Expert opinion: Should Johnston Press be looking for a merger?


There has been a lot of talk and column inches recently regarding regional press group Johnston Press looking for a potential merger. Regional newspaper expert and former editor Matt Cornish looks at whether such a move would increase the attraction of local newspapers to marketers.

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Despite countless predictions of the regional press having no future, local newspapers are continuing to make good money and, in my opinion, still offer strong opportunities for marketers.

 Many have questioned the relevance of these traditional outlets when technology is advancing so rapidly, and indeed readership of the printed products has fallen drastically over the past few years, along with traditional in-paper advertising revenues.

But the simple fact is these newspapers still boast strong penetration in their local markets – millions of people are still willing to buy and read them each week so as a media, it can’t be written off just yet.

 So if Johnston Press really is considering a merger with one of its rivals, it would be a fascinating move and could provide a more attractive platform for marketers.

JP currently has over 200 titles, including The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post. Even on a very basic level, having more titles to buy into creates a more attractive platform for an advertising campaign.

But there’s more to it than just extra titles on the news stand. The biggest boon would be digital.

Ultimately the survival of the press may (and in many cases already does) rely on its online presence. And this is why the doom and gloom predictions of extinction may be premature - most titles actually boast larger (and ever increasing) audiences than in previous years due to the performance of their websites.

JP is one of the more forward-looking groups in terms of its digital offerings. Despite a recent fall in overall profits, its digital audience has grown by 20% in the first half of the year to 19.9 million, and digital revenues have grown by 17.5%.

Just last week, it was revealed JP’s entertainment website – WOW247 – had passed one million users, just three months after its much-needed re-launch.

It still needs work and more local content in my opinion, but there’s definitely an appeal to a site which has attractive and highly clickable content on films, music, gaming etc, combined with fully searchable local “what’s on” listings.

Also significant is a new deal JP has just signed with Taboola – an American US content specialist - in an effort to boost traffic, particularly for its mobile sites. You know the stuff – the often irresistible “other stories you may like” clickbait, usually accompanied by a curious (or vaguely titillating) picture tempting you in.

I’ve seen some insiders suggest it will hurt the USP of proper local content, but I disagree. Today’s users are so used to the “you’ll-never-guess-what-happened-next” Upworthy-type stories that they almost expect it, particularly on news websites. There are no integrity issues to me as the modern audience is intelligent enough to differentiate genuine local content from generic clickbait.

What it should do is increase audiences further on one of the fastest growing platforms – mobile - and presumably offer improved opportunities for mobile advertising.

The biggest appeal for marketers in a merger would lie in JP combining with a less web-savvy group such as Newsquest or Local World as it would raise standards across the board, boosting best practice and innovation across a larger area and filling in some geographical gaps.

However, I’d prefer to see a merger with an equally (if not more) progressive group like Trinity Mirror.

Trinity Mirror proved that by giving its top digital people room to try new things it can produce successful and interesting platforms, such as the launches of the excellent Amp33d and UsVsThem.

If such ambition and digital freedom can be rolled out to JP’s titles, the newspaper industry’s digital revolution has far more chance of success. The industry needs to embrace new ideas, and with two forward looking companies, there’ll be less chance of one of them resisting.

There’s a huge potential for a regional powerhouse to really own the area of local, geo-targeting and social (LoGoSo) – if anyone can become the leader in this area they will be setting themselves up for the future.

There is one huge lesson that I really hope the owners take on board, however, and that is be careful with the “one-size-fits-all” digital policies.

There is a great and unfortunate tradition across all newspaper groups of introducing universal policies, platforms or software without any consideration to the differences in local markets and communities. 

Resources are notoriously tight on local papers, and I’ve seen with my own eyes innovation quickly being stifled by an over-eager executive thinking one editor’s/advertising manager’s successful pilot scheme will work equally well everywhere.

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