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Ellen Hammett 

Johnston Press: "We think the i is more of a digital product than a print product"

Johnston Press: "We think the i is more of a digital product than a print product"

As the publisher prepares to take on the i newspaper in less than six weeks' time, Johnston Press' chief digital officer has revealed that the title is to adopt a digital-first approach.

Admitting that print declines across the business have been "much more extreme" than expected, Jeff Moriarty laid out plans for a mobile-optimised i that will leverage real-time user data and have an "aggressive" social push - including publishing content through Facebook Instant Articles.

"Print has always been an important component of what we do - I think it does give us scale and that's really important," Moriarty said at the Digital Media Strategies conference on Tuesday (8 March).

"We think the i is more of a digital product than a print product. I don't know if I would want to buy a long-form printed newspaper...but something that really packages the news in a different way and appeals to people at a lower cost still makes sense."

Johnston Press, the UK's largest regional newspaper publisher, purchased the i from ESI Media for £24 million last month. Since it was founded by the Lebedevs in 2010, the i has accumulated content from sister titles The Independent and Evening Standard, however has never had a dedicated website.

The acquisition came after Johnston Press was seen to be struggling with its own print business - with publishing revenues down 11% for the last reported period, and print ad revenues down almost 15%.

While i manages to sell approximately 270,000 copies a day - a decent figure amid much greater market declines - its circulation is beginning to plateau, which Moriarty said is one of the motivating factors behind its digital-first strategy.

"It [i's circulation] has flattened and is flatter than most other products, but I think it's still a strong product with a lot of scale," he said.

"Our opportunity now is to take that concept and turn it into something digital to complement it."

The leap to digital has not been without its challenges for any publisher that started with a printed product - with bad advertising experiences, ad-blocking, poor viewability and ad fraud all unresolved issues.

This, Moriarty says, is why publishers are increasingly turning towards alternative funding models - and why Johnston Press is yet to rule out going down the paywall route.

"There are a lot of little battles being waged against ad-blockers...but there has to be a value exchange between the reader and the publisher," he said.

"We're still trying to determine what our strategy is in that area and we've been looking at [pay models] for the past number of years."

Moriarty said that ad-blocking across Johnston Press sites is "relatively low" compared to other sites - "still in single digits and percentages for the most part".

"But it's growing," he said.

"It's obviously larger on desktop than on mobile, but we're monitoring it. It's something we're looking at various approaches to this year.

"If you offer a truly unique content proposition people will turn their ad blockers off if they really want the content."

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