brighton pier
Credit: By bevgoodwin on Flickr. Some rights reserved

Acquisition deals are often quite stale affairs, but when a 250 year-old publishing house buys an outlet founded by a 21 year-old just four years ago there's something different afoot.

Johnston Press last week announced its acquirement of The Brighton and Hove Independent, a free, weekly newspaper with accompanying website on the (temporarily) sunny south coast.

Editorial director Greg Hadfield says it is "not a traditional newspaper" and instead brings a new voice to local news, turning a profit in the process.

We're helping citizens, I hope, become better informed, more engagedGreg Hadfield, Brighton and Hove Independent
"In the ethos for the paper has been this idea that we're a media platform for the city," Hadfield told "Not that we seek to be a monopoly media platform, but a collaborative and open one."

Founded in 2011 by the "remarkable" Mark Ansell, a 25 year-old publishing prodigy already on his second newspaper, the Independent celebrated its 200th edition last week with a circulation of more than 13,000 across 320 distribution points in the city.

Hadfield joined in 2013 on the back of a Fleet Street career culminating as head of digital development at The Telegraph, and sees relationships and digital provisions as central to the role of local media.

He led an overhaul of the Independent's design and style when he joined, and while he writes most of the news and investigative stories himself the outlet now has a network of "70 or 80 contributors" from around the city to cover a wider range of topics.

"We have a different relationship with our readers and with our staff and columnists. And we wanted to get into this position to grow in a digital direction which, of course, takes a lot of resources, time and effort. And that's very difficult in the situation we're in."

The backing of a large media house verging on ubiquity in the county will no doubt help, particularly as Johnston Press continue to trumpet their digital focus despite the cost-cutting measures criticised by the NUJ.

The Independent does turn a profit though, and Hadfield is keen to make a distinction between the direction he has charted for the Independent, albeit sketched in pencil on a blank map, and the kind of "commodity news" found in the pages of many local papers.

"Stuff that's of the moment, stuff that's here today gone tomorrow. There's a lot of it," he said. "Car crash on the M23. Traffic jam on the A27. Middle-aged man gets promotion, charity raises money. That isn't our market."

Instead, he wants to harness some of the journalistic opportunities presented by technology which can be forgotten in the immediacy of digital media, swallowed up by the web traffic monster in the pursuit of "grabbing eyeballs in the moment".

"I'm much more interested in the permanence of resources. So, if you have the education data for every school in the city, get it out there and build a taxonomy, a structure that you can hang the news of the moment off."

Trinity Mirror Regionals' group-wide database of school rankings serves a similar purpose, and although Hadfield has yet to move into education the Independent today launched a database of planning applications for the city.

Supported by a grant from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) readers can find planning applications in their area by search or map, or set up email alerts for new applications in specific areas.

bhi map
Screenshot from the Independent's interactive map of planning applications in the BN1 area

True, planning is one of the driest areas of local government bureaucracy. But as Hadfield noted when the funding was announced, applications will always be important to somebody, and working with the local council in creating a database can not only act as a resource for future stories but promote the very kind of public service journalism traffic-chasing can leave behind.

"It's about how do you engage with the [local] authority," he continued. "How do you engage with the officers, how do you engage with fellow citizens around major projects. Or even small projects.

"It's really interesting around the idea of 'news you can use'. We're helping citizens, I hope, become better informed, more engaged, more active, more prosperous and businesses likewise."

As well as education and planning, future projects along similar lines could explore property prices, parking issues and electoral services, to name a few.

The Independent has its fair share of exclusives as well, including the exposé of a senior housing councillor whose brother's property company was awarded a £20m council contract and a £450m redevelopment of the seafront alongside some deep digging into the funding of political parties in the build up to this year's election.

Johnston Press was not available to comment on the acquisition in more detail, but chief executive Ashley Highfield was effusive on the matter.

"It’s a small but terrific team," he said in a press release, "who produce an excellent newspaper and website – and we’re very happy to have them on board."

Hadfield believes the paper's forward-thinking culture and profitability were persuasive factors, as well as a distribution network which supplies more copies per issue than any other title in the area.

The key concern though, the same for almost any news organisation, is in reaching an audience with quality news to empower readers while bringing in the cash to be sustainable.

"It's pretty clear that in a city of nearly 300,000 people, democracy and business cannot continue to exist if more people don't engage with the media," he said. "That's untapped. The question I've often asked myself is 'how much money is there to be made in a city in any sort of journalistic model?'"

That question remains to be answered in the digital landscape, but Johnston are determined to help the Independent explore it.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).