The Scottish press is fighting for its life

The Scottish press is fighting for its life

by Alex Massie
article from Tuesday 19, March, 2013

THE NEWS that the Scotsman has followed the Herald and withdrawn from the monthly figures compiled by the Audit Bureau of Circulations is no great surprise. Edinburgh's paper follows the Herald in retreating to the six-monthly figures released for non-national newspapers. If there's good news in this development it is merely that bad news will only be delivered twice a year from now and not every month.

I should, of course, declare an interest. The Scotsman gave me my first byline as a teenager. Scotland on Sunday gave me my first job after university and I retain many happy memories from years spent on its staff. I still contribute to both newspapers on a regular basis. They mean more to me than just being the places I began my career and I owe them rather more than the nothing they owe me.

So it is painful to see the papers' circulation woes. Painful too to know that the hard work done by friends and former colleagues is plainly not enough any longer. Of course this is hardly a phenomenon peculiar to Scotland. The printed press is in retreat all across the English-speaking world. But there are structural reasons for why the Scottish press is being hit harder than most corners of the newspaper market. 

And it is pretty much every part of the Scottish market that is being hammered. The Press and Journal is a modest exception to the rule but every other major domestic title is mired in trouble. The Daily Record has lost half its circulation. So too, alarmingly, have the Herald and the Scotsman. Even the mighty Daily Mail is not quite as vigorous as once it was. Meanwhile, as if to disprove the notion that it is simply a question of resources, it is worth noting that the Sunday Times's circulation decline, while not as precipitous as some, has still been significant.

Be that as it may, the quality Scottish newspapers have always been up against it. They have had to fight on three fronts. In the first place they have needed to cover their native heath in exemplary fashion and to a degree none of the London titles can hope to match. But they also need to cover Britain and Westminster effectively since their readers do not consider themselves parochial provincials. And finally, the Scotsman (and the Herald) were expected to cover the rest of the world, not just because their readers wanted them to but because doing so satisfied their own amour propre.

Perhaps the Scottish press could have done more to cover Scotland. But the Scotsman could not be a purely Edinburgh paper without risking the fortunes of the Edinburgh Evening News. Similarly, the Herald's ability to be a real metropolitan powerhouse in the west was hampered by the need to avoid cannibalising the Evening Times.

Mistakes were made. Costly investments were sometimes ill-timed. Damagingly, a number of high-profile and expensive editorial hires proved ill-advised. And so on. The details vary slightly from title to title but across the Scottish press the story remained the same: decline that outpaced the national average.

But that national or UK-wide picture should be remembered. The Guardian, which sold 400,000 copies a day just twenty years ago now sells barely half that. The Daily Telegraph's circulation has also been savaged while only Rupert Murdoch's admirable tolerance for losses is keeping the Times afloat. The Scottish papers may be in an unusually acute predicament but they are scarcely alone 

Which is another way of saying that those observers who think the problem is a question of editorial positioning are probably indulging in more wishful thinking than is sensible or justifiable. I keep running across nationalists who believe that the Scotsman or Herald group could solve their problems – or at least cease taking on water – if only they had the gumption to back independence. Everyone – that is, every SNP supporter – would support any paper converted to the nationalist cause.

Well, maybe. It is not impossible that this would happen though the experience of the Sunday Scot (David Murray's short-lived venture form the early 1990s) is a reminder that editorial stance is not the be-all and end-all of anything. The problems the industry faces are greater than anything that can be solved by the convenient switching of editorial views.

The problem is not a lack of readership, it is a lack of money. This week the Washington Post became the latest newspaper to announce it will cease giving away all its content for free online. Like the New York Times, the Post is introducing a limited (and relatively porous) paywall. Meanwhile in London the Sunday Telegraph is (effectively) being eliminated as the Telegraph group moves to a seven-day operation that will eliminate eighty jobs. The Guardian continues to boast remarkable web traffic but it will still lose the best part of £50m this year 

The picture, then, is bleak everywhere. This is the context for the difficulties the Scottish press races. Again, the Scotsman's journalism has never been read by more people. But most of them are, in commercial terms, almost worthless. Once upon a time is seemed as though online advertising could pay its way. We know better now. Not only does it fail to do so – one print reader is still worth as much as fifty times more than an online browser – but it will never do so either. Not least because online ads generally need to be annoying to be noticed and annoying ads are unpopular and make for unhappy and reluctant would-be customers.

Hence the reversion to paywalls, experiments with "sponsored content" and an increasing reliance amongst media entities on events and other revenue streams. But while that may be fine for the New Yorker or, closer to home, the Spectator (for whom I also write) it won't be enough for newspapers.

There is a limit to how deeply you can cut before you damage the product. Personally – though you may say I would say this – I marvel at how good the Scottish press remains given the indignities forced upon editors in recent years. These papers, pound for pound, continue to punch above their weight.

As I say, I have skin in this game. But so, in the end, do you. I get the sense that some people rather relish the Scottish press's predicament. They greet the latest gloomy circulation figures with a knowing, triumphant, superior kind of cackle. After all, the industry's decline is deserved. Serves them right for failing to do this, that or the other thing. 'If only they adjusted their views to flatter my preferred reality then they might deserve to survive and even thrive. But given their continued failure to do so then, hell, they deserve everything they get.'

It's a point of view. The press is hardly angelic. Most political parties, at one point or another, have been treated roughly by the newspapers. Independence remains a minority enthusiasm in the nation's newsrooms (though most newspapers have been happy to endorse the SNP at Holyrood elections) but, then again, all the polling evidence suggests it remains a minority preference amongst the public too.

I think some of the nationalist frustration with the press - not all of which is unwarranted - also stems from a belief that with a couple of cheerleading newspapers on board the case for independence would be easier to win. Well, it wouldn't hurt. At the 2010 general election, for instance, 65% of Daily Record readers voted Labour. In that sense, every lost sale for the Record is a small victory for the SNP.

But at what price? I assume most readers believe it would be useful to maintain an indigenous Scottish newspaper industry. Perhaps independence would revitalise the industry (though similar claims were made about devolution) but to the extent there is evidence one way or another I think one has to conclude that the impact of political developments is unlikely to make a material difference. This may be sad but it is the way it is.

Could Scotland's newspapers be better? Undoubtedly. Is it remarkable they remain as good as they are, given the crushing constraints under which they must operate? Certainly. This is a worldwide problem to which it is not surprising that the Scottish press have yet to find an answer. I do not have it either but I would caution those who hate the industry the most to be careful lest they find their wishes granted 

When papers start going to the wall (and it is a matter of when, not if) do not suppose that they will be replaced by anything you find more appealing.

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