Johnston Press (JP) CEO Ashley Highfield says he plans to make the newspaper publisher “digital-first” and keep its news content free online while increasing advertising revenues.

Speaking at The Guardian’s Changing Media Summit yesterday, Highfield said that mobile and web content would remain “free all the way” – but that the publisher would charge for iPad apps.

Since launching mobile sites for its 211 regional titles in December the company has added 2m unique users, taking JP’s overall online audience from 8m to 10m.

Highfield said mobile optimisation had also brought in younger, affluent, male readers.

However he admitted that JP still faces a huge challenge and had to adapt to the digital age quickly.

His aim over the next three years is to grow digital revenues to 25% of overall revenue by increasing page impressions and selling targeted advertising.

The debate over how newspapers should adapt in the digital age raises more questions than answers.

Some titles – such as the New York Times, The Financial Times and The Times – have erected paywalls and sell their content based on subscriptions.

The New York Times this week sought to make its paywall stronger by reducing the amount of free content it allows users to access.

Other titles, notably The Guardian and JP’s local papers, give away their content largely for free and rely on advertising revenues and app sales.

Highfield dismissed the subscription model yesterday, stating that a paywall means content doesn’t get indexed and the newspaper “falls off the social graph and no-one’s interested in the discussion”.

But the fact remains that regardless of whether publishers rely on a paywall or online ads, digital revenues aren’t making up for the shortfall in print ad revenues.

Pew Research Center reports that the newspaper industry saw online ad revenue grow by approximately $207m last year while print ad revenue dropped by approximately $2.1bn. 

A greater focus on digital ads is long overdue for JP and, while his intentions are commendable, it will take a herculean effort to reverse the publisher’s fortunes.