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  5. Scottish journalism is alive and well

By SNS director John McLellan

Not for the first time, the position of some sections of the Scottish newspaper industry has been the subject of comment in recent days.

Herald commentator Ian Macwhirter has published a pamphlet in which his fears are extensively expressed, followed up by ex-Independent editor Ian Jack in The Guardian and a further piece in the Financial Times.

To me, the arguments ignore much that is good in the modern newspaper  world and the efforts of managements to secure a viable future for their titles.

No title has a right to exist. But the emerging theme, that modern Scotland is in danger of having no proper scrutiny of its political and civic institutions is, in my view, well wide of the mark. A Scottish newspaper helps pay Iain Macwhirter’s bills, after all.

As a counter-balance DC Thomson chief executive Ellis Watson had this to say at the recent SNS conference in Glasgow:

“Redundancies, cost cutting and despondent Chicken-Lickens have done a magnificent job of talking the demise of our own industry into a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

“I would ask those of us lucky enough to be sitting here at this ridiculously exciting time to stop looking back at how things were yesterday, and get on with delivering a much more exciting tomorrow.”

Quite. I would not question the honesty with which Iain Macwhirter and Ian Jack hold their views, but the more they suggest to their audiences the Scottish Press isn’t worth a candle then the more it is likely to be believed.

Macwhirter has this to say: “The decline of the press has left the BBC almost single-handedly with the task of reconstituting the national conversation.”

Well, every morning I read articles in the Herald and Scotsman, to name but two, and by other eminent Scottish journalists like the Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan.

The BBC app gives me a quick snapshot of the main stories of the day but I do not rely on the state broadcaster for in-depth analysis or commentary. That remains the preserve of newspapers and non-broadcast journalists.

Here is Ellis Watson again:

“The Digital Revolution has certainly decimated profits and removed privilege of old media’s birthright of an audience, but perhaps it’s now time to accept that with most of the negative threats having already happened, we’re now at a turning point where the exciting opportunities of it can be delivered.

“The Internet has delivered the means of disseminating our content across platforms that lend themselves rather beautifully to what we want to convey, but to my mind haven’t yet replaced the authority and dedication of what only we can deliver.

“The BBC, Google and an army of bloggers may have audiences and resources that dwarf that of our own, but much of what they talk about and comment on is the stuff of dedicated, professional and brave journalists in our industry.”

“Watching a farting cat on You Tube, throwing an angry bird at a laughing green pig or liking your breakfast on Facebook may well generate a gazillion impressions a nanno second, but the right story about what’s REALLY going on in Hollyrood, or what’s going on in my street, can deliver a reaction that will explode across platforms, harness social networks and grab the psyche of a nation.”

And in a clear message to the doomsayers, he had this to say: “It’s the job of all anyone privileged to be called a journalist to get back to informing, unearthing, amazing, delighting and getting back to feeling alive once more.  We’re not selling Betamax video recorders for the love of god.”

If only more people spoke out about our industry in those terms.

Feeding into the debate about the future is the decision by the Sunday Herald to support independence, the question being that with so many people supporting independence why is the Sunday Herald the only paper so far to fill the gap in the market?

It may well be that more newspapers come out in favour of independence and that is something to be welcomed. Giving people choice is an essential part of a vibrant Press and with such a complex issue it is only right that a range of positions are taken.

But it would be fanciful to believe that independence or indeed any major change in the political landscape would result in dramatic changes in newspaper-buying habits in the long run, any more than did devolution in 1999.

The Irish Times may well sell around 100,000 copies, but this isn’t Ireland and thank goodness this isn’t 1921.

In his Guardian article, Ian Jack raises a comparison between the Herald  and Scotsman and the Irish Times but wisely avoids direct co-relation.

For a start there are comparatively few indigenous daily titles in the Republic; only four of any note in recent years since the Irish Press closed, to leave only the Irish Independent, Irish Times, Dublin Herald and The Examiner.

By comparison, we are fortunate to have 11 purely Scottish dailies; the Daily Record, Herald, Scotsman, Press & Journal, Courier, Aberdeen Express, Dundee Telegraph, Edinburgh Evening News, Glasgow Evening Times, Paisley Daily Express and Greenock Telegraph.

And while there are strong Irish editions of the Sun, Star and Mail, there are no Irish editions of the London broadsheets. If anything, the possibilities of devolution encouraged Fleet Street papers to invest more in Scotland and so added to the choices available to Scottish readers.

The 350 people who attended the Scottish Press Awards a fortnight ago are ample evidence of an industry which still believes in itself.

Still, too much discussion about the Scottish Press falls into the trap of only looking at what happens in Glasgow and Edinburgh and ignores much else which is robust. The Press & Journal is still selling well over 60,000 copies a day and the Dundee Courier just over 50,000.

While a long way from the days when they enjoyed virtual monopolies of the popular market (and before multi-channel TV never mind the internet), the Record and Sunday Mail are still selling over 200,000 copies each. On a pro-rata basis, that would equate to sales of over two million in the UK.

At the other end of the spectrum, independent papers such as the Shetland Times, Dunoon Observer and The Orcadian still enjoy household penetrations approaching 100 per cent.

The issue of state subsidy of the Press is also being raised, driven in part by work currently under way by Glasgow University’s Centre for Cultural Policy Research. In particular the CCPR is looking at how government cash supports newspapers in Norway.

Iain Macwhirter comes out in favour and while the SNS would be open to discussions about how such a scheme might operate here, I have my doubts about political acceptability. It would certainly be hard in this climate to argue for state funding without state regulation.

Whatever views commentators about Scottish newspapers may have, it is good they are talking about them; the fact is newspapers still matter. I doubt very much if the First Minster would have attended the SNS conference a fortnight ago if they didn’t.

Ian Jack’s piece can be found here: