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Jeff Henry - interview

Last year, Archant appointed as its new chief executive Jeff Henry, a man who had never worked in newspapers before; someone whose whole media career had been spent in television and film. An intriguing choice, but, as Jeff explains to Ray Snoddy, all media companies face the same challenges – how to create and monetise high value content.

By Ray Snoddy

When Jeff Henry, a young accountant at Touche Ross, told his father he was going to become a BBC assistant head of contracts, the disapproval was clear.

“Sorry – you want to go and join the circus?” asked the man who ran butcher’s shops and thought accountancy represented a peak of professional status and security.

Since then, Henry’s “circus” career has taken off at Scottish Television and ITV as well as the BBC before senior stints at everything from the Hallmark Channel to running FilmFlex Movies for Sony Pictures and Disney.

Since the beginning of September, Henry has been chief executive at a very different three-ring circus – Archant, the family-owned local and regional newspaper group, which publishes more than 130 titles including the Eastern Daily Press.

Great future

As he approaches his first anniversary in newspapers, Henry, the former television executive, is as enthusiastic as ever in the face of the challenges faced by all newspaper groups.

“I am loving every second of being in Norwich,” says Henry who insists that he is more convinced than ever that local media has a great future and potentially one that represents a more interesting challenge than television which is becoming increasingly Americanised.

Within 24 hours of arriving at Archant, Henry was already clear about the differences between running television and newspaper companies – none worth mentioning.

“I found it to be exactly the same as the challenges facing all media companies. It’s all about content, the monetisation of that content and distribution,” insists Henry. If something works in television, Henry believes, the chances are it will work in newspapers too.

“If you get the rules right, it’s the same in any media business; that was really the profound thing for me - the similarities rather than the differences,” the Archant executive explains.

Henry’s second day at Archant was particularly dramatic. There was a telephone threat to burn down his house by a disgruntled reader. His new colleagues were mortified. The new newspaper executive saw it as an indication that what they did mattered.

One Archant

His slightly more long-term strategy has been to try to create “One Archant” out of no less than 33 different operating units.

Henry accepts that there are fashions in management between centralising and de-centralising. As Archant expanded through acquisition, the management view at the time was to give the newly acquired businesses a marked degree of autonomy.

By comparison, Henry is a centraliser.

“The One Archant mantra has allowed a restructuring. There was no commercial director, there was no marketing director or content director. Instead of it being a holding company, we have changed the business into an operating division and that has paid huge dividends,” says Henry who adds that when he asked who was in charge of digital, six people put their hands up.

Craig Nayman is now Archant’s first chief commercial director, Will Hattam is marketing director while Bob Crawley is acting content director.

Crawley set up a general elections unit to operate across Archant’s publishing business and a special investigations unit has also been created.

Apart from bringing greater control back to the centre, Henry has also been concentrating on an approach which he believes is slightly different from many of his “new industry colleagues”.

He has focused first on what he calls making the core business robust instead of chasing digital for digital’s sake, before going on to target growth in carefully selected areas.

“The aim is to make sure we are as strong and powerful as we can be in our geographical locations and what it has allowed us to do to classified, it has actually allowed us to grow our business,” says the Archant chief executive.

All about the content

After years of dealing with large companies such as Warner Brothers in the world of film and television, Henry believes that until you are producing content that people actually want to watch – or in this case read – all other strategies are secondary.

It’s time to talks about paywalls, free or freemium policies only after you have got the content right.

“You can’t have these conversations until you can say hand-on-heart that we are putting out the best value content we can,” says Henry who notes that awards have already been won and the staff energised by the new approach.

“If you live in Norfolk or Suffolk, you should see Archant as a great place to get a job,” the executive says.

Despite a price rise at the East Anglian Daily Times, one of Archant’s flagship titles, Henry is targeting a 4 per cent drop in circulation for this year compared with what he believes is an industry average of around 7 per cent.

“The fact is that as we make our content deeper in terms of its localness, I see no reason why we can’t hold onto the people we have. Part of making the core business robust is not having to deal with, as some parts of the industry have, double digit circulation falls,” Henry explains.

Exceeding expectations

As a private family–owned company, Archant does not have to make regular disclosures about its economic performance but Henry says the company has revenues of around £120 million a year and is profitable. The first five months of this year, he says, have been the strongest for a decade.

“We are optimistic about 2015, very optimistic. We have hit every target that we have set ourselves. How many years has it been as a business that we have been able to say we have set ourselves stretched targets and we are exceeding those,” says the Archant chief executive.

This is a year of consolidation, next year will concentrate on growth, particularly on a rationalised range of digital products.

At the moment, Archant has 200 websites. That will probably come down to something like 20 or 30 although some of Archant’s specialist magazines such as Agricultural Trader and Your Chickens, serving the new fashion for keeping chickens, are ripe for a digital boost.

Improving distribution can yield circulation gains. How about distributing Cornwall Life magazine through Marks & Spencer stores in London aimed at those with second homes in Cornwall? Result a significant circulation gain.

Archant owns the London 24 website which gets more than one million unique visits despite little promotion and then the company publishes London Resident magazines, surely something more can be done with those, Henry suggests.

“I want Archant to be the best local media company by 2017 and I have said it to the 1500 plus employees. That’s what we want to do and the way to do it is raise the bar in terms of all of our performances, content, sales and distribution, all of those aspects,” says Henry.

Ironically, for someone who has spent virtually his entire working life in television, it is Archant’s local television franchise in Norwich, Mustard TV, that is proving the most problematical.

It has been limited by the size of its potential distribution – 200,000 viewers - and although Mustard’s ratings have been rising, it’s only up to around 20 per cent across a month.

Choosing diplomatic language, Henry believes that the cost of providing a high quality broadcast service with such a small viewer base will be “really challenged” unless a national federation of local TV stations is set up, or Mustard can provide profitable ancillary services.

“Without finding other ways and other revenue streams, I think the long-term outlook for the whole of local TV would have to be questioned,” says someone who knows what he’s talking about.

Local pride

As far as newspapers are concerned, Henry admits that he is lucky in the geographical distribution of the company’s titles – located in areas where people are very proud of their localities and also of their local media.

Norwich City’s dramatic return to the Premiership via a nerve-jangling playoff at Wembley is an obvious boost to local pride and Archant newspapers followed supporters and players every inch of the way. Henry is a former season ticket holder at Queen’s Park in Glasgow. As someone who had to negotiate football television rights for both Scottish Television and the BBC, he thought it would be more politic than supporting either Rangers or Celtic.

As for newspapers, Henry increasingly believes that local papers are the equivalent of micro television franchises.

“If there is one lesson, that lesson is to tap into localness and the pride people have in their local regions,” says Henry.

As for the future of the regional newspaper industry, Henry believes there will still be local newspapers in ten years and they will still be serving their local communities.

But he is certain another period of consolidation may soon be under way.

“Some of the forces going forward towards consolidation will simply mean a great deal of activity in the sector,” say Henry, although he plans to simply get on with the job of “building a great Archant” not least for the 2,500 shareholders, many of them descendants of the four founding families of the business.

“Local media has become sexy again and there is a lot of interest in local media,” adds Henry.

In fact, media in general always creates a disproportionate amount of interest among the public.

Jeff Henry remembers a family lunch when he was working for Scottish Television and relatives kept asking: “What’s Nikki Campbell like or what’s Taggart like?”

“My bother-in-law who is a surgeon lost it and said: “I saved six people today”. There was a silence and then my sister-in-law said: “What’s Carol Smillie like,”” recalls Henry with a laugh.

The allure of the circus is undiminished.