MacMillan Media Monitor

By The Drum, Administrator

November 18, 2004 | 6 min read

Hard news catches readers, features hold them,” said Lord Northcliffe. It is the oldest continuously published English-language newspaper in the world. Starting as the Glasgow Advertiser in Gibson’s Wynd in 1783, it became the Glasgow Herald in 1805, went daily in 1859, and has been an important forum for debate ever since. It is a proud history. But what is the Herald’s future?

The fact that the Glasgow-based daily is to scrap its features department, due to anticipated price rises in newsprint, is worrying news. The mantra of Lord Northcliffe, creator of the Daily Mail, above, carries less gravity in the 21st century than in the 20th, but at the Herald those words could soon be deemed redundant. In as little as four weeks’ time it may become the only daily newspaper in Britain without dedicated features pages.

Such moves play directly into the hands of those who suggest that Newsquest (Herald & Times) is the latest media group to treat the Herald titles, including the Sunday Herald and the Evening Times, as cash cows. “This is being driven by budgets rather than what we would like to do editorially,” a senior source at the paper acknowledged. No Herald journalist – and I spoke to several – argued that the proposals had anything to do with the long-term interests of the paper.

A 24-page stitched and trimmed supplement on Mondays, similar to the recently launched public sector Society section, is to be used to offset the scrapping of features pages on weekdays, according to sources at the paper. However, it remains possible that one news page could be devoted to “newsy” features.

This cutback is another nail in the coffin for the Herald’s prospects. When management dropped Glasgow from the masthead in 1992, against the wishes of then editor the late Arnold Kemp, a process began which has diminished the paper’s identity throughout the UK. “When people in Westminster now talk about the Herald you don’t know if it’s Glasgow, Plymouth or Fakenham’s paper they’re referring to,” a Scottish newspaper editor told me recently.

Under the ownership of SMG the Herald was relaunched and significant sums invested in editorial. However, the media group’s hefty borrowings arrested long-term development of the Glasgow titles and eventually forced their sale. Having paid £216 million for the Herald, the Sunday Herald and the Evening Times in 2003, Newsquest cut budgets at all three papers earlier this year. Although assurances have been given that no jobs will be lost because of the latest changes – features staff will work for supplements rather than the main section of the newspaper – thoughts are already turning to Newsquest’s budget plans for next year. Recent developments raise fundamental questions about where Newsquest wants to take the Herald in the long term.

Managing director Tim Blott’s desire to see circulation improve at the Herald titles has previously been believable. But such a fundamental change as cutting features from the country’s leading quality newspaper makes it appear less so. It makes it more likely that floating readers will buy a national title rather than the Herald, or avoid buying a newspaper at all.

The unfortunate conclusion to be drawn is that Andrew Jaspan’s worst fears about Scottish newspapers are beginning to come true. Beaten by the resources of London-based rivals, it is only a matter of time before management decides to downsize. The silence of Herald editors and management – neither Mark Douglas-Home nor Tim Blott was available for comment regarding this article – serves only to strengthen Jaspan’s prediction. It also illustrates that Douglas-Home and his fellow editors, Richard Walker of the Sunday Herald and Charles McGhee of the Evening Times, are facing far bigger challenges than previously thought. Maintaining jobs seems the most that staff can hope for.

In the East, meanwhile, John McGurk has quickly put his stamp on the Scotsman. The new editor’s use of larger headlines and montage in front page stories about the Black Watch and the Executive’s proposed smoking ban has looked strong. More distinct visual links to items on inside pages have also been noticeable.

McGurk’s tweaking of the daily is a reminder of his considerable experience in tabloid newspapers, where the front page’s ability to capture eyeballs at newsstands is all-important. But October’s sales figures indicate that the Scotsman’s change in format has stabilised circulation rather than adding to it.

Iain Martin’s last month in charge of the Edinburgh daily delivered actively purchased sales of 62,165 in Scotland, 0.2 per cent up on last year. While McGurk recently remarked that he expects to see a “fair increase” in the Scotsman’s circulation, preliminary indications suggest this is unlikely. The decision to go compact daily at the start of the Edinburgh Festival was well judged, and dedicated coverage of events delivered a strong hike in sales. Actively purchased sales have flat lined since, although this remains an improvement on recent years.

When McGurk appeared with then Sunday Herald editor Andrew Jaspan on Newsnight Scotland in August they memorably clashed on the merits of the Scotsman’s decision to downsize. As was reported at the time, Jaspan said the Edinburgh daily was intent on following the Daily Mail into mid-market territory. McGurk, who was then Scotsman Publications’ editorial director, countered by saying that the Scotsman’s journalism would get better. Months later, as editor, he is now responsible for making good that pledge.

Meanwhile, the recent decision by the Herald group to convert to monthly auditing now allows Scotland’s national quality newspapers to be compared on a like-for-like basis for the first time in several years. The Herald’s sale of 78,238 in Scotland last month cannot be directly compared with last year, because of the change in audit rules. Sales of 79,685 in August and 79,513, in September indicate stability, although Newsquest internally audited figures for 2003 suggest a decline year on year. The Scottish Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday registered sales increases again last month. The Herald, as Scotland’s last remaining national broadsheet, and the Scotsman, as the only indigenous quality compact daily, now have their own market. However, any attempt by the Scotsman to move into mid-market territory would undoubtedly be ill judged. “The way we see it, that is what the Scotsman is trying to do,” a senior Daily Mail executive said. “If it turns out to be true there will only be one winner – us.”

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