Are Scottish newspapers under threat?
In what could already be described as a period of low morale, Neil’s comments last week that the main Scottish newspaper titles – The Herald and The Scotsman – would be defunct within ten years, will hardly have garnered him a new scoop of admirers.
Although one analyst told The Drum that Neil’s message may have been received more favourably had it emanated from an economic thinktank, rather than a polarising figure whose own record on press development is questionable.
What is undeniable is that sales of Scottish stand-alone titles are in decline and the advertising revenue stream is hard to maintain, despite the increasing penetration of newspapers’ online presences.
Scottish editions of the Daily Mail and The Sun consistently outperform sales figures for The Herald and The Scotsman. As Neil puts it, “on current trends, if Scotland ever did divorce from the UK, it could end up the only independent country in the world without vibrant independent newspapers of its own; its citizens preferring instead the tartan editions of the newspapers of another country.”
Sales of The Herald and The Scotsman make both titles “look more like the Yorkshire Post (also owned by Johnston) than The Times or Telegraph – regional newspapers with only cursory, usually wire-service, coverage of events outside their region. Cutting costs has become the norm – The Scotsman recently banned the use of first-class stamps – and rolling programmes of redundancies seem never-ending,” said Neil.
However, talking to The Drum, Michael Johnson, managing director of Scotsman Publications, claimed Andrew Neil was being overly pessimistic, and says he is absolutely certain that the press landscape will adapt as technology and markets evolve.
“I am absolutely certain that the press across the whole of the UK and across Europe will look very different, because the world is changing,” he says.
“It is a multi-platform world, and the mix of digital versus print will change still further. We will remain as powerful and compelling in ten years time as we are today. I am certain that the Scottish press as we know it today will still be touching millions of people’s lives and still proving to be a very powerful player in the news information marketplace.”
“What Andrew Neil fails to understand is that the reach of the Scottish indigenous media – principally The Scotsman and The Herald – has never been greater. While circulations of the print product are down – and I cannot avoid that – the growth of digital is such that The Scotsman in all its forms touches more Scots today than ever before. Just as the free revolution changed the balance between paid and frees, similarly digital has come along and we are taking a holistic audience approach, and offering the people who want to connect with The Scotsman as many opportunities as possible.”
Not everyone agrees, though. Jack Irvine, executive chairman of Media House and leading industry commentator, believes that the decline observed by Neil is self-inflicted and very real, but could be reversed if newspaper owners and editors capitalised on the potential advertising revenue available.
“Andrew has a point. The major problem we are facing is that there seems to be a weekly newspaper ethos that has come in to running the nationals,” he says.
“The Scotsman and The Herald are now being run by weekly newspaper groups, bringing weekly newspaper perspectives. That is not a positive thing if you would like to see nationals run the way they used to be run.”
Scotsman editor Mike Gilson wrote to The Guardian lamenting that it was becoming ‘too tedious to respond to Andrew Neil’s usual self-serving guff’, claiming that Scotsman journalism “is reaching more people than ever through newspaper readership and the continuing success story that is Scotsman.com.
“Someone has to talk of the 115,000 Scots signed up for daily email news bulletins from Scotsman journalists,” he added.
“That’s fine Mike; how much money are you making from your website?” asked Irvine, who notes that Scottish titles are not fully exploiting the revenue possibilities of online advertising.
“News International said that in five years 50 percent of its income would come from the web. That to me shows that Murdoch is way ahead of the curve. I see no indication that papers like The Herald or The Scotsman will be able to do that. One of the sad reasons is that they are so small. It is easier for The Sun to do it because they have volume.”
The Scotsman and The Herald, Irvine argues, are not competing in this field due principally to their regional – if not local – feel.
“Because you have ‘weekly’ management, and ‘weekly’ journalists running national papers, I think they are starting to look like glorified weeklies, and that is not the way ahead,” he says.
“Weekly newspapers get a return of around 30 percent. You are lucky if you get a return on a daily of five percent. What they are trying to do is get it up to 30 percent, and the only way you are going to achieve that is by cutting costs and staff, instead of paying top quality journalists. It is the death of a thousand cuts. You cannot get that through to those of a weekly paper mindset.”
Tim Blott, managing director of Newsquest Glasgow, which owns The Herald, concedes that it is a difficult time for the newspaper industry in the UK due to economic and structural change in the market, and says that Newsquest will need to evolve and restructure to meet the changing needs.
“The newspaper industry has weathered other storms in the past including television, radio, free newspapers and now the web,” he says. “However, we are still here and still successful. The Herald & Times has the best newspaper portfolio in Scotland, the best internet business in s1, a thriving magazine division and one of the best print plants in the UK. That gives me confidence in the future.”
The key to survival today is finding the tipping point which balances offline and online advertising revenue, and making this interface work, according to Simon Fairclough of the Scottish Newspaper Publishers Association. “To extrapolate circulation changes into the future and find some point when newspapers disappear in a puff of smoke in ten years time is simplistic nonsense,” he says.
“The business model has to keep pace with technological change. Those are quite natural moves. What is absolutely, blindingly clear is that people are turning to The Herald, The Scotsman, the Falkirk Herald, the Stirling Observer – whether online or offline – for information, comment, news and also the commercial messages brought to us through advertising.
“No one is going to ignore or undervalue the contribution to the commercial muscle available to Scotland through its newspapers, weeklies and dailies. There is a point at which the focus on revenue moves from offline to online. That will have consequences for the business model. It is a model which is changing, run by sharp minded people with an eye to the bottom-line, who are committed to adjusting that model for a new age. We are in transition.
“The people responsible for Scotland’s press are sufficiently astute to recognise the model will have to change, and they will have to second guess where that tipping point between online and offline is going to be. People will still need to consume the information that newspapers deliver, and the advertising messages which are so vital.”
However, Michael Johnson robustly defends The Scotsman’s model and believes that the paper is well positioned to adapt to the changes ushered in by digital technology.
“The print product still remains relevant. Despite what Andrew Neil says, the copy sales of The Scotsman are significantly ahead of any of the English titles. It is an absolute core product,” he said.
“All of the daily media in the UK and across Europe face huge challenges in the digital age. It is a difficult time. But we are justly proud of what we have achieved in the digital age. This is a journey that is only five years old. Who knows what will happen next?”
Jack Irvine, however, maintains that the Scottish titles are destined for abrupt failure if they cannot arrest the circulation decline and boost their advertising revenues. “The Scotsman, in particular, is approaching the terminal ward. Ten years? It could be fucked in two. A circulation of 45,000 is absolutely deadly. It can’t go on much longer.”