Ashley Highfield

Ashley Highfield has previously held senior roles at the BBC and Microsoft

Credit: BBC

The chief executive of Johnston Press (JP) has signalled that the local newspaper publisher will adopt a digital-first strategy.

Speaking at the Guardian Changing Media Summit, Ashley Highfield, who took over as CEO in November, said "we will flip the model to digital first".

Highfield, who has held senior roles at the BBC and Microsoft, said the group was "not in a panic situation" over digital transformation, but admitted that "local press hasn't done a very good job of promoting digital".

He said there is a huge difference in the traffic of the different JP local news sites: "Web far exceeds print circulation [for some publications] and in other cases web is a single digit of a percentage of newspaper sales."

He revealed that newspaper sites that have not embraced Twitter generally receive around one tenth the number of hits of those sites with a focus on social media.

Highfield said the launch of 140 regional newspaper phone apps before Christmas has added two million unique users. The "whole new audience is a younger, male, more up-market demography", he explained.

Asked about his thoughts on paywalls, Highfield said: "The bread and butter of regional is community and you have to keep sites by and large free to do that."

He suggested that other Johnston Press titles will follow the Scotsman, in launching paid-for iPad apps.

"Most of our dailies will have iPad and mobile apps over next few months," he said.

However, he suggested a lesser belief in charging for mobile app content, favouring revenue generated through ads.

Highfield was positive about print revenues. "Every one of our newspapers is profitable," he said, but admitted to "make more money out of digital we still have a long way to go".

He said the local newspaper group is aiming for around 20 per cent profit margins.

"In the past [the local newspaper business] was a huge cash cow … and to say the wind was been knocked out of its sales is an understatement, it's seismic."

He said some Johnston Press print titles had increased in circulation with others seeing 3 or 4 per cent decline.

For regional newspapers "you have to keep close to your local audience," he said, and to do so "you have got to move in to digital".

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