Johnston Press eyes online content charges

Johnston Press, the UK's second-largest regional newspaper publisher, said on Wednesday it was considering other methods for customers to pay for access to their internet editions after an online trial ended.

The comments from John Fry, chief executive, came after a trading update in which Johnston said its performance in April was a little more subdued, primarily due to the impact of the general election. Mr Fry said governmental departments such as the Central Office of Information had cut spending in the month.

"We would expect the election's impact to continue through the second quarter and therefore not see any significant improvements in the current trend until the third quarter," he said. Shares in the group opened down 6.6 per cent at 28 1/4p.

As the industry struggles against both the economic downturn and a social shift away from buying newspapers, Johnston experimented with making customers pay for the specialist local news interest it supplies at three local titles late last year.

Mr Fry said that although classified advertising held up and circulation was unchanged, display advertising fell and he described the payment method on the internet as "too clunky".

Instead, the group has launched an application on the Apple iPhone for The Scotsman, which has more than 1,000 subscribers and is attracting 70-80 people a day. He also said the group would wait to see the outcome of News Corp's plans to charge for titles such as The Times. "We're open minded but our forecasts assume no revenues," he said.

Like-for-like total advertising revenues for the 18 weeks to May 8 fell 7.1 per cent. Digital revenues, which account for 5 per cent of total revenues, rose 12.3 per cent in the period, the group added.

Mr Fry forecast that Johnston would see growth in the third quarter, which would be the first time since 2006, and maintained the group was in line to produce full-year results in line with expectations.

Stuart Paterson, chief financial officer, said property advertising had returned to growth and automotive advertising had seen an improvement in the rate of year-on-year decline.

Johnston has been forced into deep cuts - mainly through job losses - to mitigate the downturn and the group said there would be further job losses, but not title closures, in the coming year. However, it forecast costs savings for the year would improve from an earlier forecast of £10m to £15m.

Net debt at the end of April was £419.1m, down £3m from the start of the year. The group agreed a refinancing plan with its lenders last year.

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