DC Thomson Deal

By The Drum, Administrator

April 6, 2006 | 8 min read

(picture supplied by Dundee City Council)

Never mind the “Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd”, it was the smell of the newsprint that got me. Counting out copies of the Courier for delivery at 6a.m. each day, the aroma in the crowded corner shop was everywhere. It might not be everyone’s idea of “intoxicating” but it certainly got me hooked. I have been into newspapers ever since.

The number of papers stuffed into my canvas shoulder bag for the dawn hike told their own story: 52 Couriers, two Daily Express, and one Daily Worker. If ever a paper had a stranglehold on its market, it was the Dundee Courier (or the Courier and Advertiser as it was then known).

The Courier seemed changeless. It was the last paper in the world to stick to a front page of small ads (e.g., tractor-orraman wanted) only succumbing to the fad of front-page news in the 1980s. The readers didn’t mind. As far away as Stirling, across Fife and deep into Perthshire – supposedly the county with most millionaires – the Courier was king.

Some people thought that when the Scottish Daily Express, hobbled with wildcat labour disputes, pulled out of Glasgow’s Albion Street in 1974, DC Thomson might move into the city with the broadsheet Courier. After all, they had a printing plant in the city, and an established presence with the Sunday Post. But it was not to be (although ironically DC Thomson now prints the tabloid Daily Express on their Port Dundas machines).

Today DCT is still top dog in Dundee and across the area. And as of this month, top dog in Aberdeen as well. The swoop to purchase the Aberdeen Press and Journal and Aberdeen Evening Express, for £132 million, surprised everyone. Newspaper analysts hailed it as a “brilliant” move.

“In one stroke they have made themselves impregnable in the in the North and East of Scotland for the foreseeable future,” said one former director of a rival company. “And the employees like it too: they know these bosses are in it for the long term.”

It’s been quite a year for Scotland’s homegrown media. The Johnston group purchase of The Scotsman for £160 million was likewise a fillip for Scottish pride and business acumen. To tell the truth, they had been expected by many to scoop up the P & J too. But instead of Johnston, a publicly quoted company well known throughout the UK, DC Thomson – the dark horse from Dundee – ran out the winner.

Commentators referred to DC, a family-owned private company, as “secretive”. One writer on The Guardian said the group “was best known for the Beano comic”, a remark that really understated DC’s strength.

What about the Sunday Post, whose sale at one time topped 1.6 million and made its way into the Guinness Book of Records as the paper with the highest market penetration of any in the world, being read, as I recall, by around 90per cent of the Scottish population?

What about the group’s peerless gravure printing operation in Dundee, now one of only two in the UK (the other being the former Maxwell-owned company Polestar)? High quality brochures roll off the presses in Dundee by the million.

So who are the Thomsons who have kept the “J” in what used to be known as the city of three Js: Jute, Jam and Journalism? “Gentlemen publishers” is how one person who has done business with the group described them. “They are a family firm and excellent people to deal with.”

The board is still dominated by men named Thomson. But with the accession of “Mr Andrew” to the chairmanship last year, the speculation is that the sleeping giant is stirring.

You could almost hear the sigh of relief in Aberdeen that the papers had been purchased by DC Thomson, known as a patriarchal employer, rather than an unknown third party. A writer in the P&J noted that Andrew Thomson had pledged that DC Thomson would not interfere in the local running of their new papers or their “long and enviable” history of campaigning.

“The content and editorial policy of The Press and Journal and the Evening Express will continue to be set by the people who know its area best — and they are based in Aberdeen,” declared Mr Andrew.

Striking though it was, the P and J purchase may not have been the first sign of an awakening giant. In December, Thomson bought for £85 million Puzzler Media, the world’s largest puzzle content provider, with annual sales of 20 million magazines, and the popular Sudoku as part of the portfolio.

Last month Celador International and Puzzler, now Scottish-owned, announced a worldwide deal to develop television formats based on Puzzler’s games. Now we have the P & J deal. Things are certainly moving along. Could the group’s flagship brand, The Sunday Post, be next in line for a shot in the arm?

I have to declare an interest here. My first job in newspapers was on the Sunday Post. When I walked aged 18 into the editorial room on the second floor of the Courier building in Dundee’s Meadowside, straight from school, I was embarking on a journalistic learning curve like no other.

There was editor J.B.Martin, puffing at his pipe in the corner as he reflected on whether one particular letter or another was good enough to be the lead letter. There was George Beattie, later to become editor of the Courier, wrestling with a rewrite of the leading article. And there, once a week, was “Mr Harold”, chairman of the company, helping out with the headlines for the Centre pages, by trying them out in a loud voice across the room. So “Singing polly-wolly-doodle all the day” didn’t fit the typeface? Make it fit, then.

It does sound a bit quirky now. But this was a thoroughly professional operation at the top of its game. Much of the paper was written by the readers: the Queries Man (every letter got a reply); the Doc Replies; the Francis Gay column and, of course, the letters page. All that and the Broons and Oor Wullie too.

As I joined excursions with Brian Wilson to the likes of Methil, to conduct the Sunday Post quiz, people would tell me. “I never read the Sunday Post, except for... ” And there was always an “except for”. The paper had something for everyone.

Years later in the 1980s as editor of the Sunday Mail I tried to give the same attention to detail and balance as I had seen in Meadowside.

With the help of a great and dedicated team on the Mail, it worked – and we finally passed our Scottish rival in sales, on our way to an all-time high monthly figure of 903,000 in the early 80s. It is difficult to believe how circulations have tumbled in the years since.

The Sunday Post’s most recent six-monthly ABC figure was 468,414, down 2.8 per cent on the previous year – not exactly a triumph but better than most of the others. The Sunday Mail February figure was 535,970, down 5 per cent on the same month the previous year. With a gap of around 70,000 apart, the papers are closer than they have been for some years. But that’s talking about numbers only. In content and in style the two have seldom been further apart; indeed it is difficult to think of readers making the switch from one to the other without thinking they had landed in a foreign country. For that reason alone, the Sunday Post might have to think about building from the ground up, aiming for a younger audience, while continuing to engage their older readers.

The Sunday Mail, now fatter by far than its rival, is a very different package from what it was 10 or 15 years ago, although it retains that old faithful campaigner, The Judge.

The Sunday Post has many of the same features that brought it success in the past: a first-rate Political Round-up; the Francis Gay column, now somewhat buried on a left-hand page; The Doc; Our Wullie and the Broons, back in black-and-white after an unsuccessful sortie into colour.

The Post could be helped by cross-promotion with its new partners, the Press and Journal and Evening Express. So far, DC Thomson has given no indication if that is a road that will be taken.

One thing is certain. If Mr Andrew and his team want to put the Sunday Post back at the head of the class, they will really have to pull something unexpected out of the heat. What may be worrying the people in the Sunday Mail office, is that they have already shown a talent for doing just that.

Noel Young is a former junior sub-editor, the

Sunday Post and former editor, the Sunday Mail.


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