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There may have been a lot of developments in journalism over the last few hundred years, but according to the chief executive of Johnston Press, the "fundamental needs" of readers are the same.

Speaking at the Guardian's Changing Media Summit, Ashley Highfield said: "Our perspective is that needs of communities don't change. Readers still want births, marriages and deaths and business services."

He claimed the decline of regional media had been "greatly exaggerated", adding that Johnston Press's total audience has grown 16 per cent year-on-year for print and online (according to internal, unaudited figures).

Johnston Press's own figures show its digital audience currently stands at just over 12 million average monthly uniques, Highfield said, a figure that has grown by 4 million in the last 18 months.

Latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) show the outlet recorded 13.1 million average monthly unique browsers during July to December 2013, up 17.9 per cent on the first six months of the year.

Referring to a comment made by Jeff Jarvis earlier in the day about local newspapers not having enough data on their audiences, Highfield agreed that "four or five years ago" this was the case.

However, he said a key way for legacy news outlets to address that issue is by building a strong digital audience.

He revealed that Johnston Press has been trying new ways to connect with readers by giving them "greater ownership" over their local news.

One way in which the outlet has done this is by encouraging more user-generated content (UGC), for example, in something Highfield referred to as "the Bourne experiment".

In November last year Johnston Press relaunched The Local newspaper in Bourne, Lincolnshire, with the aim of having up to 75 per cent of the newspaper's content written by people in the community.

The first edition was 66 per cent UGC and each edition after that has achieved the 70 to 75 per cent target.

Highfield described the project as a "great success" which had been well received in the community, and a similar project was launched with the Pocklington Post, which launched with 75 per cent community-written content and has sustained that since.

He refuted the suggestion that sourcing content in this way was a cost-cutting measure, adding that Johnston Press journalists were still writing content for the two newspapers, which were now benefiting from more content and a wider range of voices.

Despite this, Highfield said he did not think Johnston Press did engagement "well enough".

"Our unique users look pretty good given our spread across the country, but we could do better," he said. "It's something we're obsessive about."

Highfield also said that Johnston Press has managed to bring in new audiences through its status as a "trusted brand".

He explained that there are three big audiences in regional media: young families, the over-60s, and a "younger, predominantly male audience who are very interested in football".

"We didn't know if we'd be able to capture that last audience," Highfield admitted, "but someone Googling football results in Sunderland would get the Sunderland Echo website and because, even if they don't buy the newspaper, they know and trust our brand, they would go on to read that content."

"So there's this ability to shift an audience from one platform to another based on awareness of the brand. We're delighted, but it has surprised us."

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