The National: worthwhile or just worthy? (updated)

The NationalThe launch of The National is one of those media milestones, a source of conversation that will probably live on longer than the newspaper itself. Just like the Sunday Standard, the Sunday Scot, Business AM, and sundry others that aimed to break the mould, and instead went broke.

The National, at an almost give-away 50p, looks and reads like we probably expected: bold, if a little worthy, more like The Socialist Worker than The Times. While it is presented in a neat package, it lacks content in many areas, perhaps reflecting the woeful staffing levels on newspapers (it is sub-edited by US-owned Newsquest in Wales). If this is what we are to get for our half a quid it will not survive without filling the obvious gaps. There is more value in the free Metro.

It rather pompously claims there was a “democratic deficit” in the Scottish media’s coverage of the referendum, which presumably includes its own sister title The Herald which gets no mention in an editorial that prefers, understandably, to cosy up to the pro-independence Sunday Herald.

There is one caveat in its Declaration of Renfield Street: probably as a sop to those who believe it will contain unfettered propaganda it says it will not be a mouthpiece for the Scottish National Party.

That has a familiar ring. A paper that is supportive of a particular view, but not unquestionably so. For The National’s “independence”, read every other paper that claimed it was free from oppressive opinion. The Daily Mirror would say it was not a mouthpiece for Labour. The Daily Telegraph, would legitimately challenge those who said it never criticised the Conservative Party.

So if The National is going to stick the boot into the SNP on occasion, what makes it different?

It is heavily political – some say too political – and if it is to succeed it will need to improve the content. One business story was four days old, the sports section was wanting of the sort of depth readers of other papers have come to expect on a Monday morning. There were few stories that were not in the other papers which had vastly more to offer.

So The National cannot rely on political sentiment alone. Nor can it proclaim to be more honourable than its rivals. Despite the regular outpourings of bile and hatred towards the “biased” Scottish media, the vast majority of journalists do not go to work each morning reciting an ideological mantra. They are professionals who want the facts and are often distressed when they get things wrong. Nor do editors inject poison into their veins in morning editorial meetings.

Conspiracy theorists believe otherwise, of course, and one critic on Twitter this morning accused me of being a “typical unionist journo” because I challenged the economics and arguments behind The National. After I pointed him in the direction of an article I wrote on why I voted Yes on September 18 he decided to follow me (and delete the critical tweets).

It is this rampant hysteria and knee-jerk nonsense that is most worrying about the current political debate in which The National has been born.

Hopefully, it will not feed off the one-eyed drivel that passes for rational argument and avoids deepening the divisions that already exist.

Commercially, The National will have to bear in mind the impact it will have in a shrinking market. Much has been made of it selling out on Monday, but all launches are greeted with a similar response. Curiosity plays a big part. It is days two, three and four that more accurately reflect whether readers like the product and will continue to buy it.

But this is also about money and the jam is already spread thinly in terms of sales and advertising revenue. New papers rarely add to the overall market; they tend to displace readers from elsewhere. This cannibalising of other papers is a danger to its own products as well as to others.

The Sunday Herald’s launch was hailed as a great boost for jobs in journalism, but what it really did was split the indigenous Sunday sale. Scotland on Sunday was at the time outselling The Sunday Times Scotland but the arrival of the Glasgow paper shattered its sale and it has never recovered. With The Scotsman now cutting jobs, the last thing it needs is another rival gobbling up readers.

Good luck to The National. I hope it proves me wrong and helps revive a flagging newspaper market. But a five-day trial buoyed by post-referendum sentiment is not long enough to prove its ability to survive long term and on the evidence available Scotland needs another paper like it needs another nuclear submarine base.

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