Highfield resigns from Johnston Press
Highfield resigns from Johnston press citing family reasons. He will be replaced by chief financial officer David King.
I have been privileged to lead Johnston Press during a period of unprecedented turbulence in our industry. Since 2011 we have grown our overall audience, in particular our digital business, created an industry leading telesales operation and maintained margins. The acquisition of the i newspaper has been a particular highlight. I am proud of what the board and my colleagues have achieved and would like to thank them all for their support.
Johnston Press Chair, Rhodes:
We are sorry that he felt that his personal circumstances required a change at this time. We wish him every success in the next phase of his career. Ashley oversaw the successful acquisition of the i newspaper, has driven growth in our digital footprint, while making substantial progress in reorganising and restructuring our business. We wish him every success in the next phase of his career.
Johnston Press reports £300m pre-tax loss
The company reports a £300.3m pre-tax loss for 2016, compared to a £2.2m pre-tax profit the year before. Total advertising revenue is down 17.7% year on year to £122.6m, driven by a 9.5% fall in print ad revenue. The fall in print advertising income was not offset by digital ad revenue, which remains flat at £18.6m. Sales volumes for i was up 5% year on year, while circulation revenue was up 20% year-on-year. Highfield:
Despite an industry wide backdrop of significant downward pressure on revenues, the actions we have taken to pilot the business through this rapidly-changing market and create the conditions from which to create growth are starting to bear fruit: circulation figures of key titles are improving, the i has bucked the trend of declining national newspaper sales and our progressive editorial and sales models are starting to transform our regional businesses. While we can expect to see continued pressure on traditional print revenue streams, we have seen digital return to growth in Q1 2017, with better margin products, and will see growth from our investment in the i from both the newspaper and website. Further, we will start to see the benefits of our restructured sales teams and product roll out.
Wins Daily Mail printing contract
Johnston Press wins a five-year contract to print the Daily Mail across the south west of the UK. Monday to Saturday issues of Daily Mail will be printed at the company’s print plant in Portsmouth. The plant also prints southern editions of Metro. Highfield:
We are delighted to win this new business on top of the Metro contract just recently won and this further confirms our printing services division as one of the best in the country. This latest long term contract will give the staff a real boost and their ability to deliver such prestigious titles against very tough competition is a great reflection on the business.
Crystal Amber pushes for Highfield exit
Crystal Amber, the largest shareholder in Johnston Press, with 20.4% shareholding, is reportedly meeting with Rhodes, Johnston’s interim chair, to discuss ways to revive the fortunes of the heavily indebted publisher. Discussions include, reportedly, ousting Highfield. Rhodes, who has chaired the company for just a couple of weeks, is said to have asked Rothschild to examine Johnston’s refinancing options. Anonymous shareholder:
Highfield got a huge bonus following the restructure of the business two years ago. But since that restructure shareholders have lost 90% of their money.
Defends bond buybacks
Highfield defends plans to buy back Johnston Press bonds at a healthy discount. Prices vary but last traded values on the Frankfurt exchange were just under 60p/£, meaning that it could net a considerable saving of the full capital value that is due for repayment in 2019. The bonds have a 8.625 per cent coupon and cost the company nearly £20m per year just to service interest.
We have always stated we would use disposals to both strengthen balance sheet and pay down debt.
Reviews Sky TV ad sales deal
Johnston Press says it will review a three-year deal with Sky TV, over concerns that it may be losing some of its most lucrative advertisers to the pay-TV company’s AdSmart product. Highfield:
I think it is one of those products which we need to think hard about in terms of whether we are giving potentially some of our best customers away. It needs to be really closely reviewed in terms of making sure it is beneficial to both firms. Both firms, Sky and us, are still committed to try and make this work but I think it is a product we are currently under review on.
Writes off half the value of newspaper properties
Johnson Press announces it is taking a£183.6 million impairment charge (£216.9 million gross, net of £40.3 million in deferred tax), lowering by nearly half the value of the company. The action sends the company’s stock down over 18 percent. The Company also announces revenue drop of 9.7 percent in the second quarter, with ad revenue falling 15 percent. Net debt grew to £209.4 million due to the acquisition of the i in April for £22.0 million. Highfield:
The market continues to be challenging and uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the Brexit negotiations has caused further softness in some segments of the advertising market, in June and July. Nevertheless, we are focused on our strategy of increasing overall audiences, maximising opportunities for the i, maintaining tight cost control and rebalancing our portfolio. In that respect, we are nearing completion of the disposal of our Isle of Man newspaper group for £4.25 million and are well advanced in negotiations for further divestments.
NUJ: Highfield ‘living in cloud cuckoo land’
The NUJ calls out Highfield over staffing levels, working practices, use of freelance cover, recruitment policy and the state of the industry. NUJ Organiser:
Sadly Ashley Highfield is living in cloud cuckoo land if he thinks the acquisition of the i is transformational. Taking on extra debt and flogging off other assets will not result in salvation for Johnston Press. Our members see the actual reality in the company’s newsrooms day in and day out. Content sharing between the i and other titles is a way of trying to mask low staffing levels in Johnston Press sites with all the consequent problems for quality journalism and stressed-out staff. The company now appears to actually be factoring in periods of ‘disruption’ during its transformational projects – such as the salesforce changes. Unfortunately, as those who have gone through the transformational ‘Newsroom of the Future’ editorial programme will testify, things are certainly no better on the other side. There must be questions in the minds of the board and shareholders about whether this is the right strategy for the company, though Ashley Highfield seems intent on pressing on despite all the warning lights flashing on the dashboard.
Sells Isle of Man titles
Johnston Press announces it is selling the Isle of Man Examiner, Isle of Man Courier, Manx Independent and www.iomtoday.co.im. to Tindle Newspapers for £4.25m. Johnston Press CEO Highfield:
This disposal is further progress in executing our divestment strategy and allows the group to realise immediate value from our Isle of Man assets. I would like to thank the staff of our Isle of Man business for their loyalty and dedication over the years and we wish them well for a successful future.
Buying a profitable local weekly set-up such as the Isle of Man trio is certainly a departure from our early days when, without much cash, we mostly bought papers that were in trouble, or we had to launch them ourselves. We are most grateful to Ashley Highfield and his colleagues for all their assistance in bringing about this agreement…Everyone at Tindle Newspapers, will make [the staff] all very welcome just as soon as we are able to do so.
Comments on post-Brexit newspaper sales increase
Highfield comments on the increase in newspaper circulations in the week after the UK’s Brexit referendum.
i’s growth is evidence of the continued power of print. [The paper has] provided valuable, balanced context for readers making the most important decision of a generation because it had not endorsed either side in the vote.
Full-year results ‘meet City hopes’
Johnston Press reports that group revenues were down 13.7 per cent during the 17 weeks to 30 April, reflecting a 14.4 per cent fall in the first quarter and an “improved rate of decline of 11.5 per cent in April”. The group said i daily print sales peaked at 297,849 for the month, a rise of 7 per cent over the peaks seen in March 2016, its website, inews.co.uk, reached 638,000 unique users. Advertising revenues for the period were down 16.9 per cent, while digital revenues were down 5.7 per cent in the first quarter but up 4.5 per cent for April. CEO Highfield:
Following the completion of the i acquisition, we continue to explore the disposal of certain assets, with a view to deleveraging the balance sheet and further reducing financing costs.
Daily Mail interview
Highfield is interviewed for a Johnston Press investor profile in The Daily Mail. On whether the i will increase national advertising share.
We have the opportunity now, if we can package ourselves properly, to go on the front foot to take a greater share. Even in a declining market this should be possible. For the first time we have enough clout, being the fourth largest publisher in the UK, to go to the agencies and forge our own agreements.
On Johnston Press’ general business condition:
We are only halfway through this journey. We have the debt down from almost £400m when I joined and a business that had a cost base that was unsustainable is a business with still almost the whole range of attractive brands. But as I say, the job is only half done.
BBC agrees to fund local newspaper reporting
After more than a year of talks, Highfield says regional media groups and the BBC have agreed in principle a new partnership. Highfield highlights four areas of focus with the BBC: funding for more journalists, potentially employed by local media groups; a video bank that would make BBC regional content available to local media partners free of charge; a shared data journalism unit; an agreement on better linking to local media content on BBC news sites and attribution to content originated in the local media.
We still need to work through the numbers and we’re under no illusions how difficult that might be. [Local media would benefit from] a proper commercial framework for use of this content by the BBC. We are trying to reach an agreement on how it is going to work – how much, and when and where…All we ask for is a fair eco-system.
Completes i purchase
Johnston Press completes the £24m purchase of i newspaper, and prints its first edition. The paper will be available in Northern Ireland for the first time. CEO Highfield:
i is a highly regarded newspaper with a clear market position and a loyal readership. By joining with Johnston Press the combined circulation will be equal to 9 per cent of national daily circulation, making us the fourth largest player in the market. This enhanced reach represents a significant growth opportunity for Johnston Press in terms of national print and advertising revenue. It also rebalances our revenues towards less volatile circulation revenues. With our considerable digital experience the combination of Johnston Press and i will also allow us to grow digital audiences and revenues through the creation of inews.co.uk.
Wants changes to celebrity injunction law
Prompted by the ongoing debate over a celebrity couple’s attempts to keep their names out of the English newspapers, Highfield tells BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that the law regarding celebrity injunctions should be changed.
I think in a digital world it’s increasingly unsustainable where one quick Google search will reveal the person in question.
Business Insider interview
Highfield says that he hopes i readers don’t notice the difference when they pick up the paper when it publishes. He says the company isn’t even running an advertising campaign to mark the relaunch.
That’s going to be the number one objective: to a reader, all those names you know and love, and the design, and the layout — everything should be the same. If there’s anything that’s not the same, I want it to be better.
Highfield says that the inews.co.uk site will not have clickbait and will have a revenue model that will focus mostly on sponsorship and native advertising.
We will be no going after traffic for the sake of traffic. I think we will be very true to the paper and therefore create a clear proposition that we think does not exist in the UK: there is not a politically independent, concise, quality read online and I think that will find a market. We’re not trying to be The Guardian, or BBC Online, or be an Independent.co.uk — I think that would be foolish. What we are going to try to do is stick very closely to the brand values of the i: a quality, concise daily digest, updated continually but at any one moment, when you go to the site, the idea is the matrix will give you everything you need to know to be informed on the day. I think that possibly flows better to the zeitgeist than the acres of never-ending content.
We have 900 journalists [across the Johnston Press group] who in turn have a network of thousands of bloggers and contributors… in terms of our reach, we already have a network of thousands of people who write for us in a professional capacity, and that’s bloody hard to undermine.
Plans to take group upmarket
Highfield talks about his plans to to take the regional newspaper group upmarket. The company will increase the number of ABC1 readers from 2.5 million to nearly 3 million with his acquisition of i. He says he won’t increase to cover price (the paper cost 40p and sells 270,000 copies/day).
Two numbers keep sticking in my head. We have got 9 per cent of daily newspaper circulation and 3 per cent share of national advertising revenues in print. I think the pendulum will swing back to quality. Advertisers want quality audiences in print and online, and that is what we can deliver. Our strategy of moving ever-more upmarket has got to be the right one.
Highfield also dismisses the suggestion that quality is suffering because of cuts to Johnston Press journalists.
If you ask them ‘Do they produce better content than they’ve ever done?’, I’d hope they’d say yes. [Social media, reader-generated content and real-time analytics mean the editorial product has] probably never been of a higher quality. [But] the economics do not allow you to employ the same number of people as 20 or 30 years ago.
Sells 6802 Johnston Press shares0 Comments
Highfield sells 6,802 shares of Johnston Press stock, at an average price of £0.41 ($0.59), for a total value of £2,788.82 ($3,981.75).
Calls for better industry metrics
Speaking at a “fireside chat” Guardian Media Changing Summit 2016, Highfield calls for better industry metrics.
We’ve created two metrics – newspaper sales and unique users – and never the two shall meet. We need to create a new, single, de-duped, audience-led metric – a total readership-like number that ad agencies and advertisers will buy into.
Says BBC should pay for regional reporters
Highfield says the BBC should pay for regional papers’ journalists to cover courts and council meetings. Regional papers are seeking £14m a year from the BBC’s licence fee income to cover public service reporting. The proposed new deal would fund 364 public service journalists.
[The BBC] would be setting aside an amount to fund council reporting. But instead of the 100 journalists being employed by the BBC, and effectively being tanks on our lawns, the idea we are working through with them is that this could be an even bigger initiative with several hundred journalists. But they would be employed by us, and that is the difference, and commissioned to provide council and other quango reporting to the BBC.