Sacking of Whitby's Jon Stokoe sends out a terrible message to the whole industry

The campaign to save the job of Whitby Gazette editor John Stokoe was probably doomed to failure from the start.

He was running a successful and profitable newspaper but became a victim of the brutal economics a newspaper business which is still shackled by huge debt.

The campaign – started locally and backed by Press Gazette with an online petition which attracted 1,400 names – was targeted at Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield. But to be fair, Highfield's choices are limited by the massive debts he inherited from predecessors who paid too much for businesses during the company's rapid expansion in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Press Gazette backed Stokoe because we instinctively felt it was a terribly negative move not just for Johnston Press, but the entire regional newspaper industry, to make one of the company's most successful editors redundant. The Whitby Gazette was the fifth best performing fully paid-for weekly newspaper in the country in the second half of 2012. Only 13 out of 373 paid-for weekly titles audited by ABC managed to increase their sales in that period.

But instead of rewarding one of its most successful editors, Johnston Press gave Stokoe his marching orders because editors have become a luxury it cannot afford to have at every title. In common with many other local weekly newspapers across the UK the Whitby Gazette will now come under a group editor.

Like the Whitby Gazette, Johnston Press remains profitable. In 2012 the publisher made an operating profit of £57m (down 12 per cent) on turnover down 12 per cent to £328.7m.

But with net debt of £319.4m at the end of the last financial year, Johnston Press says that “reducing debt as quickly as possible remains a key management priority”.

Interest on the debt is as high as 10.5 per cent and refinancing (agreeing new loan facilities) cost £11.8m alone last year.

The Johnston Press share price remains low, 15p compared  to around £1.40 five years ago, possibly because some investors fear that the debt will not be repaid.

If Highfield can hit certain repayment targets there is a chance he can refinance the debt next year, or the year after, on much more preferable terms.

In a sense he has little choice at present but to bleed the company for the benefit of the banks. But this is little consolation for Stokoe, or the people of Whitby. And it is a tale being told up and down the country where towns are losing local newspaper offices and locally-based editors.

I fear that the short-term demands of bankers demanding their pound of flesh could do great damage to the long-term reputation and success of local titles like the Whitby Gazette.



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