The National Sunday Herald Scottish Independence

John McLellan: The National is a cause for thanksgiving – there is still belief in the printed word

By John Mclellan, editor

November 24, 2014 | 7 min read

For anyone in the news business these days, the launch of a new daily printed publication is a cause not just for celebration but thanksgiving; giving thanks that in the age of digitally-driven agnosticism, there is still belief in the printed word.

Even if it’s only a five-day pilot, that the publisher of The National is a long-established news provider like Newsquest and not just a wealthy but naive individual who fancies a dabble in journalism is a further reason to be optimistic.

A new publication is unencumbered by the past and adding to diversity of opinion is something which all journalists should welcome. Newsquest deserves praise for having the courage to go for it.

Established papers have been much criticised by the nationalist community because none – barring The National's sister the Sunday Herald – came out in support of independence, but with readerships reflecting national demographics it was hardly surprising.

The Scotsman, which I used to edit, came in for particular attention but an audience dominated by older people in the professional communities of Edinburgh and the Borders was reflected in the referendum result in places like Edinburgh South and West which voted 65 per cent for no.

The days of newspaper publishers taking a punt are long gone and Newsquest is no different. I expect the numbers for this project will have been thoroughly crunched and the big one is obviously the 50,000 or so people who bought a Sunday Herald the weekend after the vote and continue to do so in large number.

Lessons have been well-learnt from the last launch of a new daily paper in Scotland, the brave Business AM which was doomed from the start by massive editorial costs and a tiny target market. When it closed in 2002 after two years it still employed 125 people and was selling far less than half the 25,000 it needed to break even.

Not so The National. There was no recruitment campaign to poach journalists on top dollar salaries, there are no expensive new offices and no standalone sales teams with only the small private business market at which to aim.

There was a big launch event on Saturday, but rather than the glitzy party with gallons of free booze that greeted the launch of Business AM, The National’s editor Richard Walker had a ready-made audience of 12,000 at the Hydro as part of Nicola Sturgeon’s warm-up team.

And with a tight pagination and a competitive cover price of 50p, some inspiration has been taken from i, the sawn-off version of The Independent aimed at young people, which at 30p sold 286,000 copies in August this year, compared to its heavyweight big sister’s 62,500

From the heavily political first edition, The National’s market is not so much the 1.6 million who voted Yes, but the swelling core of newly engaged political activists which could see the SNP with 100,000 members by the 2015 general election.

In its launch editorial, the paper explains that while it is pro-independence, it is not necessarily pro-SNP, although the extent to which the two are inextricably linked was seen throughout the referendum campaign, where stories critical of the Scottish Government were attacked on comment streams for being biased against the case for independence.

There may well be sales from Greens and other pro-independence left-of-centre parties, but as the number willing to buy a daily paper is likely to be so small as to be insignificant, any criticism of the SNP will need to be considered very carefully.

It is almost impossible to judge a new or relaunched paper from its first edition (both Scotland on Sunday in 1988 and the Sunday Herald in 1999 struggled on launch and took months to settle down) and so it is with The National. As expected from a project led by Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker, it looks crisp and clean and has a super masthead, but it is definitely one for political anoraks of a particular persuasion.

With 11 of the first 15 pages in a 32-pager devoted to politics, a mainstream paper this is not. If that was perhaps predictable, other elements are less so, in particular the centre spread forgiven over entirely to a beautiful landscape picture, presumably not just to soak up space but to convey a positive image of the nation.

So too do the main non-political stories set out a positive picture of Scots in action, like a new award for athlete Eilidh Child and how Scots doctors are helping the fight against Ebola. In some respects it has echoes of the 'Good News' paper I published in 2007, when every story in one edition of the Edinburgh Evening News was devoted to good news about the capital.

As a work in progress, they may well want to look quickening the pace of the paper and find ways to inject more fun – even the politically committed need to be entertained and the success of both Metro and i when paper size is under strict control is in a quick-fire approach.

Sunday into Monday is a hard enough day for dailies, so for Richard Walker and his team to pull this production together on the back of the Sunday Herald and with the daily Herald to produce too it’s an achievement of which they should all be proud.

At least a marker has been thrown down and the most important thing at this stage is the title has made it onto the newsstands. It’s unlikely its viability will be proved within the week, but such is the strength of the pro-independence movement just now it is probable enough sale will be maintained by Friday to justify an extension.

But what that future looks like will be very different to that envisaged by previous launches – a digital strategy will be at its heart even though the website is not yet up and running, but this print-first approach recognises that a viable print presence is a corner-stone of establishing credibility and authority, which in turn is key to developing advertising platforms.

Perhaps the bigger picture is that The National gives a taste of something to come for the nationalist community and even if Newsquest ultimately decides not to continue, there is now something real and credible which pro-independence investors could examine.

A partnership between Newsquest and people like Martin Gilbert, Brian Soutar or the Weirs? It might just work.

John McLellan is a director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a former editor of The Scotsman

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