With the vast majority of national newspapers showing a downturn in readership, and the cry of recession not only being uttered but yelled from the rooftops, why is it many of Scotland’s regional dailies are showing signs of some growth and stability in this turbulent time in the world of print journalism?
The official Regional ABC figures for the period January 2002–June 2002 were published at the beginning of the month with a surprising result – some regional and local newspapers are actually prospering in this time of massive upheaval in most areas of the media.
The results showed that some newspapers are in fact up period on period from this time last year. The Sunday Herald, Edinburgh Evening News and the Herald, which could become part of the same stable if SMG sell its newspapers to The Scotsman Publications, all appear to be weathering the storm that has hit the economic climate hard. But why is this happening and, in a time of mass giveaways and bulk newspaper buying, can these results really be an accurate marker on what is happening to both regional and local newspapers in Scotland?
Andrew Jaspan, editor of the Sunday Herald, was pleased with the 6.5 per cent period on period increase (although year on year the difference was only 0.4 per cent), yet he believes that the Sunday Herald should be producing even better results than this. He says: “Whilst I have to say we are pleased with the results I would also add a word of caution. We are still in a period of establishing the paper and also ourselves and because of that it is no surprise that the results are up in the regional figures.
“Scotland on Sunday, for example, recorded a ten per cent growth in the first seven years when they first started out so our growth isn’t really that unexpected. But what we must try to achieve with this gain is to hold on to all of our readers.”
So who is it that’s buying his newspaper on a regular basis?
“I think when it comes to explaining the rise,” says Jaspan, “the people who are buying our paper fall into two different categories: those who haven’t tried the paper before and decide to give it a go, and those who bought the paper when it first launched, didn’t think it was up to much but have decided to give it a go after seeing it in the newsagents every time they go in”.
Whilst this may be true for a recently established newspaper (relatively speaking), why are some weekly local papers constantly rising?
Edinburgh-based Johnston Press was celebrating again as its titles were on the up in the ABC round-up.
Tim Bowdler, Chief Executive of Johnston Press, explains why more people seem to be turning to the local newspapers, instead of looking to the bigger picture.
“If you look at the success of the weekly newspapers for local regions you can see that there is a clearly defined local community. This is the sixth consecutive year that we have gained in the ABC and I think that this is because we address the local issues and actually find out what people want us to report on. We have excellent content within our newspapers and I think that this is demonstrative of the fact that local communities are thriving at the moment.”
Not all regional newspapers fared so well, however – the Dundee Courier lost readers, so too did the Evening Times in Glasgow and also D.C. Thompson’s Sunday Post.
In this age of instant news, and demand for it, is there really a market for so many regional and local newspapers?
Adrian Arthur, editor of the Dundee Courier, believes that there certainly is a demand for products such as his.
He says: “I think that if you look at the newspaper industry as a whole you will see that there has been a trend in recent times for all newspapers to lose readers. In times of instant news coverage it seems that there will naturally be a fall in sales.
“But if you look at the Newspaper Society figures you will also find that we are in fact the fourth largest selling newspaper and that is up against the quasi-nationals such as the Daily Record and also the Herald and that is something that we can be proud of.”
If things continue to be as tough as they presently are for publishers, particularly national and magazine publishers, is there any danger of Scotland losing any of its indigenous newspapers?
Arthur does not think so: “No-one likes to see circulation figures drop and Scotland has a tradition of having a great number of newspapers and we still have a high percentage of people reading newspapers. I don’t think that the time has come that we will see a loss of newspaper titles.”
One area where the results could be distorted is the murky field of bulk sales – but exactly which publishers are doing bulks, and which papers will actually admit to this fact?
“Lots of newspapers chuck money at their readers,” comments Jaspan. “I mean a newspaper like the Sunday Times, for example, has so much money behind them that they can basically relaunch the paper at any time. We just don’t have that type of money in the bank. The Scotsman used to dump 10,000 copies of the newspaper in Manchester Airport and I do have to question the point in doing something like that.
“We do have bulk sales in place, but it is strategically done in places like hotels where people can pick up the paper and read it. We have, however, cut down on the practice as it does cost quite a lot of money and that is something we are very aware of”.
But Steven Walker, MD of The Scotsman Publications, which prints the Edinburgh Evening News, denies Jaspan’s claims that they needlessly dump newspapers: “Of course bulk sales do play a factor in the results – but we do it strategically. If you look at the number of bulk sales that we made for the Scotsman – only 6,900 – compared to the likes of the Telegraph, who made 58,000, then you can put into perspective the sales that are made. We sometimes do go over the 10,000 mark but that is only when we are heavily promoting the paper.”
Bowdler agrees with this: “ Bulk sales do play a factor in ABC results. A very small proportion of our results are from bulk sales and I believe that is a very important factor in our success, and something that I am proud of.”
Yet Arthur maintains that the Dundee Courier does not take part in bulk sales at all: “We don’t go in for bulk sales, nor do we give any of our newspapers away, which means that we really are in a much better position than some of our competitors who engage in these activities.”
Another contentious issue when looking at ABC results is why does the Sunday Herald and also the Herald enter the regional ABC as opposed to the nationals like its counterparts such as the Scotsman?
Jaspan insists that it is purely a financial issue: “We are a small company who at this time have to look after the pennies in the bank. Andrew Neil has his own egotistical reason as to why they (the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday) have been entered into the national audits. The company pays for the monthly audits and I think that now they are down to below 100,000 in the latest results it might be a bit of a blow to him.”
Walker refutes this entirely: “We entered the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday into the national ABC five years ago as it was simply the natural thing for us to do in terms of selling advertising space.
“If we go down to London agencies and present our national figures, then we are taken far more seriously than if we only had regional newspapers. For Andrew Jaspan to suggest that Andrew Neil has only done this for egotistical reasons is incredible. Andrew Neil was not even at the company when we first went about putting the paper in for national audits. It is simply another shot fired from Jaspan’s long-running feud with Andrew, and quite simply it is a load of bollocks.”
In this time of economic uncertainty it would seem like advertising within local newspapers is actually paying off. Multinational organisations may be pulling back their national advertising budgets, but when it comes to local selling all seems quite calm. The ABC results have shown that almost half (48 per cent) of all regional and local newspapers increased their sales between January and June 2002 compared to 37 per cent during the same period last year.
So, what are the reasons for this?
Alex Cargill, managing director at Scottish and Universal Newspapers, believes that it is down to the quality of the newspapers.
“The success of local newspapers is all down to giving the customers a great product packed full of local news, sport and information that really affects the readers’ lives. Our readers trust us more than any other medium and we continually strive to make a difference in the communities we serve. With many of the S&UN titles we reach over 80 per cent of adults within each town or village served. This reach is unrivalled by any competing medium.”
Lynne Anderson, communications director of The Newspaper Society, adds: “The growth of regional newspapers continues to improve, with the weeklies and smaller evening titles leading the way. The growth of the weekly market reflects the current resurgence in the regions of the UK and a thirst for all things local, which is good news for advertisers.”
Walker agrees: “In terms of advertising sales we have seen it from every perspective. We have national newspapers, local newspapers and free newspapers. The free newspapers are doing the best in this current time. Local companies have not stopped advertising with us. Local newspapers are doing well too. But the national newspapers have been hit hard. For example, we rely on recruitment advertising – nearly 35 per cent of our revenue comes from it. If that figure was to drop by 10 per cent then naturally this creates a huge problem for us.”
So, just what is the future for Scottish newspapers, both regional and national, and what should they be doing in order to keep readers, whilst also trying to encourage new readers?
Walker thinks that we are still in the eye of this financial storm: “I don’t think that we are close to coming out of this at all. I think that it will get even worse but, hopefully, by next year it should have evened out slightly. By 2004 we should be on the road to recovery.”
However, Jaspan maintains that what really matters at the end of the day is the standard of journalism. “We rely on team work in order to win the readers over. The awards that we have won in the past three years have been the affirmation that we needed and now we want to capitalise on that.
“We need to constantly deliver with the quality of our journalism. That is what my job is all about.”