This Thursday, MPs will debate the future of local newspapers and the industry is hoping the discussion will generate a lot more light than the expected heat from political critics.
Led by John McDonnell, the left-wing Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington who heads the National Union of Journalists’ parliamentary group, it’s not likely to be a celebration of all the good things going on in the regional Press.
While the rest of the country will still be poring over the fine detail of George Osborne’s pre-election budget, three hours of Commons time is set to be taken up by this discussion. How much spleen-venting will go on remains to be seen, with so many MPS in knife-edge seats hoping for positive coverage in their local papers as polling day approaches.
MPs know their local papers matter and they feel it most keenly at election time, so we in the industry should regard a debate with the welfare of the sector at its heart as a good thing.
But the terms have already been set by Mr McDonnell in his representations to secure a place in the parliamentary timetable for the debate; his talk was the usual stuff of deterioration, closures and cutbacks.
His co-sponsor, Colchester Lib Dem MP Sir Bob Russell, referred to people being deprived of impartial information and harkened back wistfully to a time half a century ago of 100 per cent household penetrations.
Except you don’t have to go back that far to find high levels of penetration or evidence of the continued relevance of the newspaper industry in our communities, certainly not in Scotland.
In places like Shetland and Orkney household penetration of print copies is still up around the 100 per cent mark; in those communities the nostalgia is for days when families bought multiple copies and not just the one.
And in the cities, titles like The Herald have begun to grow the number of paying customers, with the combined total for print and digital only subscriptions up to over 47,000 in December last year. Digital subscriptions grew by 32 per cent to offset a decline of five per cent in hard copy sales, while monthly unique online users rose from 1.4m to 1.9m.
It may be understandable that doomsayers look back at past when print dominated the communication world, but through no fault of the newspaper industry’s it’s not the world in which we live now. Print still has relevance and vitality, but it’s no longer the whole story and those who only look at the industry through the distorted prism of hard copy sales are missing the point.
That’s why it was sad when former Scotsman editor John McGurk called for the closure of his old title (and mine) The Scotsman as if that would somehow help produce a stronger future in the digital world.
As SNS president Thelma Henderson said at our recent reception at the Scottish Parliament, we need to stop looking back at what we once had and start looking forward to what we have now and what we can have in the future
What we have are brands trusted up and down the country; national brands which will deliver and defend a particular point of view and local brands which will deliver a strong defence of their communities.
With over 100 titles it’s an industry which in Scotland employs some 4,500 people either directly or indirectly, not counting the hundreds of other businesses like newsagents which benefit from the trade newspapers bring, and is worth £700m to the Scottish economy.
Local titles alone have a net readership of approximately 1.5 million and sell around 725,000 copies a week. Throw in the national dailies and Sundays and the weekly sale gets up to around six million copies a week.
No-one seeks to minimise the challenges and different companies will take different approaches in what has always been a hard-nosed, competitive world. It is not an industry which has only blamed its difficulties on others or looked to government to prop up unsustainable enterprises, but there are measures politicians can take to ensure the playing field is level.
So rather than looking to criticise or make impractical grand-standing demands, on Thursday MPs have an opportunity to discuss practical measures to give newspaper companies the best chance to continue providing the services the politicians profess to value.
Here’s a six-point plan for them to consider:
- Kill off the notion of compulsory arbitration for complainants, thankfully legally impossible in Scotland but likely to open the door to spurious claims which could have a serious impact on local titles.
- Re-examine the impact of the BBC in local markets. There can never be a level playing-field when one significant player can use what is effectively a media poll tax to enter already well-served markets. The BBC doesn’t need expensive studios or video journalists to distort local markets; an active Facebook account is all it takes. As the recent select committee report stated: “The BBC… must always be mindful of the effect of its activities on regional media groups and their ability to turn a profit”.
- Ensure the zero VAT rating for printed newspapers is maintained and extends to associated digital publications. VAT is now being imposed on digital products thanks to a European ruling less than a fortnight ago.
- Make sure public notices remain public by ensuring the information still appears in widely-read independent publications and is not buried away on council websites no-one reads. That applies to alcohol notices too, something Scottish councils were quick to remove.
- Outlaw the use of tax-payers’ money to fund council publications designed to compete with independent services.
- Recognise the very different competitive landscape to allow cross-media mergers and acquisitions.
These are not just issues for Westminster, the Scottish Parliament has a role to play too; but there’s no excuse for politicians to shake their heads and in time-honoured fashion say “something must be done” without actually doing much. There is plenty they can do if they put their minds to it.