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.
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.
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.
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.
Johnston Press reports total revenue for 2015 was down by 6.8% from £260m in 2014 to £242.3m last year. However, profits increased by 22.6% to £31.5m by reducing costs to £191.7m from £205.3m in 2014. CEO Highfield says the group hopes to sell some brands and some of its key assets. However, he said he “could not rule out” closing some titles. Debt is down by £14.8m to £179.4m from £194.2m in 2014, with interest payments reduced by almost £10m to £19.1m. The number of people reached through Johnston’s digital titles was up by 40.7% to 22.6 million, with digital advertising revenue rising by 12.4% to £30.6m.
We are a plc and our primary objective is to keep the business moving forward … we have to make profits. We are all on the same side here, which is try to get the business back to growth and get the long-standing debt off our shoulders. The tough trading conditions have already been highlighted by DMGT and Trinity Mirror. We are being prudent in not anticipating it getting better and we are going to make sure we are cutting our cloth appropriately.
Highfield also says Johnston has filled all but two of 50 roles for i for when it takes control of the title on 10 April, filling the roles from The Independent within two weeks.
Highfield says of the £24.4m acquisition of the i newspaper from Evgeny Lebedev. He intends to build the brand’s digital presence, increase the distribution of the print edition, targeting small- and medium-sized retailers like post offices and newsagents, and expand to all areas of the UK, including Northern Ireland, where the paper is not currently sold. He will improve editorial by taking 17 existing members of staff and hiring others to form a team of 50. The paper will also draw content from Lebedev’s The Independent’s website and the Evening Standard for £850,000 a year, as well as from Johnston Group’s regional papers. Highfield says that the purchase is about building scale for Johnston Press and attracting bigger advertising. He says scaling by acquiring small regional media groups would have taken a long time and been very expensive.
We are in one quarter of the country and we want to be in all of it, not least because this is a scale game and we wanted to go after more national advertising revenue and have a bigger train set across which to offer our digital services. I’ve always had a fundamental belief that video didn’t kill the radio star. New technology comes along, but it rarely wipes out what came before it. I think people will still want print for many years to come.
Johnston Press reports that full-year profits would be down by around 5.5% and half year profits by around 5% after it saw a fall in advertising revenues and circulation sales in the 26 weeks to 4 July 2015. The company said advertisers chose to hold off and slash spending across print and online amid the uncertainty caused by the election. The share price falls by more than 16%. CEO Highfield:
Trading conditions in the first half of 2015 have undoubtedly been challenging, especially in the period around the general election – a time when there was also a high degree of uncertainty in the wider market.
Highfield is interviewed by MediaBriefing’s Thackray about how Johnston Press has been addressing the structural challenges facing the business, how it is adapting to digital, and how it plans to tackle mobile. Highfield:
People do not buy a local paper to turn to the small ads and sell a push bike. With that having migrated… you can argue it was a major missed opportunity for the regional press not to make more of those verticals like motoring or property… but that’s the past, and now we have a much more stable environment, and our audience numbers… have never been bigger.
While speaking at the Digital Media Strategies conference, a gathering of more than 400 CEOs and senior leaders from the media industry, Highfield warns that the number of full-time journalists working across the group’s local titles will fall from its current figure of about 1,000. He says Johnston Press is aiming to increase the proportion of its revenue from digital advertising to about 23% in 2015, up from 17% in the current financial year, and that the group is headed towards a point at which digital ad revenue is growing four times faster than print declines.
The economics of this business means we will end up with fewer full-time journalists on our books. What you end up with is a much more fluid model with contributors producing a larger percentage of the newspaper. That’s not something we can duck. The economics of the digital world are going to mean our businesses can grow, not just survive but grow, but we need to go about things in a different way. It doesn’t mean the front of the book or the quality of editorial oversight will be diminished.
Highfield is interviewed by Douglas at Media Playground 2014 conference. They talk about the death of print, going mobile-first, the long-running spat between the regional press and the BBC and the future of local journalism.
You need to get digital growing pretty rapidly to make up for print decline. We are getting to that digital tipping point.
Highfields says, contrary to the predictions of media pundits, that Johnston Press will still be printing newspapers in five years. The decline in Johnston Press revenues has slowed from 4.3pc in the first half of the year to 3.1pc in the third quarter. The company cited 40pc year-on-year growth in the audience for its websites, to 27 million users in September, as the main force behind the improvement.
We’re increasingly confident in saying the worst is over for the regional press. We might not be completely out of the woods but the growth in digital audiences, and in fact the performance of print, tells us we’ll get there.