Sunday Herald backing Scottish independence a ‘risk that paid off’ says MD as Herald & Times Group reports editorial and commercial success

Newsquest’s Herald & Times Group has reported a major lift in its Herald and Sunday Herald titles as a result of the Scottish independence referendum and a boost in the metered paywall site’s subscriptions.

Backing: The Sunday Herald supports Scottish independence

According to the Group’s figures, the daily Herald newspaper’s print sales rose by 7,500 copies the day after the referendum and by nearly 10,000 the next day.

For the month of September, its sister title the Sunday Herald saw a lift of 64 per cent in its print circulation while its last edition before the referendum saw a 111 per cent circulation increase on the same edition last year.

Meanwhile, digital subscriptions have increased to 13,500, a figure which has more than doubled since the Herald & Times Group reported online sign-ups had overtaken print subscriptions for the first time at the beginning of the year.

Speaking to The Drum, Herald & Times Group managing director Tim Blott said the circulation boosts had significantly slowed the decline of the daily Herald’s circulations and prompted a complete turnaround for the Sunday Herald.

“The interesting thing with the Herald is that circulation has continued to perform well,” he said. “Looking at its figures, it had been in double-digit decline last year and now it’s down to about four per cent, which I think is one of the best performers in the market.

“So despite the fact that the Herald ultimately decided that it couldn’t support independence, the circulation has still been strong – not as strong as the Sunday Herald, but it has still been very strong in comparison with other newspapers.”

The Sunday Herald’s success is broadly considered to be down to its decision to become the only newspaper in Scotland to back independence. It has since enjoyed a dramatic lift in circulation and online interaction, and Blott said the move was a “risk that paid off”.

“When the editor took the decision to support independence, obviously it was a risk but it was a risk that paid off,” he said. “I suppose post the referendum vote the interesting thing was whether or not as many people would continue to purchase the paper and I’m very pleased to see that many people are.

“It’s great and I’m really pleased for the editor and the journalists who’ve done a terrific job. It’s rare for newspapers to support a particular political ideal these days, but they supported it, went for it and it was successful.”

As well as an editorial risk, the decision – which Blott said was taken with full editorial independence – was a commercial risk, but while the stances of both papers did prompt a negative response from some readers and advertisers, Blott said it was outweighed by the positive reactions.

“When the Sunday Herald took the decision to support independence we did have some advertisers and subscribers react negatively, but that was far outweighed by the number of people who supported independence and bought the papers, and similarly from other advertisers,” he said.

“We did have some negative reaction to both those polarised positions but overall commercially both from an advertiser and a subscriber point of view it was positive.”

However, despite the positive sentiment, the Herald & Times Group, which is owned by Newsquest, has come under fire in recent social media campaigns over plans to move some sub-editing duties to a central subbing hub in Wales despite the circulation and sales successes this year for its titles in Scotland.

When asked how he responded to social media campaigns calling on Newsquest to keep the jobs in Scotland, Blott said the publisher has been outsourcing sub-editing work for years and insisted decisions over content and editorial would remain in Scotland. Up to 12 jobs could be at risk in Scotland as a result of the changes.

“We first outsourced some of our subbing to the Press Association about three or four years ago,” he said. “It doesn’t impact on the overall editorial budget or the control over the editorial budget or how content is chosen, it’s all done in Scotland.”

Blott added that while some positions in production roles were at risk, the Herald & Times Group is set to take on 18 new members of staff in its s1 online local news and services arm.

The wider transferral of production duties to the subbing hub in Wales has affected Newsquest titles throughout the country, leading to potential strike action from NUJ members.

Moving forward for the Herald & Times digital services, Blott added that an action plan had been drawn up with the editor and staff on the Evening Times in a bid to improve its performance – which he said had failed to meet expectations during the referendum – while a review of the online integration between the Herald and Sunday Herald is underway to find a way to distinguish more clearly between the brands.

Rival newspaper the Scotsman has also reported an uplift in circulation as a result of peak independence referendum interest.

Meanwhile, a recent YouGov poll found that despite an improved performance for traditional news organisations, members of the public said social media was a more powerful influence in decision making than newspapers.

For more on the role of social media and rise of an alternative new media, watch The Drum’s investigation below.

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