Carstairs (right) and MacLeodOn Tuesday 19th April, Flagship Media’s managing director, Derek Carstairs, assured assembled staff that, despite several redundancies, the paper would continue ‘ad infinitum’. Two days later, he was exchanging confident emails with The Drum’s advertising department saying he remembered when The Drum launched ‘no one said it would last six months either’. The following weekend, he was brazen when – in a piece in The Sunday Herald – he offered to send a ‘nice portion of humble pie’ to detractors following six months of success at the paper.
Now, just two weeks’ later, the doors to The Standard’s Paisley offices are closed, 30 staff are unemployed, Carstairs’ dream is over and he’s £500,000 poorer. Or is he?
The abruptness of the closure shook many of the staff and many people in the industry. Seven weeks isn’t very long to gauge a newspaper’s success. Also the bullish attitude that Carstairs adopted gave confidence to many that he was serious in the venture he’d already invested £500,000 in. So what went wrong? Was Scotland just not ready for another newspaper? Or was it the open political leaning that put readers off?
Carstairs is adamant that the SNP didn’t give it enough help, despite the party prostituting its celebrity following by offering Sir Sean Connery as an interviewee. Former staff are pragmatic that while the seven week old title was good, that’s worth nothing if no one knows it exists because of a lack of marketing.
Nick Bibby was the business editor on The Standard and one of the first high-profile names to be made redundant. “I remain convinced that there is space in the market for another title, it just needs to be done right,” he says. “The fundamental problem was there was no marketing. He [Carstairs] had six TV ads on one night. His logic was that if he got 160 subscriptions that would pay for the adverts. But people don’t subscribe to newspapers. Subscription does not work as a model.”
Carstairs decided to go with the subscription model based on the flimsiest of research – a comment card distributed at an 800-strong SNP conference three years ago asking would delegates be interested in a pro-independence newspaper.
“They had done a lot of early research, I just think he was totally out of his league,” says Bibby. “The idea that all the people who said yes on that postcard were automatically going to subscribe was fantasy. Alright, we could have got more help from the SNP, to be honest we got more stories from the Greens and the Socialists than we did from the Nationalists.”
“I closed it specifically because I was appalled by the level of support, or lack of it, from the rank and file of the SNP, its executive and its paid employees,” says Carstairs. “We launched the paper at the SNP’s spring conference. On arriving there, we found that no space had been put aside for our stand, because we had been forgetten about. We approached most, if not all, of the 600 delegates at the show and I personally canvassed for subscriptions to supposed activists, who looked down their noses at me, while sitting back sipping their lattes. The SNP’s press office was unhelpful to the extent that, having asked Alex Salmond myself for suitable front page stories in the run up to the election, we were denied relevant stories, which were embargoed until the morning our paper went to print.”
Bibby believes the integral rules of newspaper publishing – marketing and distribution – ultimately led to its downfall. “Derek’s accustomed to trade publishing and in trade publishing, people do have to read it as it’s the only place thing that carries recruitment advertising for your sector,” he says. “The Guardian still advertises, The Sunday Herald still advertises and these are established titles that everyone’s heard of. I just don’t think that he understood that and he was reluctant to listen to the newsroom basically. He had a fantastically capable editor, some very experienced staff, all of whom said to him at one point or another that there needed to be more marketing behind this, here are some ideas of how to do it.”
The distribution logistics proved trying too. A deal with John Menzies gave it exposure to the marketplace, but the anomaly of being a weekly ‘news’ paper led to the paper being placed on the shelves with other weekly interest titles. “There were problems but they were being resolved,” says Bibby. “I think the format was also the main problem with distribution, because newsagents didn’t have an obvious space to carry it. A weekly newspaper on a Wednesday is a slightly odd thing. I spoke to at least one newsagent who returned the first edition at the end of Wednesday because they thought it was a daily and were quite surprised when their edition didn’t turn up the next day. He only appointed a circulation manager two weeks’ ago. A circulation manager is the first person you appoint. He wasn’t going to have a news editor either. Absolutely no business model there at all. You expect your publisher to know publishing slightly better than you do and to maybe have a couple of options of what to do if things go wrong, other than just firing people.”
The paper also suffered from confused targets for circulation, with the print run being halved in recent weeks. “It depended on what day you spoke to him, but at various points I was told our break even number was between 18,000 and 30,000 sales,” says Bibby. “The first edition, I think, was 11,800. We weren’t given any more sales figures. Our impression is that no other edition sold more than 10,000. That’s sheer guesswork.”
“To give the guy credit – and I won’t give him credit for much – he did let us get on with our jobs,” he goes on. “I’ve worked for publishers that were very intrusive and he was very old-fashioned and very proper. He banned advertising staff from coming into the editorial room, they weren’t allowed to speak to us. He assured us that he had revenue for at least two and a half years. He says that he’s spent half a million pounds, which I don’t believe. The silly thing is, he did spend a lot of money, but for tiny amounts more, we could have had a decent marketing campaign.”
Carstairs is angry that people are looking at his financial investment and criticising both it and the lack of marketing. “The paper did not close due to financial difficulties,” he says. “At the time of closure, we had sufficient resources to maintain it, at its rate of losses, for further six months while carrying out the necessary marketing campaign.”
Negative publicity by other media also riled Carstairs, with his last email to The Drum before he closed the paper accusing it of writing negative things about him, but Bibby believes the majority of the paper’s peers respected it. “We were slightly slated by The Scotsman, but if you’re not slated by The Scotsman, you’re not doing your job properly,” he says. “The comment in The Sunday Herald was fair. The Mirror gave us a real kicking. But they have been in talks with the SNP about changing the stance of The Scottish Mirror to back the SNP rather than Labour and they were therefore understandably pissed off when we launched and stole that territory off them. There was a real belief among most Scottish journalists that it could succeed.”
The decision to close the paper shocked all involved. “The attitude at that meeting was basically ‘how dare he give up?’ none of us were giving up, we were still up for a fight,” he says. “We felt that Derek was just walking away. There was certainly a lot of talk of a management buyout, but obviously I wasn’t at the meeting when the paper was folded, but Derek just announced at that point that he wasn’t selling the title to anyone, so we dropped that idea. We all came to it because we’re passionate about the country. In the very specific meaning of the word, it wasn’t the sensible decision to take the jobs.”
All the journalists involved have good things to say about their colleagues but only criticism for Carstairs. It seems Carstairs feels the same about them. He certainly doesn’t share the same sentimentality for his experience as the other people involved, including former editor Alex MacLeod who took a paycut. “Is it reasonable to expect that, given the SNP’s arrogance, apathy and incompetence, I would be prepared to commit perhaps an additional £500,000 on top of that already spent, and engage in a two year, life or death struggle, putting at risk my excellent, committed Irish staff?” he says. “I think not”.