The Web of Fear

Iain Hepburn is a journalist, podcaster and the former digital editor of the Daily Record and editor of STV Local. He is currently a multimedia producer, director of brand journalism with social media agency Contently Managed and a misanthropic commentator on the media.

Follow him on Twitter at @iainmhepburn

Enquirer asks questions of the press - but is it too little too late?

Last week, as a little test, I posed a question via Twitter to Scotland’s editorial digirati - the journalists and editors who, by definition, hold the future of Scotland’s news consumption in their paws. Specifically, I asked them what one thing they would change to improve the state of online news this side of Hadrian’s Wall.

A few stuck their head above the parapet and gave answers. Stewart Kirkpatrick, bold editor of the Caledonian Mercury, suggested “all those who sound off about supporting digital actually advertised with Scottish content producers”.

STV digital news editor Matt Roper offered “Stop working for the format and concentrate on the journalism”.

And former Daily Record digital overlord Craig Brown challenged “Stop trying to be entertainment and start being news - invest in more talent, and spend time and money in investigative journalism”.

A couple more put forward suggestions, but were only prepared to do so off the record or anonymously, in order to avoid causing any political ructions with their employers.

Most interestingly was the number that didn’t respond. They clearly saw it, thought it worthy of consideration because they retweeted the question out to their own followers, and beyond that. Yet they didn’t feel either able or willing to offer any one suggestion that might fix our business.

And that’s the most telling thing of all - the factor that sums up why we don’t get or do digital news properly in this country yet, and why we may never be able to, with the dread clock of armageddon ticking away behind us all.

It’s the fear factor.

Few in Scotland’s media are in such a secure position that they can afford to speak the truth about the possibly terminal - and that is the real risk we face - collapse of our media industry.

And it is the whole media, too. Due to a trip to the Cotswolds - the land that 3G forgot - I managed to miss STV’s debate on the press as it aired, but followed the highlights on Twitter afterwards, and it sounded like the usual litany of point-missing, fear and suspicion that continues to hamper innovation in our newsrooms.

But while STV, with the spurious hook of the new National Theatre of Scotland play Enquirer to hang the debate on, restricted their focus to print, it’s the whole media industry that’s in big trouble. The newspaper industry is ducking and swerving to avoid ruinous collapse, our broadcasting output is ever-more propped up by imports and UK network filler, and underinvestment and suspicion has left us with a miserable failure of an online news industry to bequeath to future generations.

The one thing we don’t do in this country is analyse our media industry properly. Oh, we’re happy to administer a swift kick to the nuts to anyone who gets too big for their boots - but we do so as summary sentencing, not as prosecution or defence.

We don’t have anything like the level of media analysis or criticism in this country as we used to. When I moved back up here four years ago, there was a wealth of media commentary, both mainstream and online. Yet the once fearless media bloggers have since dropped their reporting on the industry, fearing reprisals from potential customers or clients for speaking out of turn. Industry analysts have stopped their comments and gossip in case it puts off potential job advertisers, news days reduced from quiet to utter silence.

It’s rare you’ll see anything like in-depth analysis of what the ABCs, ABCes, RAJAR or BARB numbers mean this side of the border. This is why you end up with utter guff being recycled - such as the Herald’s piss-poor coverage of the BBC Alba viewing figures last year. The fear factor has seen Scotland’s media criticism and analysis reduced to little more than Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V. And yes, this website is not immune from that criticism.

Once the supposed cutting edge voices of media analysis in Scotland are afraid to say anything that might rock the boat, the industry may just as well be becalmed and be done with it.

Without proper analysis we can’t learn the lessons, can’t learn from the errors being made or share the information that could take the industry forward. If those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them, then Scotland’s media industry faces a future with more unwelcome reruns than a late night BBC Three schedule.

The sad thing is that there IS innovation going on. There’s talent in abundance, trying to do something new - from the launch of a digital newspaper such as the Caley Merc to the launch of a niche targeted product like David Bateman’s cagefighting magazine Your MMA. From impressive, multi-platform reporting like the Scotsman’s council elections coverage to the attempts at producing narrowcast hyperlocal coverage in Edinburgh. From Brian Limond using social media to develop new methods of creating comedy to the forensic dissection and analysis of Rangers’ financial and legal issues across a host of intelligently written blogs.

As once we were with science and industry, so the brave and the bold in Scotland try to innovate and use digital platforms as a way of improving the service provided to the news consumers the country boasts.

People ARE trying. There’s a will among the digital community to innovate, to serve their audience properly. What’s missing is the backing - from the Government, from management, from the NUJ, from sponsors and investors who like to big up Scotland’s digital credentials yet, as Stewart Kirkpatrick rightly points out, don’t back up those words when it counts.

But these people aren’t getting support at the top. Case in point - when the Daily Record scooped best digital product at the Scottish Press Awards last month, where was the congratulatory comments from Trinity Mirror’s senior figures? Record editor-in-chief Allan Rennie was quick to take to Twitter to mark Keith Jackson winning best sportswriter, yet managed to completely forget to credit the success of his online staff.

What sort of message does that send to people about how the website is regarded internally when its success is not felt worthy of public note or praise?

Scotland’s digital news producers have to be journalists, sub-editors, A/V producers, photographers, coders, marketeers, traffic managers, designers AND social media experts. And most of that they need to learn themselves. They’re expected to be magicians, yet many in management still - in 2012 - regard them as witches and warlocks ripe for burning at the stake, often because it’s precisely that overloaded skillset they boast.

Scottish media needs a seed change. It needs to be overhauled from top to toe. One anonymous but well-respected responder to my aforementioned survey they wanted to see the adoption of a digital-first policy, putting the emphasis on the website as where the news was broken and the print product offering analysis and reaction.

Such a move plays to the industry’s audience here - the immediacy of breaking news moved to platforms better suited for it, yet the existing readers of the newspapers - of which there still remain hundreds of thousands in Scotland - do not become disenfranchised.

That seed change must come in the form of support. Be it economic, technological, or emotional - there needs to be an embracing of the need for change by those in charge of the news industries. Rather than paying lip service to digital as a fig leaf to cover the industry’s blushes or a useful piece of doublespeak to justify even more cuts in jobs, there needs to be a clear strategy for how Scotland’s news outlets address audience shifts and requirements.

Too often what we’ve seen is too-late-after-the-event reactionary panicking by publishers and proprietors out of touch with what the audience wants and what platform is best to give it to them.

And eventually, without proper analysis and examination of the media in this country, it will all be too late. All the work done in trying to establish a digital news culture lost as our mainstream outlets are closed down, merged, taken over or subsumed - the casualties of a don’t learn, don’t listen culture.

Scotland supposedly stands on the verge of history. Yet if there’s nobody left to report it, how will we know when history’s been made?

And so, filthy assistants, we come to the final end of False Doorway. I’m moving on to borders new. And, you’re probably saying to yourself, about time too. My thanks to you for indulging these semi-articulate rants and blusterings about the state of the Scottish media over the last few months. Good bye, and good luck.

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