Johnston Press Demise Reveals Shocking State Of Local Papers

Everything you need to know about the dismal state of the local press in the UK is there to be seen today -- as Johnston Press announces that it not only up for sale, but it is also considering selling off its titles individually to interested parties. It is about as close to a distressed fire sale as a publishing company can get.

Even it is going to the market with the understanding that it is highly unlikely to be bought lock, stock and barrel. Who would be making enough to buy a sprawling web of local papers at a time when the local media is dying off?

The only other players in the game would just be happy to see a Johnston rival disappear -- why would they need to buy it? Or perhaps the question should be why they would pay anything approaching a decent price for a rival -- which, truth be told, they would probably just shut down if it became part of their portfolio.

There are, of course, some standout titles that Johnston owns. The Scotsman will almost certainly receive attention from rival publishing houses, and The Yorkshire Evening Post too. Perhaps a couple of the titles with big cities in their names, such as the Sunderland Echo and Edinburgh Evening News, might get a nibble of interest.

It would probably be fair to say, however, that its many titles covering market towns and portions of counties are unlikely to get too many investors excited. 

The inescapable truth, which The Times lays on Johnston's door this morning, is that around GBP2bn of classified advertising has already deserted the local press for specialist recruitment, property and car internet sites in the past ten years or so.

The calamitous fall in revenue has come just after Johnston Press spent hundreds of millions hoovering up local titles around the country. It made the company the biggest regional news publisher. An accolade at the time, but a noose around its neck today.

Local press advertising fell by 13% from 2016 to 2017, according to AA/Warc figures and it's forecast to go down another 8% this year. Sure, digital is up nearly 10% for each of those periods--  but digital is only a quarter the size of print revenues, so print losses are far higher than digital gains.

This inconvenient truth means that very roughly, for every four or five pounds local media loses in print, it gains a pound in digital. That just can't go on forever. Hence, today, we have the fire sale at what was widely referred to as the country's largest regional newspaper group.

it's a funny situation because, in a previous life, I talked regularly with execs in Johnston Press' ad team, and they always put a brave face on. Whether they believed it or not, I'll never know, but they were always adamant that digital was coming to the rescue.

I would always point out that -- as the figures above show -- digital cannot make up for the losses suffered in print, or at least certainly not until print is a fraction of the size it is today.

No, digital gains would one day soon outweigh print's losses. That was always the mantra.

Today, I think we have seen where that got the group. Not only is it up for sale, but it's considering selling off individual titles -- presumably because it knows its key assets are the only ones anyone else would be interested in. 

It's a sad day for anyone in print journalism because it shows the way of the world. The cash cow of classified advertising has fled for the pastures of the specialist sites and digital display is doing relatively well, but it's nowhere near enough to hide the demise of print. It's a little like pulling the plug on the bottom of the bath and then trying to fill it up again with a thimble. 

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