As I See It
Scotsman irrelevant? The debt certainly isn’t
Weeks of speculation were confirmed last week when Alex Salmond admitted he is part of a consortium attempting to oust the board of the paper’s owner Johnston Press with the former First Minister installed as chairman.
The prospect of having the champion of Scottish independence at the helm of a title which pinned its colours to the status quo in 2014’s referendum prompted an indignant riposte from its editor Frank O’Donnell who was clearly unimpressed with Mr Salmond’s verdict on its current standing.
The former SNP leader asserted that The Scotsman had become “irrelevant” and that he would restore a “pro-Scottish” agenda. This was “ill-informed”, said Mr O’Donnell, insisting that since taking on the job in April he has set out an “aggressively pro-Scottish strategy” that was underlined in the paper’s recent manifesto.
The problem for Mr O’Donnell is that having strategies and manifestos is one thing, delivering on them is quite another. He may be correct in questioning whether Mr Salmond’s definition of pro-Scottish is more likely pro-SNP, but his defence of the title’s performance is questionable.
He boasts that six-month circulation was up 4.5% year-on-year to 21,214, but this included 5,344 “bulk” (discounted) sales, more than double the number on the same half-year period last year. When bulks are removed, the title’s circulation was actually down 5% year-on-year.
In truth, print circulation figures are no longer a reflection of readership as more people are reading all titles online (reminder to BBC Scotland). The Scotsman claims 150,000 unique users every day, which would defy claims of “irrelevance”, although it would be interesting to know how many of these are spammers and cybernats merely engaged in the daily rants and arguments among themselves in the comments section. The Scotsman may consider itself a forum for debate, but most of this stream of online opinion would never see light of day in print.
The latest struggle for control of JP comes in the 200th year of The Scotsman and there are some who believe it will be lucky to celebrate many more birthdays unless its parent group delivers on regular turnaround pledges. Half-year profits, reported in August, were down 31%. The group is worth about £15m, roughly equal to the annual repayments on its loans.
All of this may prove academic unless the chief instigator of this now very public spat can force the removal of the Johnston Press hierarchy. Norwegian media owner and Johnston Press shareholder Christen Ager-Hanssen, who owns the Swedish version of the Metro free paper, believes he has the solution to the company’s woes and by installing his own management he can bring about an improvement in the company’s prospects.
But he too has more explaining to do. In a radio interview last week he came across as rather woolly-headed, offering to create a modern data-led company while harbouring ambitions to return The Scotsman to its “glory days” of the 1980s which his mother told him about when he lived in Stavanger. She probably also told him about the Loch Ness monster which may have a better chance of emerging in good health.
The paper’s self-styled saviour has hardly covered himself in glory. He was declared bankrupt in Sweden more than a decade ago over an unpaid £1.5m tax bill and has been in a dispute with the Swedish taxman for nearly 20 years.
He is yet to tell us how he would tackle the group’s £220m debt mountain and the onerous interest payments which are soaking up the cash being generated in the business, thereby denying it of investment.
If he and Mr Salmond want to prise The Scotsman out of JP he will have to find a formula for settling its portion of the debt, and that has scuppered a number of previous attempts to buy it.