A new standard
It all began with a small recruitment ad looking for people that “loved all things Scottish”. At first, perhaps, gossip that a Belfast-based publisher was to become the latest to launch an assault on the Scottish newspaper market were brushed aside by many as unthinkable. But, some six months after that innocuous recruitment ad first set the cat among the pigeons, the first issue of the Scottish Standard hit the streets on Wednesday morning.
Memories of Scotland’s most recent newspaper launch, the ill-fated daily business and politics tabloid Business am, which closed after two years, is still relatively fresh in people’s minds, particularly the 125 people that lost their jobs. Even the failed Sunday Scot continues to be a topic of conversation among Scottish media commentators. High profile failures such as these have merely served to further reinforce the theory that Scotland has absolutely no room whatsoever for any more newspaper titles. However, it seems nobody took the time to explain this theory to Scottish Standard editor Alex Macleod, and managing director Derek Carstairs, who both describe it as utter nonsense.
When The Drum meets the brains behind the Scottish Standard it is a week before the first issue goes to press. In his office, MacLeod is sitting at his desk, while Carstairs casually smokes a cigarette perching on a table. Both men, and the 14-strong team sitting close by on the editorial floor, appear calm and collected considering the size of the task that lies ahead of them in the coming weeks and months.
“There is definitely a gap in the Scottish market for this product,” says MacLeod. “There are many daily newspapers that operate here, but not one addresses the pro-independence market specifically. When you take into consideration that 660,000 people voted for pro-independence parties at the last parliamentary elections that’s a huge number of people that don’t have a natural home to go to. So, purely from a commercial point of view we believe there is a gap to be filled.”
Carstairs, who launched his Flagship Media Group in Belfast, with just £800 in his pocket, nine years ago, now governs a publishing group with a turnover of £2.5m per year, and more than 100 people on his payroll. His company now publishes a range of trade newspapers and websites covering the construction sector, film and video industries, and also recruitment websites. As a long-standing supporter of Scottish independence, Carstairs also truly believes that his latest product will find readers.
He said: “This publication is a big part of what got me into publishing in the first place. Ten years ago I was an SNP activist and I remember that shortly before one election the press turned on the SNP with a visceral nastiness. That made me think something was not quite right. When a third of people want something they need a voice to be heard.
“I want to make it clear that we are not the SNP’s newspaper. It is just that I believe independence is the solution for this country, because we are tax farmed and asset stripped. We are a pro-independence newspaper that is for anyone that believes in that, and not just the SNP.”
Carstairs is vehement in his refusal to buy into the age-old clichÃ© that the Scottish newspaper market is the most competitive and crowded in Europe.
He continues: “Saying that the Scottish newspaper market is overcrowded is absolute rubbish. It’s bullshit. The only people that say a new newspaper can’t be done are those people currently working in newspapers. When you talk to the punters they think it is a great idea. The best example I can think of to demonstrate the viability of this idea is a buyer for Tesco who said to me, surely there is already a nationalist newspaper in Scotland, isn’t there?”
While MacLeod came on board in December 2004, Carstairs has been working on bringing this project to life for more than a year. Much of his time has been spent researching the market and he is confident that after 500,000 telephone interviews, 40,000 of which have been with businesses he will look to support the paper financially, his business model and strategy can, and will, work.
So, why have none of the major newspaper publishing groups in Scotland ever looked to plug what Carstairs now sees as an obvious gap?
He said: “To launch a Scottish nationalist newspaper is in itself to challenge the status quo. If a thing works for you why would you want to change things? If you’re making a good living out of the paper that you already have in the marketplace why would you want to change it?
“Also, in Scotland the ownership of newspapers is concentrated in a very small number of hands, and much of the decision-making is done in London. I believe it is fundamentally a very bad thing for democracy when all the national newspapers in a country are owned by a very small elite group of people to which Scotland is just a small region.
“I think being able to say to people that our newspaper is the only Scottish-owned national and the buck stops in Scotland is a very strong business model.”
MacLeod’s Scottish Standard team consists of 14 (including designers and copywriters), a substantially smaller number than were employed by the launch team at Business am. Their strategy is to keep it tight in the early days and focus on creating a quality product that people will want to read. So, who will read it and where will readers come from?
“Initially I see us as being a double buy,” says MacLeod. “Because we are only out once a week, and in the middle of the week when the market is not as packed, I expect people to buy their Daily Record or their Herald and they’ll initially buy us to see what we are like. I hope we will be good enough for them to continue buying us.
“The best way to describe the Scottish Standard is to say it is like a Sunday newspaper, but without the supplements. We will obviously do news, although we will not try and compete with the dailies on a hard-news story. What we have to do is get more exclusives, do more investigations, carry more editorial campaigns and more news feature-type stories. We will have a comprehensive Scottish business section, and it will be a positive look at business in Scotland. We are not just interested in the 300 jobs lost kind of stories, we will also be happy to cover the 300 jobs created-type stories that many others often do not want to include. We will have a close and grownup look at politics. We will not always knock the Parliament, but obviously if it needs a kicking we will give it one. We have someone up at the Parliament about two or three days a week, and in time will have a permanent reporter based there. It is our aim to have reporters based in all the major cities in Scotland.”
Carstairs believes that Scottish Standard readers will cover a wide demographic as they are following a voting habit. He adds: “I do expect us to be very strong in the north east as that is an area where the desire for constitutional change is strongest. I expect readers to be ABC1 and C2. I don’t think we’ll take much away from The Record, The Mirror or The Sun, as we are not producing that kind of product.”
Despite being relatively small in physical number, there appears to be no limit to the ambition that Carstairs and MacLeod share for the future of the new tabloid.
Carstairs says: “We want to dominate the marketplace by trading on our uniqueness as a truly Scottish product. We know that The Daily Mail tripled its sale in the eighties by calling itself a Scottish product, which it isn’t; so we know the effectiveness of the Scottish national identity. But we are looking to go daily in time and I think the potential is there to do that. I have already canvassed figures and I believe we could breakeven on a daily with the same kind of sales figures Business am had (circa 12,000), and that is not a tall order.”
The tragic histories of the Sunday Scot and Business am now serve as a reminder of how tough launching a new newspaper can be – even when money isn’t a scarce resource. But what have MacLeod and Carstairs learnt from watching their rise and falls?
“We have certainly learned things from the demise of Business am and Sunday Scot, and also from successful launches like Sunday Herald,” says MacLeod. “The Business am market was very narrow and too competitive. It was also subscription-based, which meant 30 people were reading the same copy. They also spent a lot of money early on. They bought in a lot of good people on very high salaries. There’s nothing wrong with that if you can afford it. The same with The Sunday Scot. A lot of very good people went to work there on high salaries, but they didn’t get the sales they needed and the plug was pulled. Maybe the plug was pulled too early on that. If it could have struggled on for another couple of months they might have established it, because their last issue was the best and they could have built on that. So, we are going to start slowly as a weekly. We have a small staff for the kind of thing we are going to do and our salaries aren’t inflated, which ultimately means our budget will go further. We have a much better chance of surviving because of that. Even in the worse-case scenario we will survive, and we wouldn’t need to do a lot better than that to flourish because of the way things have been set up here.”
It goes without saying that the Scottish Standard’s rivals will react to its launch, which is something that Carstairs says he is ready to face: “ I do expect the other newspapers to react to our launch. It will be brutal, it will be underhand and it will be nasty, but like all things it will pass, eventually. I have been there before and I have had my name dragged through the mud, but it doesn’t bother me. If anyone wants to take me on that’s fine, but I do have an attitude for settling scores.”
With a cover price of 70p it is not ridiculous to expect people to sample the Scottish Standard alongside their usual Wednesday purchase in the early weeks. Carstairs and MacLeod know that what they have to do is ensure that their team of reporters can keep them coming back for more.
MacLeod is respected as a solid newspaperman, while Carstairs is still much of an unknown quantity in Scotland. That said, their initial low-key approach could mean they will sneak up on many pro-independent Scots unawares, and, who knows, might once and for all lay to rest the rumours that Scotland cannot support any more newspapers.