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McGurk Interview

By The Drum | Administrator

January 14, 2005 | 10 min read

Near the beginning of the film Citizen Kane the main character shocks his accountant and former guardian by proclaiming that he intends to take over the running of a small daily newspaper. The reasoning, as read aloud by the outraged accountant, is that “I think it would be fun.”

It would be interesting to see if, in the cutthroat world of modern newspapers, the Kane character would feel the same way. Because the Scottish newspaper marketplace, in particular, has built itself a reputation of being more ferocious than fun. In the face of falling circulations, quality and tabloid editors alike are engaged in a war to attract readers and, judging by the sniping seen regularly in the pages of the Scottish press, nobody is taking prisoners.

It’s a market that John McGurk, the recently installed editor of the Scotsman, is no stranger to. McGurk has been with the Scotsman Publications Ltd for ten years, during which time he has edited both Scotland On Sunday and its sister title the Edinburgh Evening News, before becoming editorial director of the company. However, in November 2004 McGurk left his group role to once again take up a position on the front line – this time to focus his attentions on the company’s flagship publication - the Scotsman. In December McGurk took some time out to speak to The Drum about the changes he has already instigated at the now compact newspaper and what may lie ahead.

Taking over the newspaper following its switch to compact format, McGurk has since altered the layout of the Scotsman’s front page to make it more appealing to readers and more attractive and intriguing to newsstand browsers. Gone are any lengthy and wordy articles in favour of strong images and strong signposting to the content inside.

It’s a change that the editor is optimistic about. He says: “There’s been a lot of feedback from people that I’ve talked to. Of course people that I talk to are going to say it’s marvellous. But there hasn’t been a lot of feedback from the readership, which I think is a very good thing, because readers aren’t slow to tell you if they think something is bad or if they think something is not to their liking. So I’m happy about that.”

This re-design followed an initial bedding-in period for the newspaper’s new format – a change which, says McGurk, has been taken in planned stages.

“The Scotsman went from broadsheet to compact last August, and at that time we regarded that as stage one of this project,” he explains. “What we had to do was provide a new compact Scotsman which was not alien to Scotsman readers – who we believe are like Times readers - they are traditional and they are very much of the view that the Scotsman is a paper that has a history and all that stuff. So stage one was quite simply to produce a compact newspaper, which was, in effect, a boiled-down broadsheet. We did that deliberately so as not to give readers the impression that this was a completely new paper.”

The company has made much of the compact’s success, citing a halt in the Scotsman’s long term circulation decline as proof that the decision to down-size was the right one.

“The Scotsman was a newspaper which was, like all newspapers, and especially broadsheets, gently declining,” adds McGurk. “It was declining probably at the rate of about five or six per cent a year. Now we’ve achieved stability. Achieving stability in this particular marketplace is an extremely good thing.”

With McGurk now installed in the editor’s hotseat, and the Scotsman readership having had time to get used to the new compact dimensions of the paper, it’s time to take the evolution to the next step. McGurk says: “Stage two of the project is really embracing the compact and that’s why the Scotsman has moved on with a far more distinctive look.

“You don’t need me to tell you that the marketplace in Scotland is probably one of the most ferocious anywhere in the world. The Scotsman has to produce a look which is distinctive among the 16 morning newspapers you can choose from in Scotland. There’s no point in trying to look like the Independent, the Times, the Daily Mail or anything like that. The Scotsman has to produce a distinctive look and if we get that distinctive look correct then we’ll also be able to create more distinctive appeal. That’s why we’ve moved into what I would call a ground-breaking situation. We’re the only newspaper in the country now that’s attempting this – to produce a page one that is distinctive, which is far more of a showcase and more of a menu of what is inside this newspaper.”

Along with the changes to the paper, however, McGurk is keen that the Scotsman retains its traditional strengths, among them its editorial campaigning.

“Of course one of the ways of producing distinctive content is to include campaigning journalism,” he says. “It’s to hone in on subjects and agendas, which the Scotsman can do very well. Certainly I hope that the Scotsman will become more of a campaigning newspaper and more of an investigative newspaper because at the end of the day all of the other bits and pieces which go into the newspaper, the general news, you can get elsewhere.

“What we have to do is channel our resources as much as possible, into creating distinctive material that will fall into this pattern of a distinctive product.”

Like all newspaper editors, McGurk’s job will involve attracting new readers to the title while retaining the loyal readers it already has on board. So does he have a vision of who the ideal Scotsman reader will be as the newspaper moves forward on its journey?

“In my mind the ideal Scotsman reader is anyone over the age of 30,” comments McGurk. “It’s the dream of every newspaper to have a young readership. You have to replace readers for obvious reasons as the newspaper continues and the more young readers we can attract through the compact the better. At the same time though the grey market is now a very effective force in the economy of this country and they are the people who have the time and the money to spend. Therefore they are another very important area for us from an advertising point of view. Jaguar Cars, BMWs, Shaker Kitchens are all things that you would expect the more affluent to buy and the more affluent are generally middle-aged and upwards.”

As well as competing editorially with its competitors, the Scotsman is also faced with a fight in the marketing arena. Together with advertising agency Citigate Smarts, the paper is embarking on an advertising drive to raise its profile amongst potential readers, a development that brings its own challenges.

“Our problem in life, I suppose, is that we would regard our competition not so much as the Herald but more the Times, the Independent and the Daily Mail,” explains McGurk. “Of course these newspapers do have much deeper pockets than we do. What we have to do is be cleverer and spend our money more wisely. We don’t have the many millions that the Daily Mail or News International have, we don’t have our own CD manufacturing factory. So the challenge for the Scotsman is to somehow take these newspapers on. Our challenge is to fight them off and spend wisely. So that’s what we’re going to try and do this year.”

Though McGurk would not comment on the specifics of the newspaper’s marketing strategy, it’s a safe bet that the budget will be spent primarily in the East of Scotland, as McGurk is keen to maintain his predecessor’s focus on that marketplace. “I’m of the view that the West is the West and the East is the East.” He says. “Many attempts have been made over the years by the Scotsman to push into the West and many attempts have been made by the Herald to push into the East and they always end with the same thing – we just cancel each other out. History tells us that the Scotsman could spend £10m in the West of Scotland and put on very little sale. That’s just a fact of life.”

McGurk and the Scotsman have learned hard lessons about cracking new marketplaces, but there are others who seem set to begin learning those same lessons. Flagship Media, the Northern Ireland-based company that announced plans to launch a new Scottish weekly title last year, will face a number of challenges as it does so.

McGurk is doubtful about the new title’s chances in the marketplace. He remarks: “One of the interesting things nowadays with technology is that you can produce boutique titles, which are aimed at specific niche markets, but Scotland doesn’t have a very good track record of launching new newspapers. It has a very poor track record of launching new papers, whether they’re weeklies or magazines. Certainly I can think of all the newspaper launches in Scotland in the last 20 years, there’s not been that many, and they’ve all ended in failure, including the Sunday Herald – which, after five years, still loses probably around £3m a year.

“If you think back to Caledonia magazine, to Hiya magazine, to even the Scottish Daily News, which I worked on back in 1975, there’s no history of success for new product launches. The market is extremely competitive, so I hope that whoever is thinking of launching this new product is doing their homework properly.”

The weeks following McGurk’s appointment saw a number of changes at the newspaper, which McGurk states were all aimed at getting the most out of the Scotsman’s staff. He explains: “We haven’t thrown anybody out, or anything like that. There’s some big talents on this newspaper, some very good people, and it’s a question really of getting that talent in the right place on the newspaper. It’s a question of harnessing talents and trying to improve our organisation to improve our content. That’s really what it’s about.”

As editor of the Scotsman McGurk, as with the editors of Scotland’s other papers, has his work cut out for him. At this stage only time will tell whether or not his tenure as editor will indeed see the prolonged rise in circulation that McGurk is seeking. It seems to be a challenge, however, that the former editorial director is keen to face.

Whether it’ll always be fun, well, that’s another matter.

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