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MacMillan's Media Monitor

By The Drum | Administrator

October 8, 2004 | 6 min read

Andrew Jaspan’s recent speech to the McMedia dinner club in Glasgow offered little cause for optimism. It was, however, characteristically frank and realistic. A combination of bad management and inadequate investment, according to the former Sunday Herald editor, has left the Scottish press approaching what Americans call “tipping point”.

Newspaper owners may soon consider downsizing their operations to keep them viable.

“Editorial is, frankly, not good enough,” said Jaspan. “[Scottish] papers have got to shape up. They have to get better.” The reason for the malaise, an audience of 30 people were told, was that, while London-based titles such as the Daily Mail have invested substantial sums in marketing and promotions for their tartanised editions, indigenous titles have failed to respond. The results have been stark.

Circulation of the Scottish Daily Mail, since October 1988, has risen by nearly 100,000. At the same time, successive owners of Scottish papers have treated their products like “cash cows”, instead of digging deep into their pockets to compete. Sales among Scotland’s red-top tabloids and quality papers have fallen. The future, Jaspan warned, was one where consumers will continue to be seduced by the CD and DVD offers deployed by the Daily Mail’s shrewd marketing and promotions strategy. Unless Scottish papers make similar offers or improve their editorial they will be pushed to the fringes of the market, he added.

Admittedly, this sounded rather negative. But, no longer burdened by his Newsquest contract, Jaspan was making a point that many senior Scottish journalists would publicly agree with, if their contracts and career ambitions did not forbid them from going against the company line. For years newspaper section heads and their staff have been asked to do more for less, with less and less money. The result has been ever bigger newspapers. Never mind the quality, feel the width, you might say. Content has suffered. “I haven’t got a budget, it’s more like a whip-round,” one broadsheet newspaper executive recently told me.

The paradox, as Jaspan pointed out, is that against this apparently dire background Trinity Mirror, owners of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, Newsquest, owners of the Herald, Sunday Herald and the Evening Times, and Scotsman Publications, owners of the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, and the Edinburgh Evening News, all continue to make large profits. For the moment at least, the bosses are happy with the bottom line. But keep going the way things are, Jaspan said, and it spells disaster. Something will have to give. Advertising revenue is dictated by circulation and unless the Scottish press shapes up it will eventually be out-punched by the London-based titles. The managed decline of today will be a preamble to the Doomsday of tomorrow.

The underlying reality of Jaspan’s argument is that the elastic band between editorial budgets and profitability is being stretched to breaking point. Soon it could snap. Newspapers’ success is dependent on content, backed by marketing. If this is not consistently good and tailored to the right audience then people don’t buy the product. Simple as that. Jaspan argued that Scottish papers need larger strategic partners, probably based in London, if they are to survive.

He cited the Daily Record’s alliance with sister paper the Daily Mirror, and the possibility that the Scotsman could soon forge closer ties with the Daily Telegraph, following the latter’s purchase by the Barclay Brothers. Failing this, the problems brought on by “successive bad managements” and the appointment of “duff editors” will continue.

But there is another way.

One of the reasons that the Daily Mail and its sister title, the Mail on Sunday, began offering free CDs was that reader research showed the various supplements were no longer adding sale. Too many people were throwing them in the bin. Scottish papers, like their English counterparts, have got bigger in recent years. But the difference is the quality. Nothing in Scotland can rival the journalistic brilliance of the Guardian’s G2 features section, or the Observer’s Sport Monthly and its sister food and music supplements. Despite people being more time-starved than ever, many Scottish papers seem determined to bombard readers with more girth. It’s good for extra advertising revenue but it is not consistently adding sale.

If Scottish titles are to prevent their London-based rivals squeezing them out of the market then this has to stop. Unless budgets are increased, and the money spent wisely, there is only one way that Scottish newspapers can improve. Do less better. By looking at those readership surveys we hear so much about, but are always denied the detail, you can quickly discover who – and how many people – reads what.

Having read several such studies, the obvious conclusion is that some sections are not selling papers. They shouldn’t be there. Nothing – including journalists – is sacred. If something is not working, bin it and spend the money on something that will deliver. But don’t delude yourselves that everything will be all right. As Jaspan pointed out, it won’t.

As if to prove the Scottish Daily Mail’s intention to invest and build its market share, it made a swift but considered move to acquire the services of Kevin McKenna, the joint deputy editor of the Herald, last week. Having lost out to Richard Walker for the Sunday Herald editorship, McKenna clearly didn’t see any point in hanging around. A beefed up executive editor role will see him take responsibility for news and sport production and give him significant input into the paper’s features and comment pages. It is yet more proof of the Scottish Daily Mail’s long-term plan to build a paper with a circulation above 200,000. Given its 100,000 circulation increase in the past six years, this lofty target is not the stuff of pipe dreams that many would claim it to be.

On a cheering note the Evening Times’ campaign against the closure of the Queen Mother’s Hospital in Glasgow has shown that newspapers can still pack a punch. Its editor, Charles McGhee, has shown that in this type of public debate papers come into their own. Through 12 months of dedicated coverage of the issue, the voices of the many eventually triumphed over the arrogance of health board mandarins and government ministers. Mr McGhee knows his market and the Evening Times’ campaign is already being copied by other publications. Journalism awards for the Queen Mum’s campaign will surely follow.

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