MacMillan's Media Monitor

By The Drum, Administrator

November 4, 2004 | 6 min read

A sign of things to come?

You don’t launch a new paper by looking for an editor,” was a senior newspaper executive’s reply when I asked him if Scottish publishing had room for another newspaper. “When we did market research (for what would eventually become Business a.m.) there was no appetite for another general publication.”

The right paper at the wrong time was the accepted consensus when Business a.m. folded two years ago. Its journalism was excellent but, unfortunately, its sales were small. Bonnier Media was not prepared to carry Business a.m. as a loss-maker so, with its closure, and £20m in losses, it is understandable that Northern Ireland-based Flagship Media’s plans for a new Scottish newspaper have received a sceptical, if somewhat limited, response.

With our existing wealth of newspapers suffering monthly falls in circulation, with a few rare exceptions, the omens are not good. Add in the country’s falling population and the commuter freebie, Metro, and the proposed launch of another paid-for Scottish newspaper seems suicidal. Flagship Media’s apparent unique selling point is that their organ will support the Scottish National Party. It is unclear, however, whether the newspaper would be a quality, mid-market or popular title. The strongest indication is that it will be tabloid size, probably weekly, and mailed to subscribers.

According to the job ad, the new paper’s editor will lead an initial editorial team of ten. “With staffing at that level [Flagship Media] would need a considerable freelance budget if they were to produce something that brings anything better to the market than what Scottish papers are currently offering,” the former Bam executive added. “Even then, I’m not sure if championing the cause of Scottish independence is a banker, given how devolution has been perceived by the public so far.”

Flagship Media’s MD, Derek Carstairs, has long wanted to launch a pro-SNP newspaper, so would he be willing to stomach financial losses for the privilege? The admission that it is likely to be subscription-based reduces the possibility of a paper with mass market appeal. The SNP’s membership recently rose above 10,000 but the parliamentary party has lost seats at recent elections and there will be no obligation for members to buy it. A profit would take years to achieve.

Business a.m., on a circulation of 11,000, was always seen as a second, specialist read. On a heavy cost base of 125 staff, its cover price rose from 60p to £1. However, just supposing, somehow, that a market base of 10,000 subscribers, broadly comparable with Bam, can be found, it is likely that the new paper’s cover price would need to be significantly higher than other Scottish newspapers.

“Given that it will cost 25p to distribute the paper to begin with, I suspect [Flagship Media] would be looking at a cover price of at least £2,” the former Bam executive added. “On the positive side, it would not have the same long-term staff costs as the Herald or the Scotsman but even if the staff costs are low it would need four or five big-hitting writers to attract an audience in the first place and that won’t be cheap. I can’t see this appealing to advertisers. It makes no commercial sense.”

Given that Flagship Media’s proposed paper is expected to be a weekly publication with an overtly political outlook, a £2-plus cover price would put it into the same publishing arena as the New Statesman, The Spectator, or Holyrood Magazine. However, these are glossy magazines available in newsagents as well as by subscription.

One of the final reasons given for Business a.m.’s failure was that it made a mistake by delivering 98 per cent of its subscription copies to offices. It made it easy for people to pass it on and the designated consumer failed to buy his or her own copy. A target circulation of 25,000 became unobtainable. This indicates that Flagship Media should aim to sell the new paper in as many retail outlets as possible.

On the positive side, a low cost base could allow the group to get the paper started and keep the cover price lower than suggested here. To be successful, Flagship Media will need a distinctive approach, persistence and leadership to do something better than is already available.

By appointing Iain Martin editor of Scotland on Sunday, the Scotsman Publications left many media watchers baffled. With John McLellan recently deciding to move back to edit the Edinburgh Evening News and John McGurk’s appointment as editor of the Scotsman, Martin’s move from the daily title was interpreted by many as a demotion. But was it? While it is usually claimed that editing a daily newspaper is a more prestigious role than heading a Sunday or an evening title, that is hardly an unbreakable rule.

The notion holds at the Herald, which sold 22,624 more actively purchased copies than the Sunday Herald in September. However, Scotland on Sunday sold 13,477 more copies than the Scotsman in the same period. Add in the fact that SoS sold an additional 4,957 full price copies in England and it could be argued that it is now the only genuine pan-Scottish newspaper. Similarly, would Sunday Times (circulation 1.28m, excluding bulks) editor John Witherow consider himself junior to Times’ (588,755 actively purchased sales last month) editor Robert Thomson? I doubt it.

So, goodbye Berti. Given the recent headlines that have accompanied der Futbol’s stewardship of the national team, it was predictable that he would fire a childish verbal salvo at the tabloids when he was sacked. Recent coverage has undoubtedly been robust and anyone who spat at Vogts is guilty of disgraceful conduct. However, his claim that the “unacceptable power of the tabloid press to influence its readership” contributed to his demise is laughable. Even the most compliant football reporter and intellectually challenged fan would struggle to put a positive spin on Vogts’ efforts. Nine wins, sixteen defeats and seven draws. The German’s 782-word resignation statement ignored his record. The Scottish press and football fans, thankfully, did not.

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