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Myths and realities about the future of the press

Terry smiling headFirst came the slightly degrading categorisation of Scotland on Sunday as ‘sub-core’, then the announcement that The Independent is to cease its print editions. This year may prove to be a key turning point for newspapers as they finally stop being in denial about their future.

Those hand-wringing journalists bemoaning the fall of two ‘once-great’ titles and looking for answers simply need to look at the circulation and advertising figures, though an explanation for what has gone wrong, or simply changed, in the industry is deserving of greater analysis.

John McGurk, a former editor in chief of The Scotsman Publications has just published what he calls ‘ten myths about the crisis in Scottish newspapers’.

I agree with much of his analysis. But there are  issues and factors which he has overlooked, or which need to be challenged.

He suggests that the internet should not take all of the blame for the decline in newspapers and that sales began to decline 25 years ago. The internet is not the only challenger to newspapers, but unlike others, such as television and free papers, the internet is a game changer which will lead to a fundamental restructuring of the news media.

Is it also a myth that no one reads newspapers nowadays? To prove his point, John McGurk states that almost a million papers are sold in Scotland every day.

According to Kevin Williams 2010 book Read all about it,  a history of the British newspaper the peak for newspaper sales was 1957. That’s almost a 60 year decline and there is only one long term outcome.

There have been some sales increases, notably at The Times and Sunday Herald. But The Times has to prove it can achieve a sustainable return on bulking up its Scottish staff, while the Sunday Herald benefited from the (as things stand) non-recurring item that was the independence referendum.

Sales and circulation do not necessarily translate seamlessly into profitability.  A big mistake in the newspaper industry has been the tendency of editors and proprietors to beat their chests about circulation (volume) rather than that dirty word: profit. The Barclay brothers offered a glimmer of hope for The Scotsman titles by investing in journalism. But while selling more than 100,000 copies a day helped massage the ego of its publisher, the company had a cost strategy that wiped out its profits.

newspapersCirculations of almost all titles are in freefall, with some suffering double digit declines. The question I often hear about The Scotsman is not: “Did you see that great splash?”, but: “How long do you think it will survive?” Johnston Press, its owner, has already closed weekly papers around the UK and is prepared to offload those it regards as no longer part of its long term future. This led one senior Scottish journalist to tweet that SoS should be renamed Sub-Core on Sunday. Of course, it’s no joke.

As John McGurk states, it is the ultimate irony that even those who want a separate nation continue to buy English papers, a fact that is contributing to the decline of the indigenous Scottish press.

But building sales on political ambition is no match for commercial might. London is one of the world’s wealthiest cities and it is able to finance publications that will inevitably dwarf the competition, irrespective of nationhood. All of Scotland’s national titles struggle to compete with the better-financed London media.  Financial advantage has also enabled the London titles to invest in online operations which adds a further challenge to the Scottish press.

The newspaper industry was able to meet the challenge of television because television, in spite of the proliferation of channels and dedicated news programmes, remains a largely superficial medium, dominated by mealy-mouthed talking heads, and is required to appeal to a broad range of viewers. Newspapers have always offered a deeper and more eclectic interpretation of the news agenda.

The internet, on the other hand, is a real alternative to newspapers on many different levels. There has been a tidal wave of blogs and websites on every conceivable subject. The immediacy of the medium and the ability to update news and opinion as events unfold has given television and radio their first competition for real time news.

Crucially, the development of smartphone technology has put the news literally in the hands of the reader, changing how and when news is consumed. News gathering and publishing is no longer monopolised by the established media. Anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account now considers themselves a journalist.

No wonder ‘the press’ feels it is being marginalised. And the first real attempts at dealing with the challenge are at last being taken.

The Independent has been credited with being ahead of its time with a number of pioneering ideas from a Saturday magazine to being the first quality title to go tabloid. For this reason alone it would be wise to acknowledge why it is also the first national to go online only. Those bemoaning the switch need reminding that a decline in sale from 400,000 to 40,000 is not a sustainable business model. It tells us that either the product isn’t as good as the journalists think it is, or else the reader is getting his information elsewhere.

The online readership of any newspaper proves it is the latter. The problem for newspaper owners, however, is that they are grappling with developing an online strategy while maintaining – and financing – their print editions. It would be like expecting a train operating company to invest in a fleet of beloved steam locomotives when it knows the future is electric. Too many media owners talk about a digital future without adequately equipping their staff to handle it. And too many are now filling newsrooms with untrained staff who are ordered to follow a ‘click bait’ strategy while failing to maintain content standards.

The Independent will not be the last to ditch print, and its decision could prove the tipping point that many in the industry have been expecting. The Guardian has toyed with it, and don’t be surprised if the Financial Times follows suit. Quality newspaper readers are also savvy online users.

No wonder there are so few shopkeepers looking to open a newsagent any time soon. They are going the way of tobacconists and book shops.

What do you think? Add your comment below

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3 Comments to Myths and realities about the future of the press

  1. John McGurk says:

    Thanks for joining the debate Terry.

    What has happened to indigenous newspapers in Scotland is tragic for the industry and the country.

    Well done to you for trying to do something about it on a daily basis.

  2. Ian Spinney says:

    Great piece Terry. What I find astonishing is that., whilst print has withered, the online readerships are immense, and the newspapers do not seem to broadcast that fact, nor is it picked up in the doom and gloom sales summaries we see in other media. Clearly the problem is commercialising those readership numbers, but it would help if there was a big push to publicise them in the first place. I don’t know what those figures are, and that is because I assume they are not disclosed.

  3. David Munro says:

    You mention “even those who want a separate nation continue to buy English papers”.
    I wonder what English papers you mean as the majority of papers sold in Scotland (The Independent, Guardian and i are the main exceptions) title themselves as Scottish? Scottish Daily Express, Scottish Sun, Scottish Daily Mail.
    If they are to be classed as English papers then where does one classify the Daily Record, owned by Mirror Group?
    Is there actually any Scottish newspaper out there? Similarly, is there any English paper? Surely the Independent, i and Guardian would regard themselves as UK papers?
    Mr McGurk suggests that sales don’t suffer through political allegiance and he may well be right. I would counter, however, by suggesting that overtly biased reporting and editorial stances parroting Labour Party press releases do lose readership.
    I don’t buy newspapers any more simply because I find I cannot trust what they are printing to be the truth. This may always have been the case but nowadays I know it to be so. I would consider The National but suspect it to be simply a cynical move to increase income and thus support its sister publications as opposed to a genuine exercise. The furore over Spiers and Haggerty and the subsequent non-publication of a Greg Moody cartoon don’t help to convince me otherwise.

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