Business am feature
No-one expected the survival challenge facing Business a.m. to be easy and in the words of our launch slogan more than two years ago, Now You Know that it wasn’t. The plan was never simple – we had to launch Scotland’s first new daily newspaper in more than a hundred years into a hugely competitive market place and carve out a niche for Scottish business and political coverage that would make us a must-read.
In so many ways, we fulfilled the brief, but with a daily circulation that stubbornly wouldn’t budge from a little over 11,000, market forces dictated that we ultimately failed.
Backed by the deep pockets of a benevolent foreign investor, our rivals were by turns writing us off and quaking in their boots before we even launched. For many of us it was a first taste of the cut-throat Scottish newspaper scene and it was invigorating.
Since Bonnier, our Swedish parent company, pulled the plug on Bam the week before Christmas after investing £22m, there have been few sniggering I-told-you-sos from fellow journalists as our tight jobs market once again contracts.
In truth, one of the biggest compliments we could have hoped for was for the competition to raise its game in anticipation of our arrival, and later to poach our staff. Bam’s hoovering up of traditional Sunday business stories made life hard for the Sunday Herald and SoS and at the same time, the Herald and the Scotsman acknowledged they had to do more, particularly in covering professional services, tourism and the business of sport.
In the beginning, money seemed no object as we swamped the market with staff. We had so many writers most stories had joint bylines. Even when we shed a dozen reporters, through resignation and redundancy, we were still comfortably filling the pages with stories that made us required reading for businesses and our peers alike.
Scotland’s corporate scene was initially agog at some of our coverage, which was more Daily Mail than Daily Telegraph. When a company was making a hash of things, we were on at them five days a week, like a hungry dog with a bone.
We were right about the financial troubles of Atlantic Telecom and the mounting debts of SMG, but neither of them nor many others were used to the level of scrutiny they were suddenly put under. By April this year, when we portrayed Frank Cicutto, the chief executive of National Australia Bank, the ultimate owner of Clydesdale Bank, as a gnome on our front page after he claimed that Scotland had been in a recession for almost 200 years, no one batted an eyelid. Our readers had grown to expect nothing less from us.
Business news was an unlikely battleground for readers in a country with an economy that is growing slower than the UK at large and that has little over 50 stock market listed companies, half of which rarely did enough to warrant a mention.
We could never have known that we had launched into the teeth of the worst slowdown in corporate spending in decades, and within months financial advertising across the industry was on the ropes and the cost of newsprint was spiralling. The management had expected a groundswell of support from financial institutions such as the Bank of Scotland and Standard Life to translate into 100-plus copy orders from each firm.
In reality, the blue chip bedrocks of Edinburgh’s financial sector, while welcoming what we were trying to achieve, ordered dozens, not hundreds. Bam’s largest subscriber was law firm Maclay Murray Spens which took around 150 copies.
Bam never sold itself as a primary purchase and for most of our target audience it was a secondary, or even tertiary read. The trouble was the Scots businessmen and women were too set in their ways to ditch the FT, Herald or Scotsman for us.
A small business with 20 staff where typically three partners or managers ordered a plastic-wrapped FT as a status symbol first, and information tool second, would huddle round one dog-eared copy of Bam. We had an average of 6.8 readers per copy at the end, almost three times as many as read an average newspaper.
So when did the journalists realise that things were going wrong? Was it when the management reluctantly admitted that circulation had fallen back in the first three months of 2002 at a staff meeting in March? Or perhaps even earlier, when jobs were being cut in October 2001? While the bosses resolutely refused to cut more costs to bring our breakeven sale below 25,000, adding 5,000 new buyers each year for three years always looked like a tall order.
Yet Bonnier’s reputation as a company that planned for the long term suggested they would hang on in there, especially as expanding into English speaking markets was a key plank of their expansion strategy. Morale never really sank until at the very end, but there was a creeping inevitability as soon as Lazards had been appointed in October to find a new investor for the paper.
Bonnier’s business model has succeeded in so-called European backwaters such as Estonia and Slovenia but could not find its feet in Scotland. In the final reckoning, our timing was off, our business model was not without its flaws, but Scotland’s business community must undoubtedly accept some of the responsibility for our premature demise.
James Ashton was media and chief city correspondent of Business a.m.