False Doorway

Iain Hepburn is a journalist, podcaster and the former digital editor of the Daily Record and editor of STV Local. He is currently a multimedia producer, director of brand journalism with social...

... media agency Contently Managed and a misanthropic commentator on the media.

Follow him on Twitter at @iainmhepburn

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30 December 2011 - 12:54pm | posted by | 10 comments

One more time; Roses for Rangers Tax blog and raspberries for Roy Greenslade

One more time; Roses for Rangers Tax blog and raspberries for Roy GreensladeOne more time; Roses for Rangers Tax blog and raspberries for Roy

Well, my filthy assistants. Hopefully you’re suitably rested and recovered from the festive period, and got some stiff drinks in for the year ahead.

Because let’s be honest. Scottish news media is screwed. Stuffed. Plucked and readied for the oven, our industry’s goose is just about cooked.

We were once a nation where newspapers ruled the roost, where television was creative and - vitally - local, and where there was bravery in the mass media. Now we’re little more than an adjunct, our once great publishing institutions rendered down like so much tallow.

No amount of positive spin or puffery can disguise the fact that 2011 was the Scottish media’s annus ferinus. A year of brutal job losses, cutbacks and last throws of the dice.

From speaking to friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even just those concerned enough to email me, it’s clear that morale in Scotland’s newsrooms is damn close to bottoming out.

When experienced and talented hacks are asking you to keep an ear out for even junior-level digital gigs, purely because they fear for the future of their job and their publication, you know the ball’s burst.

But it’s hard to see any kind of turnaround, no matter how many rebrandings or refocusings the Scottish news sector undergoes. Delivering Quality First will start to tell on the BBC next year, and Pacific Quay will feel the bite. Pay freezes at Trinity Mirror and Newsquest means the disenchanted hacks at the Herald and Times, and the Record, face another year of gloom and - effectively - a pay cut.

It’s not much better through at New North Bridge, either. Staff at the Scotsman face cutbacks and Evening News hacks have been left questioning their own futures after the editor jumped ship for a lucrative PR gig with the council.

Digital, sadly, remains a basketcase in Scotland - used as a figleaf by most publishers to cover the embarrassment of their declining circulations and as a sop to keep management thinking titles remain on the cutting edge.

The Record faces a period of digital transition now Contentwatch is being spooled out, while the Scotsman’s new look web presence has at least fixed many of the problems with the old site - although rumblings from the East Coast suggest its much harder for staff to operate.

The Herald, meantime, has unveiled the paywall on which the ailing papers are pegging their future - yet given the poor quality of video seen on the site so far, the butchered and duplicated headlines unchanged for days and Ian Bell’s byline photo being replaced with that of blogger Shelagh McKinlay you might need to remind me exactly what I’m supposed to be paying for again?

Meanwhile Scotland’s supposed digital newspaper the Caledonian Mercury - Stewart Kirkpatrick’s grand hope of showing everyone how digital and print news can co-exist and reach a new audience - went the title went another year without publishing a hardcopy edition, and continued to fall well short of those audience targets which the media made such big play off when it launched. Two years on from its high profile launch, it remains little more than a whispering curio rather than the big noise in the Scots media many predicted for it.

Hyperlocal has not set the world alight yet, despite strong efforts by all involved. STV Local soft-lauched its new look websites and new Glasgow portal, but did so with a refocus that seemed to lose much of the individual identity the sites had when they launched - particularly in Edinburgh, where the regional breakdown has been replaced by one capital-sized pool.

Meanwhile the Guardian gave up on its failed hyperlocal experiment in the city altogether, while amateur and semi-pro sites across the country continued to try and plug the gap left by weekly paper closures and editorial cutbacks, battling vainly to serve the communities in which they sit

Up north the ties between the P&J and Courier were tightened by some editorial reshuffling that saw both Aberdeen titles gain new editors - a surprise for anyone who’d served under Derek Tucker and presumed he’d be there until the bitter end. The Evening Telegraph bucked the national trend for circulation decline, but online news continued to be a weak spot for the northern titles.

So what next for 2012? It’s hard to see anything other than more of the same.

The Sunday Herald’s due another desperate relaunch after the much heralded (‘scuse pun) news magazine format proved a spectacular audience turnoff, and circulation dropped to levels that even niche magazines would snigger at. The Record lost out with format and content tweaks that left it looking even more like a slip edition of the Mirror, a trend it seems likely will continue with the new ‘eggs in one basket’ approach of Media Scotland. News International remains under the cloud that the Leveson inquiry and the summer’s phone hacking saga has cast.

As an industry Scotland’s media is failing, yet despite this - or perhaps because of it - the industry is ever-more defensive of criticism or comment. Once great media hubs, looking at the state of our industry, have become little more than shills shoveling off press releases, or worse staying silent in case they upset too many influential people now they’re in a cushy job with eyes on promotion.

The commentators of five years ago, ready to expose the stupidity and celebrate the successes of journalists in and from Scotland now sit contemplating the splinters gathered from sitting uncomfortably on the fence and watching the wagons draw in.

Perhaps they are wise to, however. There seems to be no end in sight for the misery blighting the nation’s media. It’s hard not to see another year of job losses, closures and cutbacks scything through the fourth estate. There’s no white knight set to ride to the rescue.

Finally - and perhaps obviously - may I present my pick for the 2011 hero and villain in the Scottish media sphere.

Hero of the Year is undoubtedly the Rangers Tax Case blog. As previously mentioned in this column, and in the footsteps of James Doleman’s outstanding work covering the Sheridan Trial last year, the RTC Blog has taken a single issue - in this case the questions around the SPL champions’ finances - and explored it in forensic detail.

In doing so the blog exposed much of the complicity between sports journalism and club staff in this day and age, forcing journalists, papers and broadcasters who may not previously have put one of Scottish football’s grande dames under so much scrutiny.

The only sad thing is the need for anonymity by the author of the blog, who would likely be denied the chance of a Press Award nomination which they so richly deserve. Still, hopefully they’ve the sense to put themselves forward for the Orwell blog prize.

Picking a villain of the year was much harder - because there’s so many candidates, from senior management to phone-hacking hacks. It’s been a year when the industry has done so little to credit itself in the eyes of the public.

But for me it has to be journalism commentator Roy Greenslade, whose despicable post for the Guardian accusing dozens of Scottish hacks who faced losing their jobs in the summer cuts at the Record of being beneficiaries of “a sort of social welfare service for journalists”, and claiming the paper offered little value to journalism displayed stunning callousness in both timing and content.

For someone who claimed to be a frequent visitor to Glasgow, isn't it strange how Roy’s never popped up at the Press Club or any journalism events up here to face those whose impending unemployment he so seemed to relish. C'mon Roy - how about facing your critics and justifying your comments to those you aimed them at?

Anyway, that’s 2011 from me, filthy assistants. Good night. And good luck.

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