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.


30 Dec 2011 - 16:34
stephen_lepitak's picture

While 2011 has without doubt had little cheer all around, I do get the feeling that organisations are beginning to invest more in digital content, and hopefully that's going to be the obvious area for growth - it has to be really - by many organisations.

31 Dec 2011 - 12:24
pumps100's picture

I thought this was a really excellent article and helped me a lot to appreciate the dreadful decline of the print media in Scotland. At one time Scottish readers had the highest newspaper readership per capita in the UK - often buying 2 -3 papers a day. I believe it is a 'sunset' industry but the rate of decline could have been slowed had the price/quality quotient been right - The Herald is my classic example of this.

4 Jan 2012 - 23:18
ams's picture

Congratulations on playing to the paranoia and petty vindictiveness of the football message board keyboard hardmen. Complicity of sports hacks? Come on! I presume you speak as someone who has never had to spend a day as a sports hack in your life. I bow to no.one in my admiration of Rangers Tax Case. terrific stuff, but heroic? You got at least one thing right in the article - he is anonymous. Therefore it's not journalism as we know it. Why? Because a journalist has to live with the consequences of what he or she writes. Has to be held to account by readers and the laws of defamation. Those who hide behind keyboard anonymity - and Rangers tax case is one of them - have no accountablity. He will never have to keep a contact, maintain balance or objectivity (the average football fan has no concept of objectivity). He exists in a wild west media platform where anything goes and there are no fingerprints. What you call 'complicity' is called doing your job when you are a journalist. A hack banned from football clubs is no use to man or beast. And one other thing about Rangers Tax Case. There is obviously excellent technical knowledge of finance and accountancy there. Why any sports journalist should be expected to understand complex tax law is a ludicrous hypothesis. You employ another stick to beat the humble hack with as he fights deep structural media change, social media and plummeting circulations which have little or nothing to do with the actual content. So, sorry, but with friends like you Scottish journalism has no need to go seeking out enemies.

5 Jan 2012 - 17:28
iainmhepburn's picture

@ams Hi Anne

Thanks for your comments. Sorry if you feel I'm an enemy of Scottish journalism - I'd like to think the one thing I've consistently tried to do, both here and elsewhere, is celebrate and defend the industry where necessary, but if I've not done enough then I can only apologise.

If those who hide behind keyboard anonymity are not journalists, then what does that make the investigative hacks who use fake bylines to protect their identity? Surely you would not argue they aren't real journalists because they're not easily identifiable? Or the folk who write the In The Back pages of the Eye from within their industry, offering a level of insight into fields that would not necessarily be covered in depth?

There seems to have been an unusual level of resentment at the blogger's work though in the media, which was disappointing to see.

It's all sadly reminiscent of the row around the old Night Jack blog, which won the Orwell a couple of years ago and then saw its author outed by the Times. The idea that anyone who wants to protect their identity because of what their writing has any less validity than anyone else seems bizarre, to be honest.

What the RTC blog did was force a lot of journalists who'd - whether though ignorance or choice - avoided a serious examination of the state of Rangers' finances to look more thoroughly at the club's books.

And while I agree entirely that I don't expect hacks to have an intimate knowledge of tax and finance law - in fact, I don't believe I ever said they should in my piece above - there's nothing to stop them calling up or getting advice from someone who has. If a reporter was writing a science story, say, and didn't understand the physics being discussed, I'd expect them to get an expert's input. Why should football finances be any different?

A journalist's job should be, surely, providing the clearest possible explanation of circumstance or event that their audience can appreciate. If that involves seeking an expert to plug the gaps in their own knowledge, how is that any different to the coverage of the State of Scottish Football story that comes in the wake of the PWC annual report?

And believe me, it's nothing to do with playing on paranoia or keyboard warriors - I'd have celebrated similar clear and forensic exposure had it been Hearts, Thistle, the SRU... whatever. The point of making the blog my hero was to highlight the work they'd done in filling a gap left by journalists, not to - as you put it - 'beat the humble hack'.

Ultimately, I don't believe I've taken cheap shots at newspapers - or indeed any other aspect of the media, Scottish or otherwise, over these last couple of months writing for the Drum. What I want to do with this blog is try and explore the problems the industry has here - and hopefully how they can be fixed. Sorry if my approach doesn't meet with your approval.

5 Jan 2012 - 17:59
ams's picture

@iainmhepburn All fair enough points. Thanks for the response

5 Jan 2012 - 13:16
JockHigh's picture

Regarding Awards for Rangers Tax Case - I notice that the Scottish Press Awards have done away with the New Media award that James Doleman's SheridanTrial blog was nominated for last year.

So no avenue for RTC to be nominated. I'd be interested to note how RTC's site traffic compares with the Scottish Press's web traffic. And how many of those present at the Press Awards have perused the Rangers Tax Case Site as opposed to the nominations for "Website/Digital Product of the Year".

And as to ams's limp "Why any sports journalist should be expected to understand complex tax law is a ludicrous hypothesis" - this shows just how limited the Scottish Press have become.

5 Jan 2012 - 14:59
ams's picture

'limp' jock high? Arguments like yours merely betray a deep loathing of newspapers in general. Usually held by those who hold a visceral hatred based on the fact that the papers in question are not biased enough towards their chosen football team. Or jealousy on the part of bloggers who desperately want to be recognised by the mainstream, but who can't quite make it and so resort to making newspapers their enemy instead. I'm pretty certain the traffic of RTC would be utterly miniscule compared to, say, the millions of hits the Guardian site draws. Furthermore, The idea that a sports writer should be informed on the highly complex issues involved in the rangers tax case is plainly preposterous. Football hacks with accountancy degrees are a relative novelty I find. Incidentally, how would you propose that RTC collect his / her award at the press awards? With a balaclava over the head to disguise their identity? Sorry, but the anonymity removes any right to an award of any sort. The awards are run by the Scottish newspaper society. Rewarding those who spend their time abusing and taking cheap shots at newspapers would be counter productive.

5 Jan 2012 - 15:15
JockHigh's picture

ams - thanks for the reply!

The amount of time I spend reading newspapers would suggest otherwise. Can't say I spend any time reading the Scottish football press though.

You've made a lot of assumptions regarding my motivation for having an opinion, and I'm sure me saying I am a weakly affiliated fan of Dundee United who has no blogging pretensions or journalistic ambitions will fail to disabuse you of those assumptions. But there it is.

Meanwhile, I find your comparison of RTC v The Guardian partially valid. Bearing in mind RTC covers a Scottish sport story, with a wee bit of tax chucked in, a valid comparison would be to The Guardian's coverage of Scottish football and Scottish business, would it not?

Anyway - what's to stop some Scottish sports journalists from leaning a bit about the tax area specifically to cover the Rangers affair? If that is beyond them, how about asking for a bit of help from the business section at their respective newspaper?

If your argument is that "because it's difficult to cover, we won't bother, no matter how interesting or important it is", then I truly despair. That's not your argument, is it, despite appearances?

5 Jan 2012 - 16:21
ams's picture

Jock, no not at all. My argument is an explanation of why and an acknowledgment of the fact that the coverage has been less authoritative than it might have been. I don't buy the view that hacks are all in the pocket of certain clubs. I do feel, however, that many simply don't have the knowledge or contacts to delve as deeply as they might. Fair play to rangers tax case, but I maintain the view that to be regarded as journalism it cannot be anonymous. Apologies if it seemed there was a lack of respect for your views.

27 Jan 2012 - 20:49
fastm17964's picture

"To be regarded as a journalist you can't be anonymous.'

That's a novel idea.

I've been reading newspapers for 60 years and there is a grand tradition in our national press of using pen names.

One such was 'Waverley' who wrote for the Glasgow Evening Times as a sports journalist.

It was then a broadsheet.

Although that was many years ago, there are contemporary examples.

For example in the highly popular magazine 'Private Eye' there are dozens of articles in every fornightly edition which have no byline.

There are a couple of reasons that people wish to out the writer of the RangersTaxCase.

Jealousy or hatred.

If read in an objective way the information provide by the Rangers Tax Case blog makes perfect sense.

He provides some hard to refute evidence, which is checkable through other online sites.

He also seems to have an informed source and one which is feeding him information without any restriction, unlike the our tabloids which seem to take press releases from Rangers PR firm chappy Jack Irvine, straight from the fax machine and transfer it to their sports pages verbatim without posing any questions.

A nice cosy life.

The other reason is much darker.

Those who cannot bear the thought of Rangers going out of business cannot bear to read that they might, and there is a real danger that they would cause harm to the writer of the blog.

Only in Scotland.

The greatest little bigoted country in the world.


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