Johnston Press plans paywall pilot as 'like-for-like' profits rise

Johnston Press is planning to pilot a metered paywall at “one or more” of its regional titles next year.

Chief executive Ashley Highfield told Press Gazette that the trial would be used to assess how much content could be put behind a paywall, where to set the meter and how any such move might affect subscriptions and advertising revenue.

Highfield said the company, which owns more than 200 local and regional newspapers, did not yet have a plan as to where the trial would take place nor how many titles would be involved. Johnston Press last trialed website paywalls on a number of sites in November 2009, but halted the experiment due to low take-up after four months.

“We need to be quite careful about it,” Highfield said. “We have a strong digital advertising business and that growth is not something I want to risk.”

Highfield was speaking in the week that Johnston Press unveiled half-year financial results showing increased revenue from digital advertising. Income from digital advertising was 13.3 per cent up compared with the first half of 2012, while it was 31.9 per cent up year on year in June and July alone.

Highfield will go on a fact-finding mission to the US later in the year to view paywalls in action on local titles.

“I want to try and really understand if their regional press is similar to ours,” he explained. “Has it [paywalls] brought in much new revenue or is it just moving revenue from one place to another.”

Highfield has also revealed plans to roll out the company’s ‘Digital Kitbag’ initiative.

The scheme, which has been running as a pilot from the Leeds offices of the Yorkshire Post, offers advertisers what Highfield described as a “one-stop shop” on top of traditional display advertisements.

Services being sold include website design and building, search engine marketing and social media advice.

Highfield said: “We will definitely be rolling it out in some form across our regions, starting later this year.”

Johnston Press’s results also showed the group had increased its like-for-like operating profit by 4 per cent in the first six months of 2013 to £28.6m

However, the regional publisher wiped off £194.5m from the value of its print titles. The group also wrote down £57.9m from its printing press assets following the cancellation of a printing contract with News International (now News UK).

The new valuation of its assets contributed to an operating loss of £225.4m for the company in the first half of 2013 on a statutory basis.

On a like-for-like basis, total revenue for the publisher was down from £159.9m in the first six months of 2012 to £144.3m in the same period this year, a drop of almost 10 per cent.

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