Over the past year, Johnston Press has been relaunching the websites of its major regional titles and the early indicators, in terms of traffic and ad revenue, are encouraging. Ciar Byrne talks to
Jeff Moriarty, chief digital and product officer, about their strategy.
Jeff MoriartyNearly twenty years ago, I freelanced for The Scotsman when the Edinburgh-based title was still housed in Gothic splendour on the Scottish capital’s North Bridge, with a team of copy-takers squirreled away in the attic and a voluminous cuttings library occupying the bowels of the building, now a luxury hotel. Two decades on, there is a certain poetry in being able to download The Scotsman’s new native app onto my iPhone.
The Scotsman, and its fellow Johnston Press titles, the Yorkshire Post, the Sheffield Star and the Portsmouth News, were given a digital makeover at the end of last year with new responsive websites, as well as native apps for committed readers. Following the launch of these redesigned websites, the newspaper company announced in April that its digital audience grew by 40.7% year-on-year to 22.6m in December 2015.
The man behind this digital transformation is Jeff Moriarty, an American who joined Johnston Press as chief digital and product officer two years ago from the Boston Globe. We meet at the smart but anonymous office just north of Oxford Street that is the London base of the local and regional newspaper group which has recently added the national title i to its stable (the headquarters of the company founded in Falkirk in 1767 are in Edinburgh).
Digital growth sits at the heart of Johnston Press’s overall strategy, which is why it is investing in the website redesigns at a time when the newspaper market is facing challenging conditions and the company is cutting back in other areas.
When he arrived in the UK, Moriarty admits, “from a technology standpoint, in some cases, it felt like a couple of years behind what I was seeing in the States”. But he continues: “My focus has been on trying to bring us up to the next level. In some ways we are now ahead even of my peers in the US.”
“You don’t want the same person writing editorial and commercial content.”
The Scotsman blueprint
He explains that The Scotsman’s digital redesign has provided the blueprint for the others, with more titles being transformed this year bringing the total to fifteen new responsive websites, in recognition of the fact that almost 70% of our time online is now spent on mobile devices and tablets. Moriarty explains that Johnston Press wants to be “platform agnostic” both in its editorial and on the commercial side. “We need to be great in print, we need to be great on mobile, we need to be great on tablet. We need to be open to whichever platform the user wants.”
The essential elements of the redesign are, “having a site that can look good on a smartphone with a small screen, a smart phone with a larger screen, a small tablet, a larger tablet. There’s such a range of devices that people are using these days.” The company has also identified new ‘channels’, which are comparable to newspaper sections, such as ‘Future Scotland’ and ‘Heritage’ for The Scotsman and ‘Country Life’ for the Yorkshire Post. “Within each redesign, we have tried to include one to four of these unique channels depending on the market,” says Moriarty.
Native apps are for “people who really love our brands and would be willing to install an app which is faster and gives them other capability”. This includes push notifications, offline reading, geolocation and the speed that goes with caching of content. The apps have been created in partnership with a company called Rumble which works out of New York and Israel, demonstrating the global expertise which Moriarty has brought to the British regional newspaper publisher. He explains: “What we have focused on is integrating, so we are licensing the app platform rather than building it.”
In a period when the company’s overall revenues from advertising and circulation were down 6.8% to £242.3m, digital advertising provided a ray of hope rising 12.4% to £30.6m in the year to December 2015, although this still only represents 20.6% of total advertising revenues. Johnston Press’s Digital Kitbag business, which offers a range of services including print and digital display advertising, Google Adwords and website building to local advertisers, saw its revenues nearly double last year. “What you see on our site is only one small part of what we do locally for advertisers,” says Moriarty. The company has also launched Voice Local, a low-cost native advertising programme for small businesses. For around £300, advertisers can buy an article of interest to their customers. “We do everything from national advertising for Waitrose around Scottish salmon, to advertising for a local veterinarian around dogs and cats.” Unlike The Independent which has said that digital journalists will also be asked to write native advertising content, Moriarty explains: “We have a commercial content editor and she’s working mostly with freelancers right now. You don’t want the same person writing editorial and commercial content.”
Moriarty started out as a journalist in the mid-nineties, working for the regional part of the New York Times Company, and quickly moved into the burgeoning digital side of the business. “It was when the internet started. I started doing some really early web development and it went from there. I spent twenty years in the NYT Company from Florida to California and Boston to New York, all in digital.” He ran golf and wine websites for the NYT, oversaw the digital side of the regional business, ran product at about.com, the huge information portal owned at the time by the NYT and, most recently, launched BostonGlobe.com, the first responsive newspaper website.
A blueprint for other Johnston Press titles.The jewels in Johnston Press’ crown
The fifteen relaunched websites will account for around 50% of the company’s digital audience. This ties in with the decision taken by Johnston Press to sell off some of its 220 titles and focus its efforts on selected ‘gems’: titles that fit a set of criteria including being located in economically resilient mid-size market towns and cities, catering for a demographic of middle income families with more disposable income, and with an emphasis on display advertising rather than classifieds. ‘Digital opportunity’ is another of those criteria, admits Moriarty. He adds: “Our sweet spot is families and mid-lifers in a growing community. The important distinction is that, apart from a few specific exceptions, we’re not trying to go after millennials with these products.”
Of more interest to millennials is Johnston Press’s latest acquisition, the i newspaper. When we meet, Moriarty has just come out of a meeting with i editor Oly Duff, about building the title’s new website. Unlike the print edition of the i, inews.co.uk will not be able to use any content from the now digital-only Independent. “We’re working with Oly to try to translate the print i experience into something digital, but we won’t have the benefit of The Independent content. We want to be a complement to the newspaper. The great opportunity for us is to create a digital experience which is like the paper, with brevity and quality, especially in the mobile form.”
All of this digital innovation is taking place against a backdrop of extremely challenging times for local and regional newspapers. Both print advertising and circulation revenues fell in 2015 and an expected upturn following the general election never took place. Johnston Press responded by cutting costs, restructuring its newsroom operations around the country leading to job losses.
“Last year, we changed the way newsrooms are organised into a Communities team and a News team. We’re not going to add x hundred digital journalists so we have to find a way to create the product more efficiently,” says Moriarty, who insists that the company’s titles are still able to do their job properly despite the cutbacks. “I think we do rely more on the community to feed us content through digital forums or emails. All of our editors are still focused on finding the right stories, holding people to account, but we do it in a different way to before.”
“In August 2015, the industry saw Facebook become the largest source of traffic to news sites, surpassing Google.”
The Facebook effect
Facebook has become increasingly important for Johnston Press as it has for all newspaper publishers. “In August 2015, the industry saw Facebook become the largest source of traffic to news sites, surpassing Google. We’re getting better at publishing our content and promoting it within Facebook.” One of the ways in which the company is doing this is through a new tool called Social Flow, again licensed from a New York company, which optimises the posting of articles into Facebook and Twitter. “Let’s say it’s a restaurant review. You put the post into the system and it can automatically optimise when to send that post. It starts to learn that followers of this page are more likely to look at a restaurant review at this time of the evening on a Thursday. So it will post it then. The technology learns when to send it for you, so the journalist doesn’t have to guess.”
It has been two years of rapid change, and Moriarty doesn’t see it slowing down any time soon. “Last year was just massive change because of the shift to mobile and the shift to social. I haven’t seen that big a change in a while in my career.” This year, he predicts continued growth in mobile usage and social media as a tool for drawing in readers, plus a rise in video content which has been on the up since Facebook introduced in-stream autoplay. “A lot of people watch without audio, so it’s more like visual storytelling – you’re seeing a lot of video with text overlay. We are starting to introduce video in that form locally, giving journalists the tools they need to create that more easily.” He concludes: “It could continue to be another very disruptive year, but it’s all a great opportunity when you have unique local content as we do.”