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Newspaper bosses like a bonus – so let’s see who deserves it most

Sly Bailey is under fire for being paid nearly £1.7m while Trinity Mirror languishes. Ashley Highfield thinks he can transform Johnston Press’s stock price. In three years’ time, who will have done better?

Consider our two biggest UK-owned newspaper chains: Trinity Mirror, with five national and 160 regional titles, and Johnston Press, with 18 regional dailies and 245 other papers. The chief executive at Trinity Mirror, Sly Bailey, was paid nearly £1.7m last year (with more than £600,000 of that as a bonus). This year the analyst and investor hounds are snapping at her heels. Trinity’s share price and value have collapsed during her nine years on top – down to a tenth of their former glories.

Isn’t any pay packet that comes close to a million a bit of a hoot while the Mirror bangs on about bonuses? Why pay Bailey more than the next BBC director general, or many multiples of the PM? Wouldn’t hacking back there save dozens of the 75 editorial jobs that Trinity axed last week? Cue inside jokes such as “Honey, I shrank the group, but not my bonus”.

So the arguments for squeezing Sly – and indeed any boss of a news organisation that serves the public in difficult times – are vociferous now. But others, in fairness, say she’s done well at managing costs in decline. Headline figures don’t tell the whole story, they say. Which is where the new chief of the Johnston Press steps in. Ashley Highfield was head of BBC Online and a digital star from Microsoft. You would expect some giant leaps into the future. But Highfield seems to be looking hard before he leaps – and prudently tells the new issue of InPublishing magazine only two things worth remembering.

One is that “every newspaper in our group has a healthy margin over 20% and all up the business is very profitable”. (It had nearly £400m in revenue and underlying profits of more than £70m last year: if only there weren’t £357m of debt.) The second thing is that, in just three years, “I would expect to have confounded those who said this was a sunset industry – transforming our share price along the way.”

Johnston shares are 6p a time as I write. Trinity stands at 47p. Bailey wants to keep her millions. Highfield’s predecessor took home more than a million last year, and Highfield will surely aspire to do better. It sounds (as Harry Hill might say) like a fight. Give them both 36 months to turn things around. The winner gets six figures. The loser goes off into the sunset. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds