Johnston Press to 'flip model' and become digital first operation

The roll out of 140 mobile phone apps at Johnston Press has seen the number of monthly unique users rise by 2m, according to chief executive Ashley Highfield.

He put the 25 per cent increase down to attracting a ‘younger, male, more upmarket demographic who find us by Googling on the mobile phone.”

In an interview with PaidContent, Highfield also said new websites would be launched for every one of its 300-plus newspapers.

He went on to outline his plans to turn the company into a ‘digital-first’operation. He said:

We’re going to flip the model from newspaper-first every day to digital-first, and you take the best and produce a bumper weekly in print. By 2020, that will be the model. We’ve run the numbers and think that can be a profitable model.

He added:

Every one of our newspapers is profitable. The smaller the newspaper, the more profitable it is. This is not a burning platform that we all need to leap off. We can manage the migration to digital. We need to do it quickly but it’s not a panic stations (situation) that some of the other press players are facing.

To say the wind was knocked out of the sails of the regional press when all the classified advertising went online is, to say the least, an understatement.

But that’s happened. People are buying papers now for local news, information and entertainment. The average regional circulation decline is two percent. I don’t believe we’re on an assumption of a glide path to oblivion.

When Press Gazette asked Highfield to clarify the figures, he said his actual reference was to a ‘couple of per cent, meaning low single figures, not explicitly two”, and that he was talking about regional weeklies, the mainstay of the Johnston Press portfolio, which he said were declining at a lower rate.

He also emphasised that of the 25 paid-for weekly newspapers that put on circulation last year, nine of them were Johnston titles, 11 were small independents and the remainder were Trinity MIrror (two of which were 24 and 25 in the table).

In March 2010 the company dropped its short-lived paywall experiement on a number of its local newspapers, including two of its Scottish and four of its English weekly newspaper websites.

At The Guardian’s Changing Media Summit on Wednesday, Highfield said it was highly unlikely they would be reintroduced.

He said:

iPad apps (can be charged for), definitely. But I’m not sure about people paying for news through apps in mobile phones. I’m a big believer in monetisation through advertising.

The big shift happening over the last two years is the coming of behavioural targeting and exchanges – we’re seeing a dramatic increase in CPMs. So i’m firmly in the camp of: by and large, monetisation is through an ever-more sophisticated advertising models.

My objective over the next three years is, how can we get the 20th (digital revenue) up to a quarter? We grow the audience, get the page impressions up and monetise it through targeted advertising.

He added:

The danger of putting your content behind the paywall, as News International did, is you don’t get indexed and you fall off the social graph and no-one’s interested in the discussion – it’s a dangerous place to end up,’he said.

That’s not what the bread and butter of regional media is. We’re about engaging with the community. We have to be free in order to do that. It’s not a model we’re about to follow any time soon.

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