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Arthur MacMillan

Scots on the rocks

British Journalism Review
Vol. 19, No. 3, 2008, pages 35-42

Arthur MacMillan is an editor for the international news agency Agence France-Presse and is currently based in Hong Kong. He was previously Scotland on Sunday's education correspondent and earlier wrote about media for the Sunday Herald, Glasgow.

Contents - Vol 19, No 3, 2008

Editorial - The State we're in 3

Not finally... - Subjective views on matters journalistic 5

Wilf Mbanga - Zimbabwe: Fighting fire, with words as weapons 13

Julian Petley - Bleak outlook on the news front 19

Suzanne Franks - Getting into bed with charity 27

Harry Benson - Icon of photography 33

Press in crisis

Arthur MacMillan - Scots on the rocks 35

John McEntee - Desmond's legacy: Expresses derailed 43

Robert Barnett - Ethics in China's wild west 49

Michael Wilson - Crisis? What crisis? But it's great TV 57

Magnus Linklater - What happened to playing fair? 62

Greg Dyke on Ray Fitzwalter 67

Robin Lustig on Tony Grant 69

Mark Bolland on Mark Borkowski 71

Derek Jameson on Peter Burden 73

Cal McCrystal on Simon Briscoe & Hugh Aldersey-Williams 75

Brian Winston on David E Morrison, Matthew Kiernan, Michael Svennevig & Sarah Ventress 77

Bill Hagerty on Michael Frayn 79

Quotes of the Quarter 1 - 12

Quotes of the Quarter 2 - Inside back cover

Ten years ago - The way we were 26

  On the brink of enormous political change and with full independence looming, Scotland sadly lacks a quality indigenous newspaper voice

In the classic memoir Point of Departure, James Cameron explains how quickly a newspaper can disappear. Recounting his experience on the News Chronicle, he describes how it took but a few years for rot to set in. A series of mediocre editors fed the decline, placemen lacking the independence and courage to protect the heritage that had gone before. This folly was presided over by managers rarely seen on the editorial floor and who, in the final analysis, just didn’t care about the paper’s state of being. It was a betrayal thus described by Cameron, when the News Chroniclewas finally swallowed by the Daily Mail in 1960: “The energy had diminished, the impulse and dynamism had gone; the thing was now governed by bores.”

Anyone who cares about newspaper journalism in Scotland today should heed those words, because a similar fate may soon engulf some of that country’s newspapers. The Scotsman and The Herald are in peril. Both are experiencing unprecedented circulation lows, and sales are declining faster than those at the London-based national titles they compete with. A clear downturn in property, recruitment and classified advertising has exacerbated their troubles. Another lucrative source of income for the indigenous press — public-sector job ads, estimated to be worth £47million annually — is also about to disappear.

At the same time, Scotland is on the brink of its biggest political change since the Treaty of Union in 1707. The SNP is firmly in control of the Scottish Parliament and a referendum on separation from the UK is promised in 2010. The Labour Party, more than a year after losing a Scottish election for the first time in half a century, and having spectacularly lost Glasgow East, is in tatters and struggling to comprehend the toil of life in opposition. With independence possibly just years away, there has never been a greater need for vigorous reporting and analysis from Scotland’s Fourth Estate. With 16 paidfor daily newspapers to choose from, and almost as many Sunday titles, one would usually expect a country’s leading quality newspapers to lead the debate. Not in Scotland.

The commercial realities of financing newspaper journalism in the 21st century cannot be ignored, but many of the problems facing The Scotsman and The Herald have been self-inflicted. After paying handsomely to acquire titles of world renown, Johnston Press (Scotsman) and Newsquest (Herald) have stripped resources to the point where quality journalism is largely impossible. This has resulted in publications unable to pursue their primary function — to operate as a news medium. Coverage too often is a combination of superficial “what some MSP said yesterday” reporting and, with a few honourable exceptions, dull commentary on a regular basis. The consequence has been a loss of authority and an increase in reader disaffection. If a newspaper cannot deliver much more than what a BBC radio news bulletin said yesterday, what is the point in buying it?

They know their papers are getting worse

Until now, the “tartanised editions” of the Daily Mail, The Times and The Daily Telegraph have been fended off because their Scottish rivals delivered content of genuine Scottish appeal, while keeping an eye on the wider world. In 2008, however, this claim would be shaky at best, and in its worst manifestations, disingenuous. Executives on both The Scotsman and The Herald know their newspapers are getting worse, with readers continually being asked to pay more for less. This is a process Harvard professor Michael E Porter describes as “harvesting market position”. As Philip Meyer, author of The Vanishing Newspaper, says, it is a non-renewable, take-the-money-and-run strategy. Once harvested, in the form of higher cover prices and continual shrinking of editorial budgets, the market position is gone. In Scotland, many journalists are leaving the trade in disgust.

The Scottish edition of the Daily Mail now sells more actively-purchased copies than The Herald and The Scotsman combined. A senior Associated Newspapers executive confides that overtaking Scotland’s best-selling quality national dailies was a “bravado-filled hope” a few years ago. Since June 2007, it has been a monthly occurrence. “There is nothing inherently wrong with The Scotsman or The Herald. It’s just that the people who own them are not interested in journalism,” the executive says, noting that the Mail’s sale has stood still in recent years while its competitors have slid backwards. “As far as I can see it, The Scotsman has no editorial resources at all. There has been an abject failure to invest.”

The Scotsman hit a historic low of 46,733 Scottish sales each day in June. In the first six months of this year it lost 7.7 per cent of its circulation, compared with 12 months ago, when bulks are stripped out. The Herald is also in the doldrums. Its actively-purchased average sale of 63,511 in June was also its worst in modern times, reflecting a year-on-year decline of 6.6 per cent compared with the first half of 2007. Their Sunday siblings are also troubled. Scotland on Sunday, seen as the market leader since the early 1990s, has lost 4.5 per cent of its sales in the first half of 2008, compared with a year ago. It is now comprehensively outsold by The Sunday Times in Scotland, which, with only five exceptions, has sold more actively-purchased copies every month for the past five years. Suffering worst of all is the Sunday Herald, less than a decade old, which is a whopping 12.3 per cent down on its first-half performance from last year.

It is fashionable among those running newspapers that are in decline to say that fewer sales are inevitable in the age of internet-driven multiplatform communications. It just happens to be the case, however, that those who spend least are in the worst health. The Scotsman has lost a quarter of its actively-purchased circulation in the past five years. The Herald has seen a 23 per cent loss in the same period. Regardless, their owners continue to slash budgets and, in Newsquest’s case, pay journalists to join the dole queue. Since buying The Herald, Sunday Herald and Glasgow Evening Times for £216million five years ago, Newsquest, the UK arm of the American publishing giant Gannett, has shed an estimated third of the workforce. There have been redundancies for each of the past three years. In the space of eight months, The Herald has lost its Westminster editor, Scottish political editor, the multi award-winning feature writer Michael Tierney, and several valued correspondents. Many other journalists have left because of their lack of belief in the company and its powerless editors. Morale has never been lower. “You should see this place at deadline, midweek,” says a senior Herald staffer. “Utterly silent. No talk, no laughs, just news, business and sports subs shovelling shite. Dreadful.”

In common with other metropolitan newspapers, The Scotsman and The Herald have long benefited from captive markets. A virtual advertising monopoly, in the east for The Scotsman, and in the west for The Herald, has combined with classifieds to ensure huge annual profits and steady returns for shareholders. But the property downturn and the recent decision of Scotland’s councils to start their own public-sector-jobs websites has jeopardised this cosy environment. A short-term revenue cycle that bred mind-blowing complacency has been exposed. At Newsquest, a major online investment for the Herald Group was mothballed in late 2006. Insiders claim this was because it would have hit the company’s bottom line, although Newsquest deny this. A strike at the Glasgow-based newspapers the following year was widely seen as evidence that the company had lost its way after being broadly supported during previous reorganisations. Only now, two years later, with executives belatedly conceding that online expansion can be delayed no longer, is a similar scheme to be launched. In Edinburgh, the situation is more complex. When Johnston Press paid £160 million to buy The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, the Edinburgh Evening News,, and a free newspaper brand from the Barclay Brothers in December 2005, the publisher’s share price was 450p. At the time of writing it is 49.5p and has recently been as low as 30p. It has been a cataclysmic fall which no amount of corporate PR-speak, such as: “We are investing heavily in the internet,” a favourite JP soundbite, can disguise.

Their failure to modernise

A loan book of nearly £700million has paralysed the group. Advertising revenue is down and only the intervention of a Malaysian billionaire earlier this year prevented it from breaching its banking covenants. At the time of writing, many believe the new investor, Ananda Krishnan, will increase his 20 per cent stake and maybe even buy The Scotsman. Strangled by debt, the Johnston Press default position of editorial budget cuts was adopted in early 2008 and financial control has become increasingly parsimonious. In February, staff members of Scotsman Publications were reportedly banned from using first-class stamps.

There is genuine concern, magnified by its plummeting share price, that Johnston Press has failed to modernise and that efforts it has made to do so have been half-hearted. According to the company’s chief executive Tim Bowdler, £9million has been invested in digital operations, but even that sum amounts to little by the time it dribbles down to the more than 300 newspapers the company owns. The Scotsman’s editor, Mike Gilson, waxes lyrical about “the 115,000 Scots signed up for daily email news bulletins from Scotsman journalists”. But that figure doesn’t disguise the fact that his newspaper’s parent company garners less than 5 per cent of its revenue from the internet.

Brian Wilson, the former energy minister at Westminster and a frequent newspaper contributor, is one of many Scots who are deeply concerned about the situation. He says: “The problem now for The Herald and The Scotsman is that they are far into the downward spiral of cost-cutting, leading to products that are visibly in decline. It takes a long time for readers to notice these things but once they do, they tend to vote with their feet.” Wilson believes a merged title under the ownership of an independent trust, along the same lines as the Irish Times, and free from punitive profit-margins of more than 30 per cent, would offer The Scotsman and The Herald a future stretching well into the 21st century.

This has been mooted before — by Andrew Neil when, six years ago, he tried to buy The Herald for the Barclay Brothers, then owners of The Scotsman. Neil’s argument was that such a company, albeit under private control rather than a trust, would have the necessary economies of scale needed to fight off “the tartan invaders”. The suspicion at the time, however, was that dozens of journalists would be redundant or, worse still, the scheme would lead to the closure of one stable of papers, probably the Herald group. In hindsight, many people think Neil probably had the right idea. But the former Sunday Times editor’s efforts were felled by hostility to his political views and a flawed marketing pitch. When quiet back-room diplomacy could have secured what he wanted, Neil preferred to appear on Newsnight Scotland and ultimately he was thwarted.

“There was a knee-jerk response that, at all costs, the separate identities of these two not-very-great institutions must be maintained,” says Brian Wilson, who regrets the diminished Herald and Scotsman products that have followed. “Scottish newspapers have become much more parochial since devolution and there is a limit to the amount of kail-yard [vegetable-patch] politics that most of their traditional readership is prepared to endure. So people either stop buying newspapers or look for a package with a bit of Scottish content but a lot more substance in general.” A recent look at the ABC returns for The Times and The Daily Telegraph support this assertion. Since February 2008, their combined monthly sales in Scotland have surpassed those of The Scotsman. The Guardian is also doing well, selling more copies in Scotland than it was six years ago. Journalists on The Scotsman and The Herald long for a philanthropic owner with deep pockets who could deliver the leadership they have been deprived of for years. But regardless of the difficulties they presently face, Wilson believes the opportunity of a merger has probably been lost: “There is no reason to suppose that Johnston and/or Newsquest are willing to sell. The point is that if a consensus develops in the meantime around the aspiration, there might actually be a mood to do something about it, if and when the opportunity arises, which there certainly wasn’t in the past.”

As if their current positions weren’t weak enough, another curve-ball could yet be unleashed at The Scotsman and The Herald. Late in 2006, The Times was preparing to launch a full-blown Scottish edition, having been persuaded that an opportunity existed north of the Border. I know this because it was my idea and I was interviewed twice about it in London. In the end, Magnus Linklater, a former editor of The Scotsman and a Times columnist, got the job, and was set to wage war against Scotland’s broadsheets. Given that this would likely have involved News International’s aggressive marketing tactics, possibly including price cuts, allied to The Times’s very strong brand, sales could have been increased very quickly, with The Herald and The Scotsman the likely losers. News International is well practised in this arena, having seen the Scottish Sun overtake the Daily Record two years ago following a longterm sales push. It remains the market-leading daily red-top north of the Border.

Vulnerable to attack

For The Times, however, it was not to be. The plan was jettisoned because of serious losses at Times Newspapers. Linklater obtained enough money, however, to hire some new staff and the paper has undoubtedly improved its coverage and its sales have been stable in Scotland. Two years later it is the indigenous titles’ weak circulations and their refusal to invest — in journalism or technology — that once again leaves them extremely vulnerable to attack. News International’s new full-colour printing presses are now in operation at its Eurocentral plant near Glasgow. The Scottish edition of The Daily Telegraph is also being printed there. Enhanced colour might be the trigger for premium advertisers to start asking questions that The Scotsman and The Herald do not want to hear.

Regardless of commercial returns, serious cultural damage is starting to be commented upon by prominent figures fed up with sub-standard papers. “We have reached the point where the country could witness a democratic deficit,” says Tom Devine, the Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History at Edinburgh University, and widely acknowledged as the leading authority on modern Scotland. “The normal links for debate — quality newspapers — have started to disintegrate. These two formerly-great institutions [The Scotsman and The Herald] are manifestly in decline and there is nowhere else to turn.” A fellow historian, and now Nationalist MSP, Christopher Harvie, is scathing. He recently wrote in The Guardian: “The Scotsman and Herald have achieved a dangerously high bin-before-reading count: too much on restaurants, houses, sports at which we’re no good, recycled business PR handouts, features on modestly talented totty, and the box-office bit (four authors, guess who?*) of the Scottish book trade. If the housing tractor packs in, things may get a lot worse.”

Things, undoubtedly, could get a lot worse. As with so many industries, the United States probably offers the clearest insight on where we’re headed. In a 1998 survey of newspapers owned by the Thomson Corporation, by then fast getting out of newsprint, analysts drew the following conclusion: “Good newspapers are almost always run by good newspaper people; they are almost never run by good bankers or good accountants.” Thomson took the hint and sold their newspapers. The chance of such radical change in Scotland appears remote. It is more a case of moving the deckchairs around before the ship goes down.

Two days after I specifically asked Charles McGhee, editor of The Herald, about editorial standards on the newspaper, he resigned. When speaking to me he did not deny that quality had fallen. He was also categorically against a merger with The Scotsman: “We regard ourselves as the stronger of the two newspapers and The Herald is better placed, financially, to confront the challenges we face. Slimming down is one way of dealing with that. There will always be a turnover of journalists who are seeking new experiences, but I am ever the optimist. We probably have a couple of more difficult years ahead of us, but I believe as soon as the UK reaches saturation point in terms of broadband coverage, newspapers will re-emerge.” McGhee’s speedy decision to quit, however, indicates that he did consider his situation to be futile. Scotsman editor Gilson declined to be interviewed for this article, despite his previous acceptance that there needs to be a debate on the future of the Scottish press.

All this leads me to the inescapable conclusion that both editors and their employers still have few answers for journalism in the 21st century. They are currently embarked on a management policy dominated by addressing shareholder concern. It is not too late to change course, but time is running out. If these companies are to right their wrongs and reverse this betrayal of Scotland, they must first admit that they are currently embarked on a liquidation strategy. Making money from the internet is a risky process, filled with trial and error. Those who succeed are likely to be organisations with a high tolerance for initial failure. As Philip Meyer observed, newspapers rarely fit this description. But that does not mean that fine Scottish newspaper journalism of almost 300 years should be deserted so easily. Perhaps, though, it is James Cameron, the reporter trained by DC Thomson of Dundee, city of jam, jute and journalism, who best summed up the state we’re in. His eulogy for the News Chronicle could not be more fitting: “The most admirable free-thinking radical traditions withered on the bough at precisely the moment when the nation was ripe to appreciate these liberal qualities. Its greatest opportunities opened out before it, and it surrendered, because there was nothing at the top but timidity, conventionality and emptiness.”

* J K Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin