When Ashley Highfield, former the director of Microsoft's UK consumer and online business and previous head of technology for the BBC, was appointed as CEO of Johnston Press last July, it was natural to assume that he would be guiding the publisher towards a digital future. But not long after he took up his position, The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade criticised him for defending print and offering “nothing different from what we have heard for years from the digitally-blind ink-stained veterans of the press.”
Perhaps Greenslade can rest easy now, because speaking at The Guardian’s Changing Media Summit last Wednesday, Highfield made a firm commitment to turning making Johnston Press’s local newspapers “digital-first”.
“We are going to be launching new websites for every one of our papers,” said Highfield, who is quoted by paidContent. “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.”
Highfield’s new plans for Johnston Press’s local UK newspapers – which number over 300 – chime with the findings of Pew's recent annual report on the state of the media on the other side of the Atlantic. Pew stated that US media executives had predicted that “in five years many newspapers would print only on Sundays, or perhaps two or three days a week”.
At Johnston Press, digital growth is being partly spurred by the 140 mobile apps that the company launched at the end of last year, suggests the CEO. PaidContent writes that according to Highfield, Johnston Press has seen its online audience grow from eight to 10 million unique users as a result of the apps, which have “brought in a whole new audience for us - a younger, male, more upmarket demographic who find us by Googling on the mobile phone”.
Journalism.co.uk also notes that social media is becoming more significant as a traffic driver, as titles that have not embraced Twitter have received a mere 10% of the hits of those which have.
Highfield wants to monetise Johnston Press’s digital growth 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,” he states, quoted by paidContent, “I’m firmly in the camp of: by and large, monetisation is through an ever-more sophisticated advertising models.” The Guardian writes that Johnston Press currently derives 5% of its advertising revenue from digital, but wants to push that number up to 25% over the next three years.
Highfield also aims to make money from paid iPad apps. However, paywalls don’t figure in his digital plans. “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,” said Highfield, as quoted by paidContent. “That’s not what the bread and butter of regional media is,” he said, “we’re about engaging with the community. We have to be free in order to do that”.
Highfield is choosing a different path from US regional publishers Gannett, and Lee Enterprises, which both recently announced that they would be putting up paywalls around most of their local daily publications, nearly 130 titles in all (80 for Gannett and 48 for Lee). But while paywalls may be gaining a stronger hold in America, according to Greenslade, Gannett has shown “no sign” of introducing the initiative at its British chain of titles, Newsquest.