Scotland

Alex Salmond bids to chair Johnston Press newspaper group

Alex Salmond Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Alex Salmond said the newspapers would be "champions" of the communities they represented

Alex Salmond has joined a bid to install new leadership at newspaper group Johnston Press, publisher of The Scotsman and the i.

The former first minister would become chairman of the group if plans led by investor Christen Ager-Hanssen are approved by shareholders.

Mr Salmond, who lost his Westminster seat in June's general election, said he would not have editorial control.

The group publishes about 300 newspapers across the UK.

Mr Salmond said the papers would be "a champion of the community of interests they represent".

"Under our plan, The Yorkshire Post will be pro-Yorkshire, The Scotsman pro-Scotland, and the i trusted everywhere for the quality and accessibility of the information it provides," the former SNP leader said.

The Scotsman did not support independence in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish referendum when Mr Salmond was leading the push for a Yes vote.

'Great titles'

Since losing his parliamentary seat, Mr Salmond has hosted a chat show at the Edinburgh Fringe and a weekly radio programme on LBC.

He said Johnston Press titles had been a "constant part" of his life, with his first job selling the Edinburgh Evening News and his first published letter printed in The Linlithgow Gazette.

"The Johnston Group has great titles and some great people. What it needs is a senior management team to match that commitment.

"Every local newspaper will be valued for the journalistic reach it can bring to the group and all of the 300 communities covered by the titles will be treated with respect.

"Christen Ager-Hanssen is a visionary and I am delighted to be working with him. He is a man with the necessary thought leadership to help this great company move forward confidently in the information age."


Analysis by Douglas Fraser, BBC Scotland business and economy editor

Image copyright Getty Images

Johnston Press is in dire straits. It's been struggling under a colossal debt taken on in the boom decade, buying newspaper titles as if they had a rosy financial future. They didn't.

The management have been trying to persuade bondholders and pension trustees to help restructure the debt rather than default.

It has been slow to convert falling print advertising revenue into digital earnings. And for years, it has slashed at its cost base, notably the journalists who keep the content coming in and make newspapers worth buying.

Activist investors have been circling for months. Recently, Christen Ager-Hanssen emerged as the lead shareholder, with his fund holding more than 20%. The strategy is not primarily about pushing up the (dismal) share price and exiting with a neat profit, but to use Johnston's titles as a platform for digital disruption of the market.

The idea is to do for news what Uber did for taxis - using technology to challenge the old ways. In particular, the plan is to harvest the rich seam of data about the newspapers' mobile and online readers - as other big tech companies do with your social media and online shopping - and to deploy that more smartly as a revenue source with which to invest once more in journalism.

At a very low valuation, it's possible to move in on influential media markets, which is what attracts some politically-motivated investors in the USA. Whether or not Alex Salmond wishes to drive his political views through Johnston's titles, he could find himself with a significant role at a vital inflection point for the news media, and much more widely than Scotland.


Enhance future

Mr Ager-Hanssen, who owns a Scandinavian version of the Metro newspaper and is a shareholder in Johnston Press through his Custos Group, is expected to call an emergency general meeting to put his plans forward.

He said: "Alex and I are agreed about the new direction we need to take to save Johnston Press, reinvigorate its staff and transform the company into a digital media powerhouse.

"We are committed to advocate a new direction for the company which we believe will protect and enhance its future and provide it with real leadership.

"Central to our vision are the interests of shareholders, staff, pensioners and the communities who trust and rely upon the Johnston titles to provide them with information and news."

Johnston Press said it was recording growth.

A spokeswoman said: "We're continuing to focus on producing great newspapers and delivering big digital audiences.

"In the most recent ABCs, The Scotsman recorded both a print circulation and digital audience rise, which together has helped it increase advertising revenues year on year.

"More broadly, the i newspaper is performing very well, with revenues up 17% in the quarter, and our digital revenues are up 16% in the quarter.

"We are making good progress on our strategic review."

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