Transformational or delusional?
© Mark Thomas
5 August 2016
The NUJ has voiced concerns about the strategy of Ashley Highfield, chief executive of Johnston Press, as the company admitted it had cut the valuation of its title and print assets by 45 per cent to £224m and increased its debt to £209m, from £183m a year ago.
The Edinburgh-based company, which publishes 200-plus titles in the UK, including the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post, said its adjusted pre-tax profit for the six months to 2 July was £12.3m, a fall of 27 per cent on the same period last year.
Ashley Highfield, claimed the acquisition of the i newspaper has been "transformational for Johnston Press" and its circulation had increased considerably, but he went on to say: "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." Following the sale of its titles in the Isle of Man, the company intended to continue its "disinvestment plans", he said.
Talks are continuing between officials and reps on the company's Scottish titles over staffing levels, working practices, use of freelance cover, recruitment policy and the state of the industry; members have voted for industrial action.
Laura Davison, NUJ national organiser, said:
"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."
At the company's AGM in May, the union raised concerns about work-related stress and staffing levels; fewer than 1,000 editorial staff produce more than 450 publications and websites and the company cost-cutting plans continue.