Johnson Press: Zombie Company?

The company is saddled with huge debt.

Johnston Press is known in some circles, rather unkindly, as a zombie company.

This is because in blunt financial terms the main reason it exists is to enable it to continue to service its £351.7m bank debt at the usurious interest rate of 10 per cent.

The reason the rate is so high is because – like Greece – the banks have doubts about whether the cash can ever be repaid.

Against this backdrop and a share price of 6p (compared with over £4 five years ago) chief executive Ashley Highfield has set out a vision to return the company to growth and pay back all that cash.

It’s a bold vision and Highfield deserves huge credit for the creativity he has brought to this challenge. He’s the first major regional press chief executive I can remember in recent years who hasn’t been an accountant or a salesperson and it shows.

He’s also happy to put his vision up to journalistic scrutiny by being questioned about it – which makes a refreshing change.
Highfield answered questions from Press Gazette and other publications yesterday.

We asked whether Johnston wasn’t paying the price for the folly of his predecessors in pursuing unsustainable profit margins (of 35-40 per cent) and over expansion.

Johnston is saddled with the huge debt it has because it overpaid grossly for assets like Regional Interactive Media (£560m in 2002 at more than 20 times operating profit) and £160m on The Scotsman in 2005.

The tragedy of Johnston Press is that, in the current climate, most businesses would do cartwheels at managing an operating profit margin of 17 per cent last year which it did.

But Highfield, through no fault of his own, has to double that margin over the next eight years if he is to pay back is bank paymasters. And that’s what his 2020 vision is based on.

He told Press Gazette that debt or no debt he would be pursuing the same strategy. And that the size of the group enables him make use of things like state-of-the art owned print plants and a national content network. But one wonders if so many experienced journalists and editors would be losing their jobs (more than 500 staff cut in the last year alone) if it wasn’t for the need to pay the bankers.

Some £250,000 is being spend on new design templates to relaunch all Johnston’s paid-for daily and weekly titles. This compares with £11.5m spent just paying the fees on agreeing a new finance deal with the banks (£38.5m was spent on interest alone last year).

But we are where we are and Highfield’s vision is a bold one. He sees a long-term future for weekly papers, a limited one for dailies and salvation in the form of mobile and online content.

I believe it could work, but I fear the days of 35 per cent-plus profit margins are long-gone – and were not sustainable even in the early Naughties.

Highfield insists that the digital-first strategy won’t “rob print Peter to pay digital  – Paul” – thereby hastening the decline of print.

But while that is easy to say whilst martialing a powerpoint flowchart in the boardroom, it is common sense that a journalist writing breaking-news for online cannot at the same time work-up an in-depth news story, feature, backgrounder or exclusive for print. We must, at times, do one or the other.

As I said I do not want to appear overly pessimistic. Highfield’s vision is a rational one. With a fair wind he could pay down another £70m of debt over the next three years, bring the debt-to-earnings ratio down to 3-1 and have an opportunity to renegotiate the lending deals and get the blood-sucking bankers off his back.

And then we could be looking at a bright new future for Johnston Press.

In the meantime, that share price says that the market remains sceptical about whether this will happen.

Asked how journalists can be optimistic about their prospects in these circumstances, Highfield says:

” I’ve literally had hundreds of emails from staff, saying that they’ve really bought into this, because what we’re laying out is a future, a good future where JP not just survives, but thrives. Where, if you’re a journalist, more people read what you write rather than less and more people consume it across print and digital.

“I suppose the only thing you need to get your head round as a journalist, is that that audience in the future is going to be a different mix of print and online, and the vast majority of journalists welcome that, not least because they are already there in the blogosphere and using Twitter, they are already engaging with their audience and finding it benefits their written word in print and online.

“Of course if there are some impacts on JP on making it a more efficient organisation, there will inevitably, at times, be impacts on staff, I can’t deny that. The staff recognise that, they want to be treated as grown-ups but given a clear direction that the company’s heading in and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

You can read the full in-depth Ashley Highfield interview in the May edition of Press Gazette.

Johnson Press, Photograph, Getty Images.

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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