Blott is ready to take chargeNow that Tim Blott, new MD at Newsquest Scotland, finally has his feet under the desk at Cowcaddens, what are his plans for the future health of the titles? Will the pre-sale fears be realised? Or will the papers continue in the manner that they have become accustomed to? Gordon Laing attempts to find out.
Tim Blott has only been in the Herald’s hot seat for three weeks. He is still living out of a suitcase. It’s been one meeting after another. Relentless. And, although he is still baulking at the cost of property in Glasgow, even in his position of power, he is happy with his lot. “Better busy than quiet.”
In fact, as he sits in his spacious office overlooking Cowcaddens to the back and the busy open-plan news office to his front, he is already starting to sound like one of Glasgow’s adopted sons: “I’m enjoying it. Delighted. Delighted to see a huge potential for the business and, obviously, they are very well respected newspapers. Great newspapers, with some very, very talented people on them.”
The sale of SMG’s publishing division – the Herald, Sunday Herald, Evening Times, magazines and s1 – was a drawn-out affair. There was the bitter (if expected) war of words with rival publisher, the Scotsman (as well as other bidders), as the east coast title attempted in vain to make SMG an offer that they couldn’t refuse.
There was the online betting (Gannet eventually being rightly tipped as favourite), the rumour-mongering, the talk of job cuts and loss of editorial control.
Quite frankly, the eventual sale of the titles for £216m was the talk of the media industry north of the border for months.
“I think the surprise to us was the media coverage and all the talk,” ventures Blott. “Newsquest doesn’t take a particularly high profile in the newspaper industry.
“We are obviously owned by Gannet (‘Gan-net’ – that’s how they pronounce it), the owners ofUSA Today, although we don’t have any Americans on the operating board. But Gannet has a similar philosophy to us in that they don’t take a particularly high profile; it is the titles that take the profile. And the editors. So, it was a bit of a surprise to us seeing all the coverage that the potential acquisition had – particularly in the Scottish titles, and really we then became aware of the ‘traditional rivalries’ between the Herald and the Scotsman and perhaps the personalities involved in that.”
He laughs, perhaps aware that my pen is poised ready to take it further, then stops for a sip of tea.
“For us that was a bit of a surprise, because in the south that’s not really the case. Our chief executive, Paul Davidson, and the other four directors (of which Blott is one) don’t take a high profile in the communities.
“I think that it is important that the editors do reflect the titles. But in terms of changing our philosophies ... I’m happy to get involved in the communities. That is, in essence, what our newspapers are all about; helping the communities and playing a part in those communities. I certainly don’t want to disassociate myself. But the branding of the company will be around the titles. When the signage goes up on the outside of the building it will not say Newsquest. It will say Herald, Sunday Herald and Evening Times – a slightly different philosophy to that of SMG, where everything sat under the one banner.
I will get involved – I want to get involved. I don’t want to be seen as a recluse.”
He certainly isn’t that – pinstriped suit with an almost David Dickinson-like charm about him.
Blott joined Newsquest in 1975. He went on to work as a senior journalist in various divisions, including Bradford, Darlington and, latterly, Oxford, where he was editor of the Oxford Mailand then acting managing director.
He returned to Bradford as managing director in 1996 and became regional managing director of Lancaster, Bradford and Kendal in May 2000, before being appointed to the main board in July 2001.
Further to internal restructures during 2002, he was made responsible for Newsquest centres in the North East, York, Bradford and Digital Media.
But in what is Newsquest’s first foray into Scotland there have been a number of fears expressed by the staff and observers alike. None more so than on the front of editorial independence – a topic close to the heart of all those who work on the titles.
“In terms of editorial independence, we wish to protect that,” states Blott. “And, as I’ve already indicated, we think that they are very good newspapers and we want to see them build, develop and grow. That is very much the Newsquest philosophy. It is not a question of trying to asset-strip. We have no interests, or very little interests, outside of newspapers. What success we have had has been inside newspapers, so we see it as a long-term business. We genuinely believe that we have been successful in helping newspapers develop and grow, and that is what we want to do here.
“It’s early days. I think that, inevitably, things will change. It would be sad if they never did. From my perspective there are some structural issues within the business that we may need to look at. Nothing fundamental. But more a case of using the Newsquest experience in running papers to help these titles grow.
“There are some very good people working for us. And, although I appreciate that when there is a change in ownership that can promote some anxiety, I have been impressed by the calibre of people I have met since I joined here. It’s not our style to throw the axe around.
“Although we’ve had success in the newspaper publishing business, one of the secrets to that success is being able to acknowledge that we don’t always have all of the answers. There are some good people out there who sometimes may even have better answers. It’s a question of finding them and developing them. That, in essence, is one of our key constituents – finding and developing people.”
So, can we infer from that that redundancies are not, then, planned?
“Well,” says Blott slowly, “you can never guarantee anything. As in most businesses there will be change. We cannot guarantee what will happen tomorrow. I suppose September 11 is a classic and tragic example of how an industry – several industries ... the world can change overnight. So it is difficult to provide cast-iron guarantees in any business.”
Another area that Blott is looking to develop is the magazine and online arms of the stable, putting paid to talk that they would be the first divisions to go. Recently, Newsquest launched two new business titles into the busy Scottish magazine market – The Law and Business Passport – and already plans are in the pipeline to launch another two.
“One of the interesting things about settling into a job like this is seeing different business models,” continues Blott. “We already have our digital media businesses, and the business model for s1 is very different. But it is not our style to come in and say, ‘That’s different, we’ll have to change it.’ We are looking at it very carefully, and it has had a considerable success, so why would we change that? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”