Big changes are taking place at Johnston Press, after the publisher’s CEO Ashley Highfield promised last March to make the company a “digital first” entity. “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,” he told paidContent at the time.
In April, Johnston Press announced plans to re-launch all of its 170 paid-for titles – with the exception of The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, The News Letter and The Yorkshire Post – as “platform neutral” publications. As previously reported, the changes began with the decision to re-launch five Johnston Press daily papers - Northants Evening Telegraph, Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Halifax Courier, The Scarborough Evening News and Peterborough Evening Telegraph - as online publications with a weekly printed edition by the end of May.
Now wider plans to re-launch Johnston Press publications are going full steam ahead. Last Friday, Press Gazette reported that two of Johnston Press’ broadsheet weekly papers – the West Sussex County Times and the Bucks Herald – are to be re-launched in tabloid format this month.
Press Gazette reports that the West Sussex County Times decided to push ahead with the relaunch after consultations with local residents. “In each of the three research exercises, 85-90 per cent of readers and non-readers asked us to alter shape,” said the paper’s editor in chief, Gary Shipton, quoted by Press Gazette.
The changes that will be made to the Bucks Herald will be even further reaching, suggests the article. Bucks Herald editor Roger Hawes, tells Press Gazette “The new paper will incorporate many of the traditional aspects of the area and remain truly local. But it will also recognise the growth in digital media and advertising and the expansion of online journalism.”
Additionally, three free Johnston Press papers – The Washington Star, Seaham and Houghton Star, and Peterlee Star – are being re-launched this month as paid-for titles. Hold the Front Page notes that as part of the re-launch, the Peterlee Star website will be redesigned, and websites will be launched for the other two free papers, which are currently not available online. The article quotes Stuart Birkett, managing director of Johnston Press in the north east, who argues that “the relaunch of the Star Series as quality paid-for newspapers and the associated increased digital opportunities will allow advertisers to benefit from a much improved environment in which to showcase their goods and services.”
However, not everyone has been convinced that the changes taking place at Johnston Press are such a good thing. An article by Hold the Front Page highlights the grievances of a retired Johnston Press journalist, who objects to the Halifax Courier’s switch to “digital first.” “What of readers who don’t have access to this kind of technology – or even if they do, still like to read a newspaper?” asked Issy Shannon, who retired from the Hebden Bridge Times 10 years ago, in a letter to the Courier.
Roy Greenslade at the Guardian also suggests that Johnston Press’s decision to start charging for some of its free papers is part of the “battery of tricks” being used by publishers to “breathe life into dying newsprint.” Greenslade laughs at Johnston Press’ claim that it is charging for the titles after “numerous requests from readers and advertisers."
“What? Readers email in requests to pay for a paper they now get for free? Pull the other one,” he writes.
But despite these doubts, is vitally important for Johnston Press that the changes it is making pay off. The Guardian reported in April that the company is still in a difficult financial situation after making a pre-tax loss of £144m in 2011 and cutting 11.3% of its workforce.