International editorial consultant Alan Geere has been working with Scottish Provincial Press and The Orcadian and recounted his findings in this article for the latest edition of Production Journal magazine:
“Yes, we cover all of that,” enthuses editor Alison Cameron with a waft of her hand over a map pinned to the wall of the Northern Times offices. “It’s an area the size of Wales!”
Well, not quite, Alison but we get the idea. It is a big area to cover for a weekly newspaper – 2,000 square miles, about the size of Norfolk – and there is the editor and a reporter. That’s it.
They work out of an office above the bank sited perilously on the side of the A9 in north-eastern Scotland in the seaside town of Golspie, which is actually closer to Stavanger, Norway than London. That banking hall originally housed the press, but the paper is now printed in Dingwall, like all 16 of the Scottish Provincial Press (SPP) titles that span the Highlands from Aviemore to John O’Groats.
SPP sells a total of more than 70,000 papers a week, providing a news and advertising service to towns and villages that are otherwise served by ultra-local magazines or regional and national newspapers produced from afar.
From a base in the shadow of the Kessock Bridge connecting Inverness to the Black Isle, gateway to the Far North, SPP joins the dots for a group of newspaper buyers that would every week almost fill Old Trafford on Manchester derby day.
Here in Golspie Alison is familiar figure in town. Not surprising as she’s spent 35 years on the paper, after arriving from London when her advertising executive father led the family to a new start in nearby Dornoch.
“I do tend to know what’s going on here, but of course everybody also likes to know what you are up to as well,” says Alison, who writes the paper with reporter Caroline McMorran, as well as steering her own production with the help of a dedicated team back in Inverness.
Also staring at a lot of miles are the editors based in Dingwall, 50 miles back down the A9 towards Inverness. Here, Hector MacKenzie, editor of the Ross-shire Journal, is looking at an hour to get over to Ullapool in the north-west of his region.
Of course, as all geo-political historians know, Ross-shire, spiritual home of the Ross-shire Journal, does not even exist. It was abolished in 1890, and went through various guises to emerge as part of Highland Council in 1996.
But Hector and editor of the North Star Jackie MacKenzie (no relation) weave their combined magic every week to produce two newspapers from one patch, where other less adventurous editors and publishers may fear to tread.
The farthest flung outpost of the SPP empire is Wick, where editor Iain Grant marshals a team of four journalists bringing out two papers every week.
Hitting the streets on a Wednesday is the Caithness Courier, followed by the delightfully named John O’Groat Journal on a Friday. “And no I don’t know where the last letter of John O’Groats has gone either,” grins Iain, a sprightly skipper of the Wick ship who arrived in the far north as a boy when his father took up a job as a GP in Thurso (“a real life Dr Finlay”).
There is some cross-over of the content of the two neighbouring papers but each maintains its own distinct identity with dedicated news and feature coverage. A reporter also knocks out the sport, a model that a number of smaller papers would do well to look at.
Just 40 miles north, or two hours on the ferry from John O’Groats, The Orcadian sits proudly on a hill overlooking Kirkwall, the capital of the islands this paper serves.
There is the old hot metal typesetting equipment in the reception area to remind you of where we’ve come from, but this isn’t a business looking backwards. There is a thriving print business, producing everything from sticky labels to posters and coffee table books, as well as the newspaper offices.
In a throwback to the days when the town’s printer was also the newspaper publisher the press still clanks and wheezes (or was that the press hands?) every Wednesday printing that week’s Orcadian in three passes ready for the insertion machinery to take over in the early evening.
That ‘machinery’ is a fine bunch of local lads and lasses who hand insert every one of the 8,000 or so copies ready for distribution for Thursday sale. Not only efficient and good for community involvement, but also a great way for those elusive young people to engage with the newspaper.
The Orcadian doesn’t have to look far to fill its 40 or so page every week. Just in September and October the islands hosted an International Science Festival, Rock and Blues Festival, a Motocross Beach Race, a Fiddle and Guitar Festival plus Story-telling in Orkney.
Put all this alongside the everyday court, council and cops plus submitted columns from far-flung parts and special interests and the paper sort of comes together by itself. John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, was in Orkney in the summer and saw for himself what the paper stands for.
“It’s not just the news coverage, but The Orcadian is lucky enough still to carry a significant amount of public notices, keeping readers up to date with road closures, planning applications and public sector jobs,” he says.
“We know that such services are under threat across Scotland as councils seek to save cash, but their absence from The Orcadian and papers like it would make it much more difficult for readers to find out what’s going on in their communities.”