Chief executive Ashley Highfield said relaunch of 183 titles and focus on developing a digital strategy is paying dividends
Johnston Press has reported its first year-on-year increase in operating profit in almost seven years in the 18 weeks to 4 May, despite a tough market which saw advertising revenues decline by more than 15%.
The regional press publisher, which pushed through almost £40m in cost cuts and axed more than 1,300 jobs last year, said that the rate of decline in operating profits between 2006 and 2010 was about 20%.
In 2011 the profits fall was 11%, and last year, the first full year under the leadership of chief executive Ashley Highfield, the decline in operating profits was 5%.
Highfield would not break out the operating profit figure for the four-and-a-half month period to 4 May financial update reported on Monday, but said that a relaunch of 183 titles and focus on developing a digital strategy is paying dividends.
“For the first time in almost seven years, we are in a position to report a year-on-year increase in operating profit for the period,” he said.
Highfield is looking to take out another £20m in costs this year, but said the impact would be much more “modest” than the deep cuts last year.
Total revenues for the period fell 11.4%, with advertising revenues down 15.1%.
Highfield, the former Microsoft executive and BBC director of future media and technology, said the development of a digital strategy at Johnston Press was starting to bear fruit.
Excluding digital recruitment and its directory business, online revenues surged by 32.2% year-on-year in the 18-week period, albeit from a low base, with most of the growth coming from digital display advertising.
Revenues from the digital property business rose 75% year-on-year for the period, while automotive surged 144%.
Johnston Press-owned DealMonster, the GroupOn-style daily deals service targeting local communities, has grown revenues by 278%.
Highfield said it will make a “seven-figure” contribution to Johnston Press’s bottom line this year.
“It is a good bellwether of the long-term future viability of the business,” he said.
Highfield said that the financial update was positive, but he remained cautious.
“We need to be circumspect,” he said. “The macro-economic climate is [still] challenging, but we are growing the digital business and we are cutting our cloth accordingly. We are making the business viable for the long haul”.
Highfield said that despite the tough market conditions, the rate of decline in ad revenues has been has been slowing in each of the first three months of the year.
This did not hold in April, which he said was hit by the phasing of the Easter break and unseasonably bad weather, however Highfield said the trend is promising.
The company has relaunched 183 of its titles to date, which Highfield said helped limit circulation revenue decline to just 0.8%.
Highfield said he remains confident that Johnston Press will show positive circulation revenue growth for the year, which would be impressive in a tough market for printed press.
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Digitally charged vision for regional newspaper publisher lifted numbers but meant more than 1,300 staff lost their jobs
This week MediaGuardian 25, our survey of Britain’s most important media companies, covering TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, music and digital, looks at Johnston Press.
In Ashley Highfield’s first year in charge of Johnston Press, the UK’s largest publisher of regional newspapers, almost a quarter of staff lost their jobs. More than 1,300 employees headed out the door as chief executive Highfield, formerly of Microsoft and the BBC’s ex-technology director, implemented his digitally charged vision at the 245-year-old publisher. “It was the moment of maximum pain,” says one City source.
Investors had all but given up hope when Highfield joined in November 2011, with the company’s share price languishing at between 4p and 5p and a market capitalisation struggling to top £20m – a swift, painful fall from the 350p share price and £1bn-plus market capitalisation it enjoyed as recently as 2007.
The tech man with no previous newspaper experience inherited a hellish intray which included debt of close to £400m, putting the publisher at a huge disadvantage in a renegotiation of banking facilities in April 2012 that resulted in a murderous blended interest rate of 13%.
Despite the patently clear shift to online consumption in recent years, Johnston Press had failed to come up with a strategy looking beyond print – digital accounted for just 4% of total revenues in 2011. “It was some baptism of fire, for his first year in charge of a publicly-listed company and his first exposure to the newspaper industry,” says a second City source. “Last year will prove to be his toughest.”
Highfield has moved swiftly, rolling out a sweeping, and often painful, restructure plan under which about 220 of Johnston Press’s 250 titles (which include the Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post) have relaunched to date.
He claims the programme is proving a success with circulation revenues up between 5% and more than 6% post-relaunch. “Successive relaunches are getting better and better at driving revenues,” he says, quietly confident that 2013 could be the landmark year that sales income returns to growth for the first time since the last halcyon days of the regional press in 2007. “I’d be disappointed if we saw a circulation revenue decline this year.”
Ian Russell, the chairman of Johnston Press, calls the £37.6m in cost savings made from Highfield’s programme last year “outstanding”, but the effects of the cuts to headcount and newspaper operations have been devastating.
“Not one of us thinks that we are going to be in a job in a year,” says one insider. “They have in their heads that we are all Luddites and against change. We’re not. We do the best we can all day, every day to produce great product on piddling budgets and they call that success. Morale is not good at all.”
Highfield’s digital plan has also seen the launch of the first 20 tablet and mobile apps, 200 mobile websites, an overhaul of existing newspaper sites, and the development of new digital revenue streams such as the GroupOn-style DealMonster local deals service.
There were embarrassing reports that sales staff were forced to pitch images of what Johnston Press’s apps could do to advertisers from computer print-outs; but the problem was swiftly remedied by the handing-out of 800 iPads.
Digital revenues grew 12% last year to £20.6m – with the critical online display element up 39% – to account for just over 6% of Johnston Press’s total revenues of £358.7m.
Highfield is excited by the digital story (“digital display is the future of the digital business and therefore potentially the future of the whole business”), but a browse through Johnston Press’s balance sheet shows there is a significant mountain to climb.
Print ad revenues remain the lifeblood of the business, accounting for half of total revenues, but they continue on a double-digit downward spiral. The ad decline was 15% last year and, worryingly, even worse in the first 10 weeks of 2013 at almost 16% down. And there’s no chance of the digital pennies gained making up for the loss of print pounds.
Marring the balance sheet too is Johnston Press’s onerous £319m debt pile, albeit reduced by £32.3m last year. Highfield is focused on this – the high interest rates make annual payments an eye-watering £40m – knowing that if he can pay it down by a further £80m by the end of next year life will get easier. “Two years of pain” lie ahead, he acknowledges.
If Johnston Press can hit a debt level of £240m by the end of next year, it will receive a £25m windfall and, crucially, be able to negotiate a better rate from banks. If it can secure a typical rate of about 8% interest, the payment level will be about half what it is today.
The Highfield plan appears to be winning over investors, with the share price up to 16.5p last week, a level not seen since September 2010, with the market cap nosing above the £100m mark.
The company remains highly cash generative: operating profits were £57m last year although this was an 11.6% year-on-year fall, and its impressive 17% margin outstrips rivals. Trinity Mirror, the largest regional publisher by circulation revenue, has a margin of 15%; Northcliffe, the fourth largest player, now part of David Montgomery’s Local World venture, operates at 12%.
Nevertheless staff remain convinced that if the publisher is eventually restored to financial health, only shareholders will reap the rewards. “All this talk about profit margins and refinancing is well and good, but it will all end up going on bonuses and in the pockets of shareholders,” says one staff member. “Do you really think if they achieve their targets we will get more staff, better equipment, more investment or the heating fixed? I don’t.”
Johnston Press’s 4,350 remaining staff face another uncertain year. With a target of £15m further savings for 2013, Highfield refuses to rule out more job cuts but he does believe the worst is over.
“I don’t need to make such big cuts again,” he says. “I wanted to get most of the pain over as quickly as possible. News International [which paid £30m to partially terminate a printing contract] funded a quicker restructure than we would have been allowed. We don’t need to go at the same rate over the next couple of years.”
Print advertising revenues at regional newspaper publisher slump by 12.5%, but digital revenues rise 8.4%
Johnston Press saw adjusted pre-tax profits almost halve to just over £8m in the first half of 2012, as print advertising revenues slumped by 12.5%.
The regional newspaper publisher, which owns about 250 titles, reported operating profit in the 26 weeks to 30 June rose by 16% to £37.8m.
However, a £30m one-off windfall from News International following the partial termination of a long-term contract boosted the regional newspaper publisher’s bottom line. If this windfall is stripped out pre-tax profits fell by 48.6% year on year from £15.69m to £8.06m.
On the company’s preferred measure of underlying profitability, operating profit before non-recurring items fell just 8.7% to £30.4m.
In addition, Johnston Press has maintained margins at 17.3%, well ahead of a typical market average of 10% to 12%.
Johnston Press also recorded more than £20m in one-off costs, including staff redundancies, which hit its bottom line. Staff numbers were reduced by 8.5% year on year in the first half – 412 employees were cut, reducing total numbers from 4,843 to 4,431.
The publisher reported total revenues down 8.2% year on year in the 26 weeks to 30 June.
Within this print advertising fell 12.5% to £97.4m, cover price income fell 3.1% to £46.7m and revenues from contract printing fell 10% to £12.6m.
The fall in total revenues was mitigated by £12.8m of savings in the first half.
A bright spot was an 8.4% rise in digital revenues, albeit from a small base, to £10.3m.
Chief executive Ashley Highfield said he was “strategically hanging his hat on” digital display advertising. Digital advertising was up 43.8% year on year.
The publisher’s websites have seen a 39% increase in traffic year on year, while the fledgling mobile business has seen a 100% increase in usage.
Johnston Press incurred £10.8m in one-off restructuring costs relating to existing businesses, including redundancy costs.
In addition there was a £13.3m writedown in the value of printing presses, due to the closure of the Peterborough printing press.
During the period the publisher began an ambitious overhaul of its portfolio with the relaunch of 23 titles and the conversion of five daily titles into weekly newspapers.
Net debt at 30 June was £361.7m, but thanks to the News International payment, at 31 July this had reduced to £332m.
The company said that it expected net debt to stand at between £310m and £315m by the end of the year.
Grant Murray, the Johnston Press finance director, said that at the current rate of paydown of about £40m a year, the company would be under the “magical” £235m mark by the end of 2014.
This figure is key for Johnston Press as it means that the business would be operating at less than a ratio of three times net debt to earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation.
If the company can hit this by the end of 2014 it will get a reduced interest rate from its banks. Net interest paid in the first half of 2012 was a hefty £13.6m.
Finance costs remain high, increasing from £18.9m in the first six months of last year to £21.2m in the first half of 2012.
The publisher’s pension deficit stands at £102.2m. From the beginning of June Johnston Press increased its contributions to the scheme from £2.2m to £5.7m.
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The latest ABCs reveal how strong Saturday sales are compared with Monday to Friday. Perhaps blending free weekday digital content with a weekend print subscription could be the future
April’s ABC sales figures for national papers are black, black, black, with the quality dailies down 10% in a year and memories of royal wedding euphoria long gone. Those who see the end of print (though not quite what comes after it) have plenty to be morose about. But then, in the oddest places, glimpse a shaft of light.
April looks particularly dire because the Audit Bureau of Circulation (UK version) has taken a new step that advertisers want. It’s divided actual sales for dailies into two categories: Monday to Friday, and Saturday. Hitherto, all six days have been rolled into one, so that a high circulation on Saturday has been spread out to boost weaker weekdays – and inconsistent selling through the week, remember, has been one big cause of circulation decline. It isn’t that people, even young people, have stopped buying papers: it’s that they don’t buy them so regularly (thus all those special subscription offers).
Examine what that means in individual cases. The Mail, with an average sale of 1,992,000 on the old six-day count, now shows 1,613,000 for Monday to Friday and 2,549,000 on Saturday. The Telegraph, with 577,000 overall, now boasts only 519,000 as a weekday average. The Indy is down to 62,000 during the week, the Times to 349,000. The Guardian, with its traditionally strong Saturday package, has 178,000 sales through the week and 377,000 on the sixth day (as compared with 214,000 overall).
Hail truth and increased transparency? You wouldn’t expect to find either circulation or advertising directors euphoric over the change; but, as monitoring on the digital side of things grows ever more specific, general newsprint mush grows ever harder to defend – even if it reveals a frailty through the week. So: the downside is a dreadful Monday or Wednesday or Friday (different papers have different lousy days) but the upside comes at the weekend when, as we now see, sales can improve dramatically. Is there a lesson – and that gleam of light – here?
Bob across the Atlantic to examine the latest US ABC figures. You can’t, with typical systemic foolishness, compare American and British sales directly. America’s ABC has lately adopted its own general digital mush, loading print sales and all online visits (via laptop, tablet or mobile phone) into one giant stewpot of audience research. Maybe that’s the future over here soon; some ad directors would clearly jump for joy if it were. But meanwhile observe two fascinating phenomena.
One is that, in consolidated weekday terms, some big papers are showing big circulation leaps (the New York Times up 73%, the Orange County Register claiming a 53% rise) with hundreds more papers seeing growth instead of decline. Well, you might say, they would, wouldn’t they? Online reach expands as print flakes away. The test isn’t how many hits you can make, but how much money that brings in through the front door.
Yet pause over the detail of those statistics: paywalls versus the virtues of free access online. Is free bringing the greater number of unique visitors that ad agencies love? Actually, two of the American dailies posting the best rises – the New York Times and Newsday – already have a paywall, but it doesn’t seem to hold their visitor numbers back one jot. And Sunday editions, too, often trumpet brilliant success. How about an 87% ABC rise for the Dallas (Sabbath) Morning News?
“Yes,” says one of the top analysts at the Newspaper Association of America, “a Sunday subscription is now likely worth as much as the other six days combined”. Progress on a simple equation. If publishers give away digital access through the week along with a Sunday print subscription, then Sunday becomes not merely their best-selling day but a day when print carries absolute advertising clout. Print and online exist to mutual advantage side by side through 24 hours. Add more pages, more sections, more value for the reader – and you can see a result.
Now, in all manner of ways, American newspaper life is different. Transplanting US models here is a fraught business. Nevertheless, go back to those UK weekday and Saturday ABCs and bring American thinking to bear. Think one heavyweight edition on one day a week rather than strugglers stretched across six. That’s a popular recourse already for the likes of Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror in the regional market. It is an obvious move, somewhere down the track, for the Independent, as a slimline i looks after weekdays and the Independent on Sunday (or Saturday/Sunday) builds its own subscription paywall. And it’s a path any daily can follow.
For US research is beginning to show that – as between newsprint and digital – the answer that counts may not be one or the other, but a blend of both. A few days ago, the mighty Pew Research Centre’s project on “the internet and American life” revealed that, of those who followed the news, only 7% relied on a single platform for keeping in touch. About 46% moved between two or three platforms, and another 46% depended on four to six. Newspapers, TV, the internet, radio, mobiles, word of mouth? They all had their place in quite a subtle information ecosystem.
TV came top for weather forecasts and breaking news. The internet was the leading source on restaurants, hotels, and – along with newspapers – stories about “housing, school and jobs”. Radio emerged a predictable winner for traffic news. Newspapers were out in front for politics, crime, taxes, social services, arts and culture.
Health warning: these are American findings that can’t exactly be paralleled here. Yet the striking thing isn’t the force of one medium or another. It’s the way that, utterly pragmatically, one button, one earpiece, one click and one screen can fit with another.
And here, on a grander scale, is where other facts start to fit. Did the cinema kill live theatre? Did radio kill the movies or TV kill radio? Has the internet killed any of them, for that matter? Or newspapers? The plain answer from history is that most platforms find their place in a revised order of things. They may shrink, but they don’t die: and their evolution is constant and complex.
Does that, with parallel pragmatism, hint at a fresh blend based on time, on busy working lives, between news on a weekday and news on a Saturday or Sunday? Long, dark tunnel: short, tantalising flashes of light.
? Great heavens, Holmes! Readership of the Washington Post’s social network app has plummeted from 17.4m to a mere 9.2m in 30 days. Is this a dastardly Moriarty plot? Alas, no, Watson: just elementary. The Facebook gang have been playing around with page design and changing a five-article alert of what your friends are reading to a single trending headline. Collapse of stout numbers far beyond DC, I guess. Who needs Moriarty when Zuckerberg can click your brand away in an instant?
Sly Bailey leaves the Mirror group after 10 years of shrinking profits with the share price down 90%. But it could be worse: it could be Johnston Press
So farewell at last, Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror: RIP after 10 years of shrinking profits and booming pay packets. It was the size of those packets and the din of protest that made it impossible for you to stay. But pause before – unlike Mirror journalists – you cheer too hard.
Trinity’s share price has shrunk by 90% in Bailey’s time, and profits have just taken another 40% cold bath. Her cuts to costs and journalism’s resources have become a dirge in a world where only pension costs go up. But is there some magic Plan B for her successor to follow?
Look at Trinity rival Johnston Press, and its new boss Ashley Highfield, an ex-BBC digital wizard. Total revenues for Johnston’s 255 papers down 6% to £373.8m. Digital growing a bare 0.7%. Ad cash sliding 10.6%. Pension deficits up £43m. You can make out an operating profit of about £62m, but it’s mired in debt and accumulated grunge.
Lose even more staff? Put more editors out to grass? Turn more dailies into weeklies? Churn out pages of standardised coverage in widely scattered editions as though “local news” had ceased to exist? Oh! and borrow another £393m.
Sly Bailey isn’t leaving Trinity in quite such a bind. The national titles are still making money. Regionals are already rationalised. She will apparently stick around all year. In short, there is no alternative – or, at least, not one that enthuses her board, who merely want to pay her yet-to-be-found successor less. Remember that when the cheering dies down.
Beleaguered regional newspaper publisher sees revenues fall 6% and operating profit fall 10%
Johnston Press crashed to a pre-tax loss of £144m last year, after slashing hundreds of millions of pounds from the book value of its 255 newspapers.
The UK’s second-largest regional publisher, which under new chief executive Ashley Highfield is making sweeping cuts and changes to its portfolio, has seen a £16.5m pre tax profit in 2010 fall to a £143.8m loss last year.
The company cut just under 670 jobs last year, or 11.3% of its workforce, to bring total staff numbers to 5,245.
Total revenues fell 6% to £373.8m as the publisher swung to an operating loss of £107m, down from an operating profit of £54.9m in 2010.
Johnston Press said that on an underlying basis, stripping out factors including a £163.7m non-cash charge relating to impairment in the value of its newspapers, the company saw pre-tax profits fall a more manageable 6.9% year-on-year to £28.4m. On the same underlying basis operating profit fell 10.3% to £64.6m.
The publisher said that the value writedown of its newspaper titles was not to do with the underlying performance of the titles but mainly reflected a change in the discount rate used within the impairment calculation.
Johnston Press said that total advertising revenues fell 9% year-on-year – the rate of decline improved over the course of the year from 10.1% in the first half to 7.7% in the second six months.
The company said that unfortunately, trading in the first 12 weeks of this year went into reverse with total advertising revenue down 10.6% year-on-year. It said that national advertising was particularly depressed across the industry.
Circulation revenue from newspaper sales remained strong overall, down 1.1% year-on-year.
Digital advertising revenues grew by a meagre 0.7%. to £18.4m.
However, there are promising signs with a decline of 5% in the first half transitioning to 8.6% growth in the second half of the year, thanks to the launch of online business directory Find IT and local voucher site DealMonster.
“Although the prospects for the economy remain downbeat in the short term, I believe we can return Johnston Press to being a growth business through the twin track approach of relaunching and revitalising our papers while simultaneously growing our websites, and taking full advantage of the opportunities created by technology and the changing media demands of our users to deliver innovative propositions,” Highfield said.
The company said that total operating costs fell by £16.9m, despite newsprint prices increasing £7.6m, while debt reduced £35m to £352m.
Johnston Press also revealed that it has agreed a new three year £393m loan facility.
More details soon …
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Newspapers’ staff stunned at loss of top job after Johnston Press announces that director will run titles instead
The Yorkshire Post once proudly boasted of being the county’s “national newspaper”, a regional media powerhouse that broke big stories on momentous events such as the 1936 abdication crisis and sold 120,000 copies a day at its circulation peak in the 1950s.
However, in the latest body blow to a once proud northern institution, on Wednesday staff in the paper’s Leeds office were stunned by the announcement that the Yorkshire Post would no longer have its own editor. The role is being scrapped in favour of a director who will oversee the morning paper and its stablemate the Yorkshire Evening Post, another significant milestone in the decline of two of the most venerable names in UK regional newspaper publishing.
The decision was taken by Ashley Highfield, the new chief executive of Yorkshire Post publisher Johnston Press, the UK’s second largest regional newspaper company. In 24 hours last week Highfield also culled the editor of the Preston-based Lancashire Evening Post, while journalists in the Scotsman’s Edinburgh newsroom staged a brief walkout on hearing their editor-in-chief’s job was being axed.
In the past decade the regional newspaper industry has been hammered by declining sales and the collapse of classified advertising, with the closure of titles and the loss of thousands of jobs. But Highfield’s axing of four senior and long serving editorial executives still shocked Johnston Press journalists.
The sense of renewed gloom enveloping the industry deepened on Friday with news that another regional publisher, Daily Mail & General Trust-owned Northcliffe, was axing the Saturday edition of the Bristol Evening Post, putting 20 jobs at risk.
Highfield, an executive with an internet background but no newspaper management experience who led the development of the BBC iPlayer before moving on to Microsoft, was parachuted into Johnston Press last year to conjure a digital future for the struggling publisher. “The recent announcements have not been about cost cutting but about Johnston Press becoming more fleet of foot to respond to the rapidly changing market,” said a spokesman for the company.
Regional newspapers may have faced rapid change in the past 10 years, but the sector’s decline began much earlier. Up to 1967 regionals could boast that they represented the largest media advertising sector in the UK, until overtaken by television when colour TV came in. In the 1970s, the regional press could still boast that £1 in every £3 spent on UK advertising went to its sales teams.
However, the arrival of the internet sent the regional press into a more aggressive decline.
The richest year for advertising spend on regional newspapers was 2001, equal to £2.8bn in today’s money allowing for inflation. By last year that figure had more than halved to £1.2bn.
Peter Lazenby, joint father of the National Union of Journalists chapel at Yorkshire Post Newspapers and a newspaper veteran of 40 years who covered the great industrial relations battles of the Thatcher era such as the miners’ strikes, said that there was real fear over what removing some of the most respected editors in regional publishing signified for the sector.
“The Yorkshire papers have been through many rounds of redundancies in the past decade or so under Johnston Press’s ownership. Three years ago there were 13 strikes in eight weeks over redundancies,” said the 62-year old. “But this is different. Everyone was stunned at the news. We feel this is a harbinger of what could come, for what it indicates in terms of what the future holds.”
In the 1950s the Yorkshire Post sold more than 120,000 copies a day, today it is less than 40,000. The Yorkshire Evening Post hit a peak of 320,000 in 1963, it now sells around 35,000; and the Scotsman enjoyed a circulation of 100,000 in the 1980s, today it is at 37,000.
The plight of individual titles, particularly those of the leading regional brands in the UK, are a microcosm of the challenge Highfield and his peers running regional media companies face in reinventing their business models.
Johnston Press reported an operating profit of £177m in 2004 and once enjoyed a market capitalisation of well over £1bn. In 2010 it reported profits of £54.9m, while the publisher’s market capitalisation languishes at £40m as debt of £350m threatens to swamp it.
Things are no better for its competitors. Trinity Mirror, the largest regional press owner in the UK, has seen operating profits at its local newspapers fall from £150m to £36m over the same period. DMGT, which abandoned a planned sale of its Northcliffe regional division in 2006 because its target price of £1.5bn was not reached, can only dream of selling at such sums now as operating profits plunged to £17m last year. The Newspaper Society estimates that over the past decade almost 200 local newspapers have closed.
“The industry is very much in danger of talking itself into oblivion,” says Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors. “Content remains king. Then it is a matter of providing it in a way and time people want to consume it. That is what people should be focusing on.”
Observers point out the profit margins remain healthy at many regional titles. Highfield has said many of Johnston Press’s 255 titles operate at a very respectable 20% margin, and that a digital strategy and cull of weaker titles struggling against market leaders is the road to financial success.
Highfield will outline his strategic vision to investors and staff on 25 April when Johnston Press announces its results for 2011.
He has ambitious targets of getting as much as 25% of advertising revenue from digital sources within three years, in a plan that includes launching mobile and iPad apps for Johnston Press titles, but not charging for website content. Johnston Press currently makes less than 5% of total revenues from digital.
Lazenby said that he did not have a romanticised view of trying to hold on to a print past that was simply not viable for the digital age. However, he added that proprietors needed to be mindful of the greatest resource they have attached to their local papers, their community.
“The papers have been a really important voice for the Yorkshire region and we wonder what it will mean for the community,” he said. “They have had clout from the street corner to parliament and now we don’t know what is coming. If it is the worst we will turn to those communities and ask them to join in our fight. A diminishing of that voice is a diminishing of the democratic process. That must be worth fighting for.”