Highfield: News Brands Have Long Term Future in Print and Online

Ashley Highfield has said that news brands have a long-term future in print and online based on their growing overall audiences and deep relationship with local communities, but warned that the tech giants need to “step up to their responsibilities.”

Speaking to presenter Amol Rajan in a wide-ranging interview on BBC Radio 4’s  The Media Show yesterday the News Media Association chairman spoke of the imbalance between news media publishers’ investment in content and the commercial rewards coming to publishers.    

He said: “By all accounts nine out of every 10 incremental pounds that are spent in the UK on advertising are going to just those two companies and yet something like a half of all the content being created on those platforms comes from news publishers.”

“The deal we did with the BBC sees the BBC spending millions to help local press by funding journalists that we employ that will cover local councils. It will boost local democracy and local accountability and the BBC thought it was a good thing and we think it’s a good thing.

“Could you look at a similar mechanism that sees the tech giants, particularly Google and Facebook, actually step up to their responsibilities and work with the publishers, particularly regional publishers?”

The Johnston Press chief executive spoke about the strong performance of the i since the publisher had acquired the title last year, describing it as “a cracking investment.” Profits for the title were “substantially up” which had allowed the publisher to invest significantly in the title, he added. 

Talking about the local media industry, Ashley said: “There is an absolute long-term future in news brands regionally both in print and online but the future is to build our biggest assets, those big websites in cities like Sheffield where we have something like a million unique users.

“There should be no business in Sheffield that doesn’t use the Sheffield Star’s website and the editor there has done a fantastic job with the team over the last year of building that website by 50 per cent.

“This is a growth industry the trouble is people in the industry are way too focused on declining print whereas actually overall audiences are growing very strongly and as the example of the Scotsman, actually as more and more of the advertising spend moves to digital we can get this business back to growth.”

“Large sections of our business, take the Midlands for instance, are in growth year on year.”

Ashley continued: “There is no silver bullet in this industry what we’ve got to do is focus on building our digital products whilst trying to preserve print circulation and that we’re doing.

“The Scotsman is actually having a very good year – in print it’s up in its ABCs, digitally it’s doing very well. In August this year, its advertising revenue came equally from digital as it did from print. Now that’s the first time, we’ve seen that anywhere on any of our titles.”

Asked about plans to sell off titles, Ashley said: “We have no plans to sell off anything at the moment and indeed I would love to make more acquisitions and one of the reasons for getting the debt sorted on the business is so that we can start to look at more investments.

He added “If it were a position after we have restructured the business we are more likely to be buying than we are to be selling.”