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Four-ging ahead

By The Drum, Administrator

February 14, 2003 | 10 min read

The Sunday Herald’s editor Andrew Jaspan clings on to the Royal Bank of Scotland Newspaper of the Year 2001 hatstand trophy, which his newspaper won just two years after it was launched.

How do you measure the success of a newspaper? What is the overriding criterion? Sales? Readership figures? Advertising revenues? Profits? Staff turnover? Editorial awards? The quality of the coffee served to visiting journalists?

It’s a tricky question, but if the measure of success was to be awards then the Sunday Herald, which celebrated its fourth birthday last weekend, could be crowned a runaway success, as the array of national and international certificates that plaster the walls of its editorial conference room aptly demonstrate.

However, in the murky world of newspapers, awards are often not the preferred currency. Copy sales count, readership nowadays counts even more, but actually making money and turning a profit is the Holy Grail.

The Sunday Herald’s sales are growing; its last ABC figure for December 2001 to June 2002 was 61,581, but according to the Sunday Herald January sales were up to 63,118, three per cent up year on year, compared to Scotland on Sunday’s estimated sales of 74,000.

Research also shows that the Sunday Herald boasts one of the youngest readerships in the UK, but with around £10m invested by SMG since its launch in February 1999 and the prospect of failing to achieve its expected target of break-even this year, the question of whether the Sunday Herald is a success or a failure is still a difficult one to give an authoritative answer to.

It goes without saying that the Sunday Herald’s editor Andrew Jaspan believes that the newspaper has achieved much in its short lifetime: “Many people, even The Drum, questioned whether there was room for this newspaper, and Bert Hardy, who was at the Scotsman Publications at the time, even said we would not get past 17 issues, like the Sunday Scot failed to do.

“There were things that we did not get exactly right at first, but here we are four years later still going, and not only did we pick up the NPA award for fastest year-on-year growth last year, but we could be up for it again this year, as our readership is up 21 per cent to 190,000. We have also got the youngest readership profile in the UK. Young readers are something that all newspaper publishers are striving to achieve. So all this stuff is very encouraging for us.

“When you set out to produce a newspaper you know you are going to have to demonstrate that the newspaper has what it takes to find its feet and find a commercial reason for it to exist. It is all very well having ideals to start out with but you have to deliver a newspaper that people will buy and then stick with for a long time. When you launch you have no idea whether people will pick it up at all. It is a huge risk to launch a new newspaper, as the Sunday Scot and Business am have shown. You can mitigate that risk by advertising, giveaways and promotions, but there’s nothing to say that the people will actually physically go and buy it.”

The first weekend the newspaper launched the people did go out and buy it; 132,462 people to be exact, a figure which initially delighted Jaspan and his SMG directors, but their faith was tested during those early days when week two saw its sales fall to 91,303, week three down to 72,360 and week four down to 65,000; by January 2000 the Sunday Herald was selling around 40,000 copies a week.

“Our first issue sold more than 132,000 copies, but then it started to fall and it kept falling. I was just hoping that at some point it would hit the bottom and begin to stabilise. There were times, as the sales were falling, that I thought there might not be a bottom to this thing. The Sunday Scot only lasted 17 issues and I think that failure was still very much in people’s minds. “

Fortunately for Jaspan and SMG, the sales figures did stop falling and settled down to a regular weekly sales figure of just over 30,000 during those early months. But while the figure had perhaps fallen below the 50,000 SMG had hoped for in its formative months the Sunday Herald was also fulfilling a more important function.

Jaspan says: “Back when Christine Costello was the Herald’s ad director she was concerned about something that was becoming more and more obvious to her when she went out to present to clients. She would go in and say they could reach 18 per cent of Scotland through the Herald, but they were coming back at her saying that they could reach 25 per cent if they used the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. She was losing the battle for advertising.

“However, what has happened since we have launched is that the Herald and Sunday Herald now have a higher combined readership than them. If the management at SMG hadn’t done something at that point to the protect the Herald’s advertising revenue then it could have become very damaging indeed for the paper. Before we launched the Herald’s sales staff were walking away from meetings empty-handed. Now, with the Sunday Herald around, we are back at the races.”

However, while the Sunday Herald’s continued existence might mean SMG is back at the races, the big question is, can the Sunday Herald actually afford to lay a bet?

“This is the year that we move towards break-even,” says Jaspan, “but there are two things which will affect whether we actually achieve that. The first is that when we launched we did not know we would be touching a very difficult time in the newspaper and advertising marketplace. Last year we grew ad revenues by 19 per cent, which is above everyone else. The big question with regards to break-even is, can we repeat that this year? The second factor is that when we launched a decision was made to package all the recruitment advertising, which is the most important to any newspaper, across the Sunday Herald and the Herald. At that point the Sunday Herald was allocated 9 per cent of all the recruitment ad revenues that came in. However, we now have a readership of almost 200,000, while the Herald is 250,000 so should we not get more than 9 per cent of the recruitment revenue? So, if that was re-allocated in a different way then we could make more money. I convinced SMG to look at that issue, but now I will have to convince the new owners, Gannett, that it needs re-addressing. Ultimately, we are still loss-making because of the way in which we are currently structured.”

While the overall appearance of the Sunday Herald has changed little in the last four years, which perhaps pays testament to the newspaper’s strong design and make-up, Jaspan says that there have been a number of hurdles that it has had to clear.

“The first hurdle we faced was launching into such a competitive marketplace. There are so many titles that have carved up the Scottish market the last thing they wanted was a new entrant. We were like a virus, and the first thing they wanted to do was to get rid of that virus. All of our competitors were keen to see us fall, so I suppose our first hurdle was simply survival.”

“Hurdle two was to secure a financial revenue stream that would allow SMG to believe there was a sound enough financial case to keep the Sunday Herald going. We convinced them that we could make money, which is something Business am and the Sunday Scot failed to do.”

“The third hurdle was to make a reputation for ourselves journalistically, which would make people feel that they could drop their usual Sunday read and switch to us. People have strong relationships with their paper so asking them to give up is something big. We had to win the confidence of the Scottish people and you do that through quality journalism. I believed that we had the right people on board, but getting people to see the quality is another thing. We had to win their respect, but that did not happen overnight. It is hard to get a good reputation, but easy to get a bad one. It is also very hard to lose a bad reputation once you have got one.”

So, what of the future? The imminent arrival of Gannett appears to hold a different sway depending on which end of the M8 you are. The Scotsman Publications are certain that Gannett’s chief executive, Paul Davidson, will be looking to strip out as many overheads as they can, come April. However, Jaspan remains confident that Gannett will live up to the assurances that he has already sought, to maintain editorial independence and local management.

He says: “There is a lot more I would like to do with the newspaper, but that all depends on the partnership between editorial and management. There is a lot more the team here is capable of doing, but I need the support of the management that is coming in. We are up 21 per cent and we can build on that. We need to show that Scotland has a press that is robust and that can meet the challenge of the London newspapers. Last week in our coverage of the Columbia shuttle disaster we gave our readers unrivalled coverage of what had happened. We have a great team here and I want that reputation to be enhanced so that we can hang onto and build our readers.

“When I first launched this newspaper I held huge commitment to the fact that the readers had to trust the journalism we produced. You have to earn that trust. You can earn that by showing them who you are shouting for. You have to show that you have the quality of journalism to give them the calibre of content they want. You also have to be fair with them. If you get that bond of trust with readers then you can build a lasting relationship. That is the most important thing I have to do as an editor, to establish trust with the readers. You cannot take that for granted or abuse that once you have it.”

Jaspan is clearly protective of his newspaper, and rightly so. Recent columns in the paper in the run-up to the announcement of its acquisition by Gannett illustrated his opposition against the newspaper becoming part of the Scotsman stable. But whether the Sunday Herald will fare any better as part of the mammoth Gannett operation is under discussion in the newspaper offices of Scotland and beyond.

Until then the most that Jaspan and co at the Sunday Herald can do is to continue trying to ensure that each and every Sunday is No Ordinary Sunday in as many Scottish households as possible.

As for the question, how do you measure the success of a newspaper? Perhaps the quality of the coffee should be a criteria. If it were then the Sunday Herald is a triumph.

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