Why the Scots value local papers more than the English

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Aberdeen: home to the best-selling daily local newspaper in the UK / Photo © Greig Ritchie (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Aberdeen, a city with an urban population of just 228,000, produces the best-selling daily local newspaper in the whole of the United Kingdom, outperforming all the great English conurbations.

Dundee, 66 miles down the coast, also punches far beyond its weight in shifting newsprint. The 151st biggest population centre in the UK, it boasts the country’s sixth-best-selling regional paper.

In all, six of the top 19 regional papers in the UK are Scottish, even though Scotland has barely 8% of the total population.

Aberdeen produces not only the UK’s biggest regional daily, the morning Press & Journal (ABC circulation 45,935), but also the 14th-largest, the Evening Express (21,003). Both are owned by DC Thomson, the ancient publishing house best-known to readers in England and around the world as the producers of the children’s comics The Beano and The Dandy.

“I think it’s a very old tradition and newspaper readership has always been higher in Scotland than in the rest of the UK,” says Richard Neville, editor-in-chief of morning newspapers at DC Thomson. “If you think about it, the population in Scotland is about the same as the population of the West Midlands region. We’ve got 14 morning newspapers and five evening newspapers - compare that to the West Midlands, it’s a bit different.”

The Birmingham Mail, catering to a city with an urban population of 1.1 million, sells only 15,367 copies a day. London has not sustained a paid-for local newspaper for nine years, since the Evening Standard switched to a free distribution model.

The need for remote reporting

What is it about the traditions and business models of Scottish journalism that result in local newspapers in Scotland being more successful than those in other parts of the UK?

“I think geography explains a bit of it, we are remote and slightly separate to the rest of the United Kingdom,” says Neville. “The political conversation about independence that has gone on for decades helps in the sense that people are looking for bespoke content in relation to that. And the competition that exists between titles up here drives quality up I think.”

The focus of most UK regional titles is on their digital platforms, and many can point to enormous increases in audience reach as a result of free online access to their sites. But in this sphere too, the Press & Journal is bucking the trend in UK regional journalism by operating a metered paywall and offering digital subscriptions that begin at £1.49 per week.

But it is print that still generates the bulk of revenues for a paper that produces four editions a day and promises to deliver copies well beyond Aberdeen to a vast swathe of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands.

In many respects, the odds are stacked against it. Faced with considerable distribution costs for selling “dead tree” media, it also lacks the logistical support of national and local news agencies that would assist its journalists in covering the region remotely from head office.

“One thing we have always maintained is a series of district offices and having reporters out and about in the community,” says Neville. “We don’t have any news infrastructure here; PA (The Press Association) doesn’t operate here and there are relatively few freelance agencies here so if we want to fill our pages with stories from our part of the world we have no other option but to open the door and take out a bunch of reporters every day to go out and find stuff.”

The P&J, as it is known, maintains an editorial staff of 65, comparatively large in times of chronic cost-cutting in the regional news industry. It operates district offices in Peterhead, Elgin, Oban and Fort William. And it produces bespoke daily editions for its four regions: The Highlands, North-East Scotland, Murray county and Aberdeenshire.

The business model is based on providing a comprehensive news service, thus ensuring a unique content offering. “We are in every council and every court on our patch every day,” says Neville. “That’s what we do that nobody else does and that unique content is so important. It’s a simple formula: nobody else is doing it therefore we should benefit from it.”

Forward-thinking digital strategy meets old-school delivery

The “unique content” approach is also central to the paper’s digital strategy. While Neville admits that “running a metered paywall is difficult” and that subscribers are only in the “low thousands”, he says the intention is to go even further down this path. “What we would like to do over time is to make it a harder paywall and put a lot more bespoke digital-only content behind it.”

While he accepts that this approach is “not necessarily compatible with much of the industry” in the UK, where the priority is reach, he notes that papers in overseas markets are embracing subscription models. “That pile it high, page view-based approach is a very British view. If you look around the world… Scandinavian and American papers are recognising that the problem with trying to monetise page views is that – as my schoolboy economics tells me – when supply is infinite, price drops. The supply of advertising space on the internet is infinite.”

The P&J strategy is a “long-term” one, he says. Other titles – affected by different levels of competition or by reduced newsrooms – might struggle to replicate it. “In other regional papers in Britain, the resources are such that – even if they wanted to – I’m not sure that they could serve unique content to their audiences. Content creation is the absolute first for us and we protect that above all else. As long as we have that content you must be able to make money out of it.”

In the meantime, getting print copies to rural readers is not easy. “If there’s one person up the most remote glen in Scotland we will make sure they get a print copy if they want one,” says Neville, who argues that the publisher is under a “social obligation” to the community it serves. We guarantee to get a paper to anybody in the most remote parts of Scotland every day, even if that costs us two or three times the cover price of the paper, we are still happy to do that and understand that’s the role we play in the community.”

The P&J sells for £1.20 a day (£1.40 on Saturdays) and distributes as far as the Shetland Islands.

“We still use boats; we buy seats on planes out of Inverness to go to the Western Isles and Northern Isles and we still use milk delivery people to deliver our papers,” says Neville. “If we think there’s demand in a certain area we will run our own fleet of paper boys and girls.”

In its most recent accounts, released last December, DC Thomson reported a rise in pre-tax profits from £31m to £37m, on revenues of £277m. Both the P&J and its Dundee sister paper The Courier (ABC circulation 34,260) are very much in the black, Neville says. “We are running double-digit margins on both the daily morning papers.”

But the market is tough. The P&J’s sales have fallen 7 per cent year-on-year, and The Courier’s are down 8%. These titles have not avoided the advertising and circulation downturns that have hit the whole sector, they have merely been more resilient than their rivals.

Weathering the storms

The P&J was founded as Aberdeen’s Journal in 1747 and it’s one of the oldest papers in the world (and the oldest in Scotland). But for all its tradition, it has had to change with the times. For decades it enjoyed the bounty of plentiful recruitment advertising placed by the oil industry. But the digital shift in classified ads, together with recent falls in oil prices, took away that financial crutch.

“We are not immune from the vagaries of the advertising industry - far from it - and that’s a constant struggle,” Neville admits, while claiming that a new “more broad-based” advertising strategy is healthier for the business long-term.

Aberdeen itself, and other parts of North-East Scotland, are having to adapt to changing economic conditions. It was partly to reflect this change that the P&J was redesigned in September so that its masthead now contains only those initials and not the traditional ‘Press & Journal’ of old.

Neville says that the new look gives the paper new flexibility in the design of its front page. The masthead change brings an added intimacy between publisher and reader. “It’s known colloquially and universally on our patch as the P&J,” says Neville. “We took advantage of that.”

Dundee, where DC Thomson is based, was known in the Victorian era for the ‘Three Js’: jute, jam and journalism. The Courier, founded in 1801, moved belatedly to tabloid format in 2012 and won UK regional newspaper of the year in 2016, thanks to its ‘Frank’s Law” dementia campaign. It retains an editorial staff of 60 and serves the wider region of Tayside, Perthshire and Fife.

It is now part of a revived media and culture hub that includes thriving gaming and life sciences sectors and the recently-opened V&A Dundee.

DC Thomson has been at the heart of that cultural revival, and the endurance of the Scottish regional press.

Neville argues that a “family-owned” publisher is not subject to the quarterly pressures faced by a PLC.

“The Thomson family are incredibly passionate about the roles their titles play in the community,” he says. “But they are also responsible business owners and want to run successful profitable enterprises. So there’s a fair balance in there and a far more pragmatic medium and long-term view of our industry and our titles.”

That’s the philosophy: unique content, a social obligation to the readers and an eye on the big picture. There’s nothing comic about that.

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

Photo copyright Greig Ritchie (cc-by-sa/2.0)

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