31 this year.

Meantime, Sir Ray Tindle, head of family-owned Tindle Newspapers, upped his stake in Johnston Press for the third time in as many months - from 6.36% to 7.17%.

Tindle has been quoted as saying he is not interested in a takeover of Johnston Press, and is investing because he believes that newspapers are undervalued at the moment.

Johnston Press, which has ushered in a new chief executive in former BBC and Microsoft executive Highfield, is languishing with a share price of less than 5p.The company’s market capitalisation is just £30m, and it has a debt burden of £370m.

Highfield has been allocated 10,471,204 shares of 10p each in Johnston Press under a performance share plan scheme or ‘golden hello’. He had already purchased 711,818 shares before joining the company on November 1 to bring the total of shares he holds to 12,670,673.

Staff have been invited to share their ideas about the business to the new chief executive.

An interview with Highfield, in the weekly online in-house magazine of Johnston Press, comments: "[He] joins Johnston Press with bags of ideas but he also wants to hear how employees see the business. And he’ll listen.

“He is relaxed, approachable, brimming with enthusiasm and clearly relishing the challenges ahead. The biggest of those, the one that has been perplexing Johnston Press and other players in the industry - how to make more money from digital products - is one of the main reasons the job appealed."

Highfield is quoted as saying: “I’m not one of those who subscribe to the theory that we are on an inexorable glide path into oblivion. There’s no reason to believe we have to accept ever-declining numbers of readers.

“There comes a point at which you become relevant to a new audience. One of the exciting challenges is how you educate a younger audience, who only consume online, and get them to fall in love with newspapers.”

After looking through 100 or so websites that reflect Johnston Press's 250-plus newspaper titles, he says: “The big question is what could they be? How can they be more of the digital campfire around which the voices gather in a community?

“One of the things that excites me is where we take our websites from here and what other digital products we launch over time. It’s an old cliché that content is king but it’s a cliché because it’s true and what Johnston Press has got is some awesome journalism and incredibly strong relationships in communities.

“The opportunities for an organisation that is, in many towns up and down this country, the only trusted brand, trusted with business and trusted with the audience, are limitless.

“We’ve hardly started down the road of apps and one of the reasons I took this job is because I see local media becoming more important, not less important.

“As more and more people access the internet through devices like iPads and Smartphones - which know their users’ location - I think we’re at the beginning of a point in history where really local content becomes more relevant, more useful and more used.”

The 46-year-old holds two non-executive roles - on the boards of William Hill and the British Film Institute.

In his message to staff, he emphasises: “I believe there is a huge amount of hope and reason to be optimistic about the future of Johnston Press. The staff is going to have to take that on trust from me initially, but, hopefully, over time they will start to really believe what I believe, that we can make this migration to a hybrid print and digital business.

“Yes, that will mean changes in the way we work but it will hopefully make it a really positive and interesting business for the future.”

Specialist media website, The Media Briefing, has turned the spotlight on Highfield with an article from regular contributor Peter Kirwan, who declares it's about time the baby boomer generation of newspaper men and magazine moguls were cleared out of the boardroom to make way for technologists with no sentimental attachment to 20th century methods.

Colourfully describing Highfield as a “Ferrari-driving geek”, Kirwan writes: “It’s safe to say that Johnston Press has never before witnessed the likes of Ashley Highfield.

“[he] is a rank outsider, an immigrant from the digital realm. He has never sold classified advertising by the column centimetre.

“Neither is he recognised as an accomplished cost-cutter (like his predecessor). Nor is he a debt-addled deal-maker (like his predecessor’s predecessor).

“In fact, Ashley Highfield is about as far away from business-as-usual as it’s possible for Johnston Press to get.

“Perhaps this explains why Highfield let it be known on Twitter that he had actually read all 280 of the company’s local newspapers before taking over as chief executive.”

Kirwan observes that if you don’t share the boardroom’s DNA, it makes sense to appeal to the masses.

“In this respect, Highfield’s tweet strikes a positive note in a company whose boorish commercial myopia has become legendary.

“But Highfield’s arrival at Johnston Press also underlines a broader shift that’s becoming increasingly obvious.

“We’re now starting to witness a long overdue exit for chief executives of the Baby Boom generation.

“Many of these bosses couldn’t, or wouldn’t, deal with digital transition — largely because they’d spent their formative years basking in the afterglow of analogue media’s defining triumphs in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Kirwan explains that we are witnessing the rise of a new generation of managers who got their big breaks in the online world from the late 1990s onward and in his piece continues to highlight other figures working in the arena.

Doubtless Highfield will fill many more column inches in the months and years ahead as he aims to steer the Johnston Press Ship forward.

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