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Hold the Front Page, the authoritative guide to the inside world of the mainstream print media reported yesterday (11 October) that the Johnson Press Chief Executive, David King, is suggesting to staff that it is ‘business as usual’ while the company searches for a new owner.

Johnston Press, publishers of the Eastbourne Herald, is based in Edinburgh, with flagship titles including national newspaper the i and The Scotsman. The company publishes around 200 other newspapers.

CEO David King is aiming to reassure the 2,141 staff that the business still has a “positive future”.

The decision to put the company up for sale follows the failure to come up with a refinancing package to pay off its £220m debt.

Hold the Front Page suggests that “some JP journalists have voiced fears on Twitter about the uncertain times facing the 251-year-old company”.

Outgoing boss, Ashley Highfield, left in June 2018, stepping down at the Annual General Meeting of Johnson Press.

He has joined the board of Oyster Yachts, which describes itself as “one of the world’s leading manufacturers of premium sailing yachts.”

The proposed sale of Johnson Press risks the possibility of the group being broken up, with a sale of the i newspaper and other major assets separated from the regional press titles.

What will happen with the Eastbourne Herald is yet to be seen.

A spokesman for the Pevensey Bay Journal said, “the purchase of the i newspaper by Johnson Press in February 2016 saw a gradual dilution of the spirit of the newspaper which when launched in 2010 was seen as a step change in the presentation of national news in grid form, much like a print version of a web platform, a novel and successful subliminal formula

“The brilliant daily digest of essential information had flare, originality and impact in relation to both accessibility and quality. The bite sized chuck technique of delivering key news, fact, opinion and comment across the board with the main news stories of the day is now diluted.

“Much the same has happened with the Brighton Independent. Johnson Press has diluted what was a vibrant independent voice in the city and the newspaper has lost the spark and sense of Brighton and with that some of the audience that has been built up since 2011″.

In Eastbourne, the writing has been on the wall since the Election of 2015 when the Herald wrapped the newspaper in shame with a four page advertisement on behalf of the Conservative Party that was made to look like an editorial on the front cover.

At the time, we were told that on the day the local journalists, forced into the position to put the issue out, went home with their heads down with the shame of what had been done by Johnson Press.

Two newspapers which carried four-page wraparound advertisements for the Conservative Party in the week before the general election were forced to review their advertisement policies following public criticism.

The Eastbourne Herald and Hastings & St Leonards Observer promised to carry out a “full review” on whether to accept such wraps in future, particularly from political parties, after comments from readers on social media.

Gary Shipton, editor-in-chief of the two Johnston Press weeklies, announced the review in a statement published on their websites.

In St Leonards, more than 1,200 campaigners called on the Observer to apologise for “prostituting” its front page.

In Eastbourne a toilet roll holder was photoshopped online by an activist blogger that showed the Eastbourne Herald newspaper coming off the ‘press’ like a series of toilet sheets.

The newspaper now is something of a feature based newsprint magazine in part. Any hard hitting news is dispersed as sets of pocket articles.

What is noticeably absent is any sense of investigation by the newspaper.

There is neither the staff nor the will to front up investigations and campaigns.

Such endeavours are the lifeblood of any newspaper. This has been the case for 300 years in this country, and continues to be the case both at a national and regional level.

These trace blood lines can be seen with every newspaper in the country. The Guardian in 1821 appeared following the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

The Sussex Advertiser was the first newspaper to be published in the county and was founded in Lewes in 1746 as the Sussex Weekly Advertiser, or Lewes Journal by Chichester born William Lee.

The newspaper comprised 4 pages of mainly foreign and domestic news brought by post from London and advertisements mostly for books or patent medicines.

The engine behind the newspaper was republicanism. William Lee was a member of the Headstrong Club, a radical discussion group which Thomas Paine also frequented and his views were represented in the Advertiser.

The sale of Johnson Press may break the group up, with ‘assets’ such as the i Newspaper sold off, leaving titles like the Eastbourne Herald to winnow in the wind. The loss of the newspaper would mark the end of a proud 153 year history. This appears unlikely to happen, but nonetheless this must be a challenging time for the local staff.

The problem is not the small teams of savvy hard working local journalists now left working on titles like the Eastbourne Herald but the constraints put on staff by the corporate bodies that own these newspapers.

Their responsibility is to shareholders, not the audience that these newspapers were established to serve.

Any newspaper that becomes untethered from cause, purpose and campaign will become rudderless.

If the people on the bridge of any newspaper do not know where they are going, then they are unlikely to get there.

What is happening in the country is that the national press and regional press is breaking apart. This sad decline has been national and regional news for many years.

The sale and potential break up of Johnson Press may be an example of a local tipping point.

There have been months, in truth years, of speculation, about the future of Johnson Press.

One solution to the problem of declining print sales appears to be niche subscriber and membership models both in print and online of the kind established by the Guardian newspaper.

These schemes rely on a loyalty card that plays into the hands of the audience for the newspaper.

Without question, the web has radically changed the axis of news delivered to people.

People turn to their smartphones first thing to browse the headlines. These headline come to them from their Facebook groups and friends and Twitter followers streamed to them every five minutes.

The press at all levels, from national to regional to local newspapers, is going through the most radical change in the 300 year history of the newspaper industry in this country.

But what that history shows is that the delivery of the news is about giving people the opportunity to connect with the stories that matter to them.

The history of the print industries also shows that at every stage, technology has been a factor in radical shifts in how the news is delivered.

The Today newspaper, launched in 1986, for example, was made possible by the arrival of the Macintosh computer on 16 January 1986. They had 1 MB of RAM, expandable to 4 MB, floppy discs and a screen size of 512×342.

Facebook, Google and the BBC are all now working with the local press in a variety of ways to support the delivery of local news.

What is necessary are some radical re-alignments.

Most importantly the campaigning function of the press needs to be re-established as the core and engine room of the production of newspapers.

The national press to a certain extent can see that this is the case.

At a local level the press does not set the context for these bigger questions, and this would appear to be the case with the Eastbourne Herald.

The potential break up of East Sussex Country Council, which became news today is potentially game changing for every local person in the county.

Apart from the opportunity for local people to have their say, the Eastbourne Herald does not look at the story of Northamptonshire or Somerset, which is necessary for people to understand the context in which the debate is happening in Lewes and Eastbourne.

A bold newspaper would just come out and say that East Sussex County Council is now disconnected from the people that they ostensibly serve. Presumably the shareholders of Johnson Press would not like to see such a headline.

You do not need to be a historian to see that the distance between William Lee and The Sussex Advertiser in 1734 and ex CEO of Johnson Press, Ashley Highfield and his new appointment on the board of  Oyster Yachts, described as “one of the world’s leading manufacturers of premium sailing yachts” are oceans apart.

The local press needs to re-connect with people.

Switched on, like a smartphone, and opened up to a double page spread in a local cafe, a local newspaper is a visceral experience.

This is the power and the glory of the local press, true in 1745 and true today in 2018.

At their best local newspapers can win campaigns, make a difference and change the local world for the better. This has always been their purpose. one village pond at a time.

CEO of Johnson Press, David King said he would prefer the option to sell the business intact, indicating that there is a “reasonable prospect” of a sale.

His message to staff says, “as you may have already seen, this morning we have launched a formal sale process. This means that Johnston Press is officially for sale and looking for a suitable buyer.

“This process is about securing a positive future for Johnston Press. In the meantime, it is business as usual. Johnston Press is a strong and resilient business with good profits and strong profit margins, great people and prestigious titles.

He goes on to describe a ‘short period of uncertainty’ that is less likely to inspire confidence in the staff.

“I know that today’s news will be unsettling for everyone, even for those of you who had perhaps been expecting an announcement of this kind. Our intention is that a short period of uncertainty will put an end to the longer-term uncertainty we have all felt over the past few years”.