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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.