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Uncertainty for local newspapers as publisher Johnston Press prepare for restructure

An old edition of the Yorkshire Post Credit: PA

The chief executive of Johnston Press has reassured staff of a "brighter future" after the company announced it was preparing to enter into administration.

In an email to staff seen by the Press Association, David King said the publisher will apply for court approval to be sold to a newly-incorporated group of companies controlled by creditors.

It informed staff they would continue to be paid and should turn up to work as normal, with their contracts to be transferred to the new company. Mr King is set to stay on as chief executive and said "operations will continue uninterrupted", with newspapers and websites being published as usual.

This has not been an easy decision for the board. However, having explored a range of other options, this is the best available course of action and it is one that offers a chance for a brighter future for our business."

– David King, Chief Executive of Johnston Press

One of Britain's biggest publishers, it has more than 200 titles in print and online, including the i, The Yorkshire Post and The Scotsman.

The titles in the ITV Tyne Tees region are;

  • Northumberland Gazette
  • Morpeth Herald
  • Shields Gazette
  • Sunderland Echo
  • Hartlepool Mail
  • North Yorkshire News
  • Whitby Gazette
  • Scarborough News

The publisher had recently been looking at ways to refinance £220 million of debt which is due to be repaid in June next year.

£220m
of debt which is due to be repaid in June 2019. The publisher was looking at ways to refinance.
The i newspaper on sale at a shop in London. Johnston Press, the publisher of the i, The Scotsman and The Yorkshire Post, has announced its intention to place itself in to administration. Read less Credit: PA

In the email to staff, Mr King said:

At its peak, the company's debt reached £793 million.

We have all worked incredibly hard to reduce those debts. And we have done so against a relentlessly tough market backdrop."

– David King, Chief Executive of Johnston Press

The national union for journalists, has called the move by Johnston Press a serious blow.

The NUJ is calling for meaningful guarantees to protect jobs and titles across Johnston Press, following the company’s decision last night to initiate a pre-pack administration process.

The move into administration – which is being rubber-stamped in court processes in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England – sees the creation of a new company formed by the holders of its current debt. It also allows the company to ditch its defined pension benefit scheme which will now go into the Pension Protection Fund in a serious blow to current and deferred members who will see their entitlements cut.

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said:

We welcome the commitments made by the current management of Johnston Press that no jobs will be lost in this process and the terms and conditions of staff are protected. However, we have significant concerns about what the long-term intentions of the newly-created company will be. We want meaningful guarantees on the future and integrity of these titles and the livelihoods of staff, and a commitment that this is not a transition leading to a carve-up of the group motivated by asset-stripping rather than a commitment to journalism and publishing.

Forcing the pension scheme into the PPF is a terrible blow for all of those members of the scheme and their future retirement plans, whilst the new owners are rewarded with a company free of its responsibilities and obligations to its pension fund.”

– NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet

The NUJ will hold further talks with Johnston Press on Monday.

At its most recent trading update, Johnston reported a hit to revenues, mostly due to changes in Google and Facebook algorithms.

Mr King said this meant the company had to "re-cut our cloth to match the new reality".

If this deal is approved, the debt will be reduced, new money will be provided by the new owners, and the business will be in a more stable position."

– David King, Chief Executive of Johnston Press

In a statement from the company on Friday, the publisher said "following considerable interest in the formal sales process", it was decided that none of the offers received delivered sufficient value.

"The board has concluded that there is no longer any value in the ordinary shares of the company," the statement added.

Johnston will be de-listed from the London Stock Exchange as part of the process on Monday, Mr King said.

He also revealed the 250 members of the current workforce in the defined benefit pension scheme will see future payments affected by the restructure, inline with pension protection fund (PPF) payment rules.

Speculation that the publisher might be sold had been growing since it announced the strategic review in March 2017.

In August 2018, the company's share price spiked, surging by as much as 70% in afternoon trading amid rumours that a mystery buyer was quietly snapping up more stock.

Following the announcement Health Secretary Matt Hancock, formerly a culture secretary, tweeted to say the news was "very concerning".

"Makes stark reality of the intense pressure on the press," he added.

Shadow culture secretary and deputy Labour leader, Tom Watson, also tweeted his concern, adding that he "will be reaching out to unions and staff over the weekend".

In a second tweet he said: "Johnston Press going into administration is a grim day for local newspapers and another deeply worrying one for local democracy."

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Leeds North West Labour MP, Alex Sobel, tweeted to say he was sad that Johnston which owns The Yorkshire Post and the Yorkshire Evening Post was going into administration.

"Local papers raising local and regional issues are vital for our democracy."