Keep Calm, Carry On And Don’t Charge For News, Johnston’s Highfield Says

Johnston Press CEO Ashley Highfield says the news business shouldn’t panic, as he aims to make a quarter of its revenue from digital, turn its 300-plus UK local newspapers “digital-first” and steadfastly keep its websites and mobile apps free, whilst introducing paid iPad editions.

“We are going to be launching new websites for every one of our papers,” the debt-laden publisher’s recently-appointed Highfield, formerly a Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) and BBC digital executive, told paidContent during a panel at The Guardian’s Changing Media Summit on Wednesday.

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.”

No burning platform

Highfield, who raised eyebrows by moving to a troubled local print specialist for a large salary after high-profile digital stints, has, since his appointment in 2011, concluded it’s not all doom and gloom for the industry…

“Every one of our newspapers is profitable,” he said. “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,” Highfield told me.

“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.”

Free mobile as traffic-giver

“Those (iPad editions) will be charged and bundled with subscription with the newspaper. On mobile and web, that will be free all the way.

“Before Christmas, we launched 140 mobile apps for our newspapers and it’s been quite incredible – they’ve added two million new unique users to our online audience, taking it from eight million to 10 million.

“That’s brought in a whole new audience for us – a younger, male, more upmarket demographic who find us by Googling on the mobile phone.”

Make it sing with ads

Back in 2010, Johnston Press trialled payment requirements on a small number of websites but chose not to execute.

“iPad apps (can be charged for), definitely,” Highfield said. “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.”

Staying in the social loop

Highfield said the blank payment structure implemented by News International’s The Times is not the way to go…

“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.”