JOHN McGURK: TEN MYTHS ABOUT THE CRISIS IN SCOTTISH NEWSPAPERS

JOHN McGURK

1. IT’S ALL BECAUSE OF THE INTERNET

Of course free digital news has caused newspaper sales to plummet but the truth is that they started falling 25 years ago as lifestyles changed and pressure of time encroached on reading habits.

In Scotland, this decline increased dramatically when London-based newspapers began printing Scottish editions in the mid 1990s.

Ironically, the new technology which made newspapers far cheaper to produce dramatically increased the competition and this has been a disaster for the indigenous Scottish national press.

Today, some Scottish readers can pick between 18 dailies.

There’s no other country in the world which offers such a choice of newspapers while Metro is free.

 

2. HARDLY ANYBODY READS A NEWSPAPER NOWADAYS

Scotland has a population of nearly 5.3 million but every day nearly 900,000 people buy a daily paper.

Add up the sales of the 18 titles available and that’s the total.

The truth is that the daily newspaper market in Scotland is still reasonably healthy.

Nearly 4 million people buy a daily newspaper in Scotland every month.

If you multiply the figures by the number of readers who share their paper with others, the readership of Scottish newspapers is well over …2 million a day.

 

3. NO NEWSPAPER IN SCOTLAND IS PUTING ON SALE

Scotland’s indigenous national titles, The Scotsman, The Herald and Daily Record now sell around 25% of what they once sold.

If you continue the graph, The Scotsman will print for another two years; the Herald a bit longer.

But look at the Scottish edition of The Times and you’ll find it has consistently been putting on sales over the last year.

In fact, The Times is likely to sell more than The Scotsman in around 12 months.

The Times in Scotland is succeeding because it serves essential Scottish news, comment, sport and business supported by a highly credible national and international agenda.

The Scotsman, on the other hand, tells you what the 10 o’clock news told you the previous evening.

 

4. SCOTS WHO DO BUY NEWSPAPERS PREFER INDIGENOUS SCOTTISH TITLES

The Sun outsells the Daily Record and the Daily Mail sells more than The Scotsman and Herald combined.

Conclusion: readers prefer the Scottish editions of the London-based newspapers because they’re better and more enjoyable.

Which other country in the world prefers its newspapers to be managed and dictated by another country?

 

5. ANDREW NEIL KILLED THE SCOTSMAN

Fact: The Herald declined faster than The Scotsman during Andrew’s time as publisher of The Scotsman.

During the same period, the Daily Record plunged faster than either The Herald or Scotsman when it lost its way to the Scottish Sun.

Andrew had no control over The Herald or the Record.

The Scotsman campaigned in areas where it relied on loyal readership and it became accepted that the paper was happy to attack its own readers.

For example: The Scotsman rightly supported the demutualisation of Standard Life but neglected the fact that thousands of its readers worked there and feared for their jobs.

Of course Andrew made misjudgements but he wanted the very best for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Evening News.

 

6. SCOTTISH NEWSPAPERS ARE OUT OF TUNE WITH SCOTLAND

The Scotsman and Daily Record campaigned against independence. The Herald is probably more sympathetic while the Sunday Herald is mad for it.

During the referendum campaign, the Sunday Herald increased its sales by more than 30% and this led to the launch of The National as Scotland’s only pro-independence daily.

Yet Scotland’s biggest-selling titles, the Sun and the Daily Mail are most certainly unionist. The Scottish Sun may flirt with nationalism but this is not a position voiced by the Sun in London.

Bizarrely, a huge number of independence-supporting readers in Scotland prefer to read right-wing unionist newspapers which originate in England.

Therefore, the notion that The Scotsman in particular is out of tune with Scotland is a conundrum particularly since it carries writers who hold all shades of political opinion.

So it’s not about reality.  It’s about reader perception

Meanwhile the SNP-supporting The National is selling around the same as the Scottish edition of that unionist, capitalist, right-wing London newspaper The Times.

Work out that one.

 

7. THE BBC IS KILLING NEWSPAPERS

The corporation has 58 local news websites paid for by the licence payer which commercial publishers say they are struggling to compete against. The BBC has a 30% share of the UK digital news market.

On the face of it, this is unfair and even the BBC agrees because it’s now offering to share its content, and 100 community reporters, with regional papers.

The truth is that publishers have not invested in regional journalism despite the fact that they see their future as digital.

There is also a fear that they will use any resource supplied by the BBC to implement further cost cutting.

Newspapers around the world are also struggling to survive and they don’t have a public service broadcaster on their doorstep.

The BBC should concentrate on proving better TV and radio but the argument that it is killing local papers is not proven.

 

8. JOURNALISTS TODAY ARE NOT AS GOOD AS THOSE 30 YEARS AGO

There were terrific journalists of yesteryear and many did extraordinary work because they were encouraged to.

The best writers were able to get the time and the support to produce great scoops but there was a problem: even some of the very best were too fond of the drink.

There were others who only managed to keep their jobs because they were protected by the union.

Nowadays, there is too little original and distinctive work in Scottish newspapers not because journalists don’t have the ability. Its because they  can hardly leave their desks and are expected to curate material already out there.

But they are far better educated and sober compared to their predecessors.  Alas, they are also much poorer.

 

9. NEWSPAPER OWNERS ARE TRYING THEIR BEST

Publishers such as Johnston Press at The Scotsman and Newsquest at The Herald are in constant cost-cutting mode although they still make sizeable profits.

Johnston bought the “I” newspaper last week for £24 million in a move to breath some national advertising life into their regional papers not because they believe in the future of print.

Those London journalists now to be employed by Johnston Press had better look out their tin hats.

Regional publishers declare that they believe in a digital future but they refuse to invest in digital journalists and resource.

Johnston foolishly overpaid for newspapers which they now described as “sub-core” such as Scotland on Sunday.

Ten years ago, they paid £160 million for The Scotsman Publications which today might fetch around £4 million.

 

10. ONE QUALITY SCOTTISH PAPER IS THE ANSWER

Back in 2003, the then owners of The Scotsman, the Barclays, bid for the Herald.

There was an almighty uproar with politicians and academics demanding the preservation of diversity of opinion and media plurality despite the fact that the two papers would never have merged.

Eventually, Newsquest was hailed as the saviour of The Herald after the Barclays pulled out of the sale process.

Two years later, they pulled out of Scotland when they sold The Scotsman to Johnston Press.

It was another deal hailed by journalists who were glad to see the back of them and Andrew Neil.

Would pooling resources and finding common efficiencies have protected and enhanced the two papers?

Would they have had better chance of competing with the Daily Mail and The Times?

Alas, we will never know.

A merger between The Scotsman and The Herald remains a favoured option by spectators of the crisis in Scottish newspapers.

But it’s far too late to be a success.

 

jcmcgurk@blueyonder.co.uk

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  Comments: 9


  1. Another factor in the decline of newspaper sales has been the steady rise of illiteracy. The Scottish government admits that 20% of Scots are functionally illiterate. Able to read a simple sign or instruction, but unable to properly conduct their own lives, and certainly incapable of understanding a newspaper.


  2. Having worked in (magazine) publishing for many years, and written a few media packs in my time, I’m always wary of any “readership” figures, as they tend to be (at best) the circulation figure multiplied by any figure grasped from the air that the publisher thinks they can get away with. Still, the idea that a figure approaching one in five of the population still buys a newspaper (and add in the free reads of Metro) is actually rather impressive,

    Clearly, when it comes to local news coverage, the BBC are attempting to fill a gap in coverage that’s been abandoned – no better word to describe it – by our so-called local press… which, of course, is increasingly centralised and weighed down by debt.

    I’m not a particular fan of Andrew Neil or the Barclay Brothers – wannabe James Bond villains if you ask me – but they did invest significantly in Scotsman Publications after years of neglect and profits being siphoned off by its previous owners, and they correctly identified that the greatest threat to The Scotsman’s circulation didn’t come from The Herald, but the likes of The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. And, at least for a short while, they wanted to build The Scotsman into a genuinely UK national newspaper that just happened not to be published in London. Of course, they eventually decided that building a national newspaper from scratch took a lot of time, effort and money, and so opted to buy The Telegraph instead. Which, alas, left The Scotsman in the hands of debt-ridden, small-minded Johnston Press.


  3. I’ve been enjoying these recent dispatches from Mr McGurk – I agree with some of his analysis, but I think he’s failed to answer some key questions;

    1. Does journalism actually matter in this day and age? His clear assumption is that it does, but where is the evidence?
    2. Does journalism deserve people’s attention? What is it doing to earn its place in people’s lives as opposed to simply demanding that it is a) important and b) should be heard?
    3. What would Mr McGurk do about the current situation? It’s very easy to castigate others for their failures, while it’s more difficult to advance meaningful suggestions for the treatment of journalism’s ailments.
    4. What is Mr McGurk’s vision for the future? I can’t help but feel there is a strong dose of “I wish we could go back to the good old days” in his writing.

    I used to work in news, but happily escaped many years ago and became a better/happier person for it.


  4. John McGurk’s reply to ex-hack:

    1. Newspapers matter because they are the bedrock of democracy. Thomas Jefferson said that newspapers could exist without a democracy but that a democracy could not exist without newspapers.

    2. Good journalism truly matters particularly to hold those in power to account. . But it has to be revealing, informative, educational and entertaining. The evidence is that some 900,000 readers in Scotland still buy a daily paper. Alas, few papers are doing a proper job and these are the titles which will die first.

    3. Invest, invest, invest in digital and in journalism. Publishers like Johnston Press still make healthy profits and say the future is digital but they want to invest as little as possible in that future.

    4. The future is clearly digital. I suggested in ScotBuzz last year that The Scotsman, for example, should abandon its print and go entirely online. The savings in printing, paper and distribution could then be used to build a super website. What is the alternative? It probably has two years left as a print product.

    This is what the Independent announced last week. Every publishers will be looking at their progress very carefully and it will not be long before some others follow.


  5. As a journalist on The Scotsman in the 1990s I was constantly aware that the paper was trying to be a national newspaper with regional finances, in UK terms at least. The Herald faced the same problem. Dropping ‘Glasgow’ from its masthead didn’t help.

    After Wapping, and what we used to call ‘new technology’, enabled the London papers to print localised editions north of the border, the lack of resources available to the Scottish in editorial areas such as features and foreign coverage was painfully apparent. The loss to the internet of the most profitable areas of advertising, recruitment and property, only exacerbated the situation. No wonder readers turned to UK national papers which may also have been facing falling circulation and advertising revenue, but were much larger enterprises to start with.

    At the time. a merger of The Herald and The Scotsman made sense in the same vein as the takeover of Hibs by Wallace Mercer’s Hearts a few years previously. It might have worked on the balance sheet, but culturally both takeovers were non-starters. More interesting would have been another newspaper merger that was mooted around the same time, between The Scotsman and the perpetually-struggling Indy.

    Sharing editorial and commercial resources could have strengthened both titles. Perhaps then The Scotsman would then have been able to compete with the London-based newspapers. We’ll never know, (Of course JP might try to do the same thing with the i. Would it then be a case of: ‘Beam me up Scot i?’)


  6. I agree with much of what John says, but not all, and he overlooks one key factor – the way people now consume news. There is not the space here to fully analyse his views. I have written a response on the Daily Business website here: http://dailybusinessgroup.co.uk/2016/02/myths-and-realities-the-future-of-the-scottish-press/


  7. It’s not to late ..it’s about being disruptive… data journalism ..smart cities .big data .and connected devices including print
    I for one have always admired the scots ability to invent and create new models
    You have just lost your mojo for it ..get a team of young smarts and see what happens ..
    The games not over the new game will begin …it a moment in time ..a big idea and ambition will save the day …
    Your all focused on the problem not the solution ..stay positive about the future and stop boring on about the past ..


  8. A bit of a paradox in John McGurk’s analysis in that he emphasises that newspapers *do* matter (as encapsulated by Thomas Jefferson’s quote BLT) but that the future should be digital. To that extent *newspapers* don’t matter, at least insofar as he means the distinct entity represented by the traditional ‘dead tree’ product.

    Thus Mr McGurk’s second point BLT is perhaps the more important one – it’s *journalism* that matters, not newspapers per se.

    But if everything ends up online then rather than the distinct entity of the traditional newspaper it all becomes a bit messy. And while there may be a legacy associated with a traditional title, to a degree they’ll just become another website and thus part of a continuum between the wheat of proper journalism and the online chaff that’s taken seriously by many, particularly over time (as, of course, has increasingly become evident in recent years, and which process can only be accelerated if the traditional products becoming digital-only).

    All of which begs various questions, such as where the dividing line lies between the wheat and chaff, how does the great unwashed distinguish between the two, and how can real journalistic integrity be maintained. For example, it seems self-evident that the new online ‘media’ feels less constrained by defamation law than the traditional titles, so how is this best policed?

    In short, what precisely is journalism, and how is it best delineated in an increasingly anarchic online environment if the ‘newspapers’ become merely part of a continuum between the remnants of the traditional press and the glorified pub talk online?


  9. The argument about the National only selling as much as the Times isn’t meaningful. It is produced on a shoestring budget with blogger columnists contributing content for peanuts and plugs. And it loses sales because of the Herald sister paper.

    The best chance for an upswing in that stable is for the Herald ‘to merge ‘ with the National and invest in journalism and the website. Change to a Daily mail sized format and take a pro-Scotland line to compete with the unionist Scotsman.

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