Independence is no panacea for Scottish newspapers

Independence is no panacea for Scottish newspapers

by Alex Massie
article from Tuesday 27, November, 2012

FOR MY SINS - ample since you ask, though I'd prefer it if you refrained from doing so - I am a Scotsman and a journalist. Journalists are overly-fond of contemplating their navel and so, frankly, are Scots. Combine the two and you create the conditions for a pretty ghastly measure of self-absorption. If media types love few things better than talking about the media, the same can be said of Scots and the endless, zombie, question of the condition of Caledonia.

Be that as it may. The state and health of the national press is a matter of some national importence. Unlike some matters that are of national importance it also matters to me. As the Americans say, I have skin in this game.

And, since we're disclosing these things, I should also say that I think some of the arguments for independence are quite compelling. I am not instinctively opposed to the idea or prospect of independence. But, being an awkward, sceptical kind of sod I'm also not sure that independence is the state of being that will wash away every problem that presently afflicts this poor and benighted yet still just-about-tolerable land.

In one sense all this incurable nationalist optimism is something to be welcomed. Lord knows, Scotland needs no more pessimism. Yet one can take this otherwise admirable and sunny disposition too far. Twittering - as is my habit (@alexmassie if you dinnae ken) - yesterday I became embroiled in a jolly discussion with Kevin Pringle who assured me that independence would ameliorate the presently sorry state of Scottish newspaperdom.

I like and have a great dollop of respect for Mr Pringle. As Alex Salmond's chief consiglieri he deserves a goodly measure of the credit for the SNP's present pre-eminence. Now that he has been transferred to the Yes Scotland campaign, I do not blame him for being a propagandist for the cause. That is his remit.

But I am tempted to - nay not just tempted but do - draw the line at his suggestion that independence would usher in a bright new era for Scottish newspapers. According to Mr Pringle "Deciding reserved policy at Holyrood would create jobs & opportunity for media in Scotland" and we should be aware that the "Constructive debate to have is [the] opportunities for Scotland's newspapers with [independence], versus risk of continued decline if [there is a] No [vote]."

Speak not of decline to me for I know about it all too well! My first full-time job after university was a six-month contract (later - oh happy day - upgraded to a staff position) with Scotland on Sunday. If memory serves SoS's record sale came two weeks before I joined the paper and it was, and has continued to be, downhill ever since. I'll take some of the blame for that but not all of it.

Incidentally, and as a matter of record, as far back as 2001 Scotland on Sunday backed full fiscal autonomy (or what is now known as devo-max). I know this because I wrote the editorials advocating that position and they were some of the editorials I wrote with whose policy recommendations I actually agreed. Did then and still do, actually.

I digress, but only a little. Mr Pringle also tweeted that the rarely-remembered but generally-lamented-when-remembered Sunday Standard failed in the 1980s "after failed devo vote" and that, had the 1979 referendum established there would have "been more activity and stories with [a] parliament". This is, I'm afraid, bad history. TheSunday Standard was a good paper done in by the pre-Wapping costs involved in producing newspapers back then. It failed because too few Scots could be persuaded to purchase it and because the costs of producing it were greater than the revenues it earned. This was sad but it had nothing to do with Scotland's constitutional position.

Undaunted, Mr Pringle lamented the present, undisputed, sorry state of the Scottish newspaper industry and suggested this: "One point is how much worse it might have been without devo in 99: an existing title might already have gone". Well, I remember 1999 too and I recall, because I was there, how Scottish papers poured resources into covering Holyrood and how this did nothing for newspaper circulation. We were often told that devolution would be a boon to the Scottish press. We - as a class - believed it too. But we were wrong. The public did not care as much as we thought they would or should.

Of course, only 50% of the electorate can presently be bothered to vote in Holyrood elections. They do not much care what happens at Holyrood. Is it any wonder newspapers have decreased their coverage too? I don't pretend this is necessarily a good thing and I am sure that important stories have been under-covered as a result of this but stuffing the paper with page after page of Holyrood news is not, I am afraid, a way to increase sales. The people, damn them, do not care even if you think they should.

The unfortunate truth is that the Scottish newspaper market, as presently constituted, can only support one seriously good - that is, healthy - "quality" daily newspaper, one decent "mid-market" blatt and a couple of tabloids. The same pattern applies on Sundays.

Scottish papers are squeezed by having to, or being expected to, offer comprehensive Scottish coverage plus quality British coverage and some international coverage too. This was a tough task 15 years ago when money was more plentiful; now it is almost impossible.

The reasons for the decline of the press are many and varied. At the "broadsheet" end of the market it has not helped that the Scottish press has cannibalised itself. TheSunday Herald, for instance, was not launched because the Herald group wanted a Sunday paper qua Sunday paper. On the contrary, it was a spoiler operation designed to thwart Scotland on Sunday's encroachment upon the the Herald's lucrative Saturday advertising revenues. And, in that respect at least, it worked! It stymied SoS's growth in the west. But it has barely ever been a sustainable paper in its own right. (This is not a reflection upon that paper's journalists, many of whom are fine and talented people, merely an appraisal of an obvious commercial reality.)

The dailies are almost in even worse shape. One does one's best not to look at the monthly circulation figures. No good can come from doing so. Even if the Scotsman or the Herald were to double their commitment to their core markets one wonders if this would be enough. That is, are there enough people interested in reading that kind of journalism in either Edinburgh or Glasgow? One would like to think there must be; the evidence supporting that hope is thin.

There are ample grounds for criticising the management of each company. Few journalists working for either group would go to the stake for management. But though the broadsheets have been crippled the tabloids have scarcely done any better. TheDaily Record is a shadow of what it once was.

There are many culprits in this sorry decline and not all of them work for newspaper groups. The BBC's website - paid for by a poll tax - is a contributor too. So too the rise of free-sheets such as Metro. Getting just enough news to just about get by and not look a total tube is the new 'reading the paper every day'. I find this sad.

Nevertheless, the problems of the Scottish press are hardly unique. Look at Ireland. The Irish Times - an admirably serious, if often also humourless, newspaper - now sells fewer than 100,000 copies a day. It has lost 20% of its circulation in recent years. True, being owned by a trust, is has a more fortuitous situation than either the Scotsman or the Herald. It can just about afford to accept that the 21st century profit margins will not be as comfortable as those enjoyed 40 years ago.

Even so, the Irish Times lacks a domestic rival. It is the pre-eminent broadsheet (Cork'sExaminer sells fewer than 50,000 papers a day). This allows it room to be a little dull, a little worthy, a little pompous but also rather good.

The rest of the Irish market is little healthier. The mid-market Irish Independent has wrestled with decline though it remains a profitable enterprise. Still, the usurping Irish Daily Mail now sells more than the Irish Times just as the Scottish Daily Mail has both eviscerated the Scottish Daily Express (once a wonder of the newspaper world!) and the Scotsman and Herald. If the Irish Times has fared better than either of the Scottish qualities that is a feature of its lack of competition and, yes, a better ownership. But theIrish Times also faces severe challenges.

The biggest of those is persuading people who can get just enough news from "free" sources (including the BBC) to pay for news from their traditional papers. Almost no general-interest newspaper in the English-speaking world has yet been able to do this. We should not be surprised that Scotland's papers are no exception. The model is broken. Back when I was a staff journalist for Scotsman Publications I scoffed when the guys and girls from advertising sales said they paid the hacks' wages. That was the done thing. But the guys and girls from advertising were right. Newspapers were - and always have been - a means of selling eyeballs to advertisers. Content is a means to an end not, in business terms, an end in itself.

I suppose some nationalists think the answer is for the Scotsman or Herald to become cheerleaders for independence. But, ignoring the intellectual arguments, are there enough SNP voters prepared to support a pro-independence paper? The evidence for this is thin and necessarily a matter for conjecture.

I don't know a serious Scottish journalist working for a Scottish newspaper who thinks their paper is as good as they would like it to be. But good journalism costs money and absent an obvious market for that good journalism it is a brave or far-sighted proprietor who risks spending more on journalism when the putative rewards for doing so are so, well, only putative.

I wish this were not the case. But we are where we are and that place is not good. I can imagine that an independent Scotland could possibly offer some kind of reprieve to the Scottish press and I can certainly imagine how the Scottish press might be better than it presently is, but I would not wish to bet on independence as a panacea since the difficulties facing the Scottish press are, at least in the English-speaking world, scarcely unique.

So when Kevin Pringle tweets that a "Yes [vote] can create platform to boost global profile of Scots papers & better marketing environment than [a]No [can]" I'd like to be able to believe that a mere rearrangement of our constitutional circumstances could really save the industry but, really, I don't believe it.

Everyone loves to kick journalists and their paper and frequently that kicking is deserved. Nevertheless, when I look at the Herald and the Scotsman (and their Sunday sisters) these days I am often surprised by how well they do on a pound-for-pound basis. Could they be better? Of course they could. But the readers could be better too. Not that it is all their fault either.

Conclusion: don't allow your daughter to visit a newsroom, Mrs Worthington. And not just because some of us don't need any more competition.

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User Comments

Re yesterday's article on Tourism (comments were blocked so I write here)... The evidence of damage to tourism by windfarms is right there in VisitScotland's own 2011 paper: 18.7% of UK consumers were in agreement as well as nearly 20% of Scotland respondents that the countryside was spoilt by these structures [wind turbines]. What more do you need?

Posted on Tuesday 27, November, 2012 by Ian Woollen
But maybe the reason people didn't much care about Holyrood stories is that Holyrood didn't really deal with anything of any great importance? I think it's hard to construct a rational case that Scotland voting for independence wouldn't create an awful lot of big news. That's only a short-term boost of a couple of years, of course, but it'd be something to build on.

Posted on Tuesday 27, November, 2012 by Dr Alan McCowan
As we've discussed before, the fate of newspapers is a depressing topic. I think Craig has a point about the opportunities for those prepared to really look hard at digital and make more sophisticated use of it. Craig was talking about advertising and revenue-generation, but I think the same can be said for content. I think people will soon be prepared to pay for the experience and packaging around content. News is commodified and the price is free but unless you're sitting at a computer it's just not a very good experience. People will tire of that and will want someone to collate news to do with their interests and send it to them wherever they are in a format they like. It's already happening - it's why I'm prepared to pay £10/month for the Guardian iPad app to read news I can get online for free. It's because using it is a pleasure and when I have ten minutes I want something like the curated, designed, pleasurable experience of using a newspaper, and £10/month seems a reasonable price for that. Millions of people will end up behaving like this, but the trouble is that will never be enough to pay the wages of reporters on newspapers all covering the same issues in largely the same way. So I agree about the gloomy outlook for the existing news infrastructure, which is no longer sustainable. Many talented people will have to find something else to do for a living, and that is a shame. But I think there will be a sustainable news business for those that work out what people are prepared to pay for and give it to them, they just might not be newspaper companies. And let's not forget that these same digital technologies that have made one model of news gathering obsolete are making lots of other models workable in a way that was never before possible, meaning we have more, and more acccurate, information in many cases than would ever have been possible if we were relying only on stringers and staffers based in the embassy districts of the world's capitals. Oh, and I agree. Independence wouldn't make a blind bit of difference to the health of the newspaper trade. As you point out, the two things are just not very connected.

Posted on Tuesday 27, November, 2012 by Matthew Magee
Fantastic read and glad to see it addressing one of the core issues that has been a problem in the 21st Century for the press - revenue. Many people blame journalists for not shifting with the times - being on Twitter, blogs and so on - but journalists have continued to do what they have always done: bring in the unique content, which - of we go by every other site - is apparently the lifeblood of the web. The problems have been elsewhere. Firstly, Scots have been slow to move to digital - press and population alike. I've had more than one conversation with an editor where they've said that if they had £50,000 to invest in digital, they'd rather get two normal reporters instead and screw the web. On top of that, advertising teams have been horrific to the point of neglect over seizing funding advantages from the web. Using affiliate marketing? Most wouldn't know what it was? Alternative forms of funding? Again, you'd get blank looks. To most in the Scottish Press Advertising sector, it's all about banner adverts, which is pathetic. The problems facing Scottish journalism are many - from what content should be provided, working out sustainable models (hint: accept that you can make a profit, just not as big a profit as before), staffing and so on - but it's an industry at the moment that doesn't want fresh thinking. The majority of the Scots who get and understand digital - your Iain Hepburns, Neil McIntosh, Mark Coyle and Murray Cox types of this world - have all had to go elsewhere. Those who remain, like Stewart Kirtpatrick, are not involved in day to day newspapers/media at the moment. And even then, that's been on the editorial side. Where are the heads of digital But this might tie it back to what Kevin Pringle and the SNP are getting it: how can a business try and make a success of Scotland if the company internet strategy is London-based or the London owners don't want to let the regionals do their own thing? At least two Scottish papers have been stymied with their online efforts because of rulings from down south. Would independence change that? Only if you had laws on newspaper ownership in Scotland. And that is a completely different issue.

Posted on Tuesday 27, November, 2012 by Craig McGill