Alex Salmond joins bid to take control of Johnston Press group

Former First Minister Alex Salmond has joined a Norwegian activist investor who has said he wants to shake up the board and senior management at Johnston Press, the publisher of The Scotsman.
Johnston Press Chief Executive Ashley Highfield. Picture: TSPLJohnston Press Chief Executive Ashley Highfield. Picture: TSPL
Johnston Press Chief Executive Ashley Highfield. Picture: TSPL

It is understood that as part of the changes Salmond and Christen Ager-Hanssen also want to shift the corporate HQ of Johnston Press back to Scotland from central London.

The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that Ager-Hanssen, whose investment vehicle Custos Group is now the largest investor in the company with a 20 per cent holding, is expected this week to call a meeting to oust the incumbent chair, Camilla Rhodes, and install Salmond.

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The move comes after rumours that the politician was involved in a consortium seeking to buy The Scotsman, which Johnston Press publishes alongside the i, Yorkshire Post and scores of local newspaper titles.

Salmond, who lost his Westminster seat at the general election in June, was reported as saying that The Scotsman could an “engine of thought and creativity for the nation” under his leadership.

Ager-Hanssen said in a statement: “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 a new direction for the company which we believe will protect and enhance its future and provide it with real leadership. We’ll be working in the interests of shareholders, staff, pensioners and the communities who trust and rely upon the Johnston titles to provide them with information and news.”

It comes as Johnston Press yesterday issued an update on trading and the strategic review of its financing options in which the company said it “remains confident that trading for the full year will be in line with expectations”.

Highfield said: “Our key strategic priorities of continuing the success of the i newspaper and growing digital revenues have both shown strong gains during the period.

“It is significant that The Scotsman saw strong year on year advertising growth in Q3, with almost half of that coming from digital, driven by both audience growth and increased monetisation from data-driven targeted advertising.

“A significant amount of work is being done on the strategic review of financing options and we are pleased with progress to date.”

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Total group revenue, excluding classifieds, was flat in Q3, and including classifieds was down 7 per cent, a 1 percentage point improvement on the second quarter.

Digital revenue saw continued growth, up 16 per cent in the quarter excluding classifieds, a 3 percentage point improvement on Q2.

Print advertising excluding classified was down 8 per cent. Johnston Press said the i newspaper “continues to perform very well”, with total like-for-like revenues rising 17 per cent in the quarter, while the newly relaunched i weekend has seen its average circulation volume increase 15,000 in its first three weeks.

Scotsman editor Frank O’Donnell said: “The total audience reach of The Scotsman has strengthened in our 200th year.

“Our print circulation was up 4.5 per cent in the first six months of 2017.

“This means that over 50,000 people read The Scotsman print edition every day. Online, the paper is attracting 150,000 unique users every day.

“Add together print and digital and around 200,000 people are interacting with our brand on a daily basis.

“This success is based on Scottish content from front to back: news, sport, arts, business, opinion and lifestyle.”