Information Will Find Me

The National launchHow the launch of The National signals a shift in Scotland’s media landscape. By Susan Le May

Mere months into the post-referendum period, some of the Scottish media has grasped the political and ideological buzzword of the minute – change – and taken significant steps towards its realisation. Whilst the dramatic downward trend of print press sales and readership has been the norm across the UK in recent years, Monday saw the launch of the five-day trial of The National – a new daily title born of The Sunday Herald’s print surge following its lone declaration of support for independence.

For its second day, the paper’s print run increased to 100k after the selling out of the first day’s 60k copies. It is believed that (despite dubious tech) at least 10k digital subscriptions for the entire trial were purchased by the end of Monday, whilst many stories have emerged about the major stores and supermarkets in Scotland having “issues” with stocking the fledgling title.

There is undoubtedly an increased public appetite for new media and alternate ways of reporting, but it could be argued that this call has largely come from inside the echo chamber of existing new media such as Twitter. The National has so far shown that there is still a place for print, and whilst its long-term success is yet to be seen, the launch alone of a new daily newspaper in a climate of declining print sales and closures cannot be underestimated.

The lack of a balance of views in print media and the reporting of stories that are heavily tarnished by unionist or British State coloured glasses, is clearly a problem in this country and UK-wide. Print generally speaks through a narrow mouthpiece here, largely reaching the demographics for whom online platforms are still not mainstream. Clearly there is at least an initially impressive demand for pro-indy The National, alongside the swell of other new streams, forums and platforms that too have seen their reader/viewership and subscriptions bolstered post-indyref (Scottish News, KILTR et al).

But will the new kid on the block get a fair stab at success? Certainly many individual newsagents appear to be ordering, stocking and selling out, but reports suggest some of the large supermarkets and convenience stores have said space problems prevented them from stocking it, that there have been “issues” with ordering, whilst some stores have ordered the title in only to have those orders cancelled by the company’s head office. None of this is surprising considering the way that some of these companies behaved during the referendum, and who they aligned themselves with, but it may be nonetheless disheartening for those involved in the credible and balanced dissemination of information.

Speakers at last weekend’s RIC in Glasgow denounced the current culture of “press release journalism”, blaming cuts and ownership problems on the declining standards and ethics in the profession. Paul Holleran of the NUJ Scotland suggested that journalists were struggling with finding enough time to dig deeper, with “mismanagement at a corporate level” leading to lazy writing and a tendency to rehash the information that was being fed to them by their owner’s agenda.

Holleran stated that there had been no fair distribution of wealth in the industry, with journalists overworked and underpaid thanks to the greed and push for profit from the bosses – usually multi-millionaires and international conglomerates. He discussed the fundamental flaws in the running of the BBC, reiterating his insight into the situation in the Scotland newsroom following the poll that put Yes ahead just 12 days before the vote.

He described BBC Scotland (in reference to Johann Lamont’s parting shot at her party) as a “branch wing” of the London office, describing scenes of panic as the state broadcaster’s London chiefs ran about like “headless chickens” following The Sunday Times survey. In the run up to 2014, BBC Scotland’s newsroom had its budget cut by around 17%, which had an impact on the journalists’ ability to make decisions and do their jobs properly. Holleran recalled how staff had to ask for £5 million back just to cover the referendum, with bosses bringing in untrained workers to fill the gaps.

“[BBC Scotland] nearly went to war with London,” he said, describing a possible strike and the strong ill-feeling between colleagues as an army of senior reporters from London were shipped up to take over and sort the situation.

Holleran believes that The National’s launch is a “major boost to democracy” and that newspapers should be diverse, even-handed and gender balanced, and for too long they have taken political positions that do not reflect society. Angela Haggerty, the appointed editor of Common Weal’s Common Space online platform which is due to launch next month, echoed Holleran’s sentiments on ownership, agendas and the dominance of press release journalism.

She suggested that there “can be a revolution within the media” in Scotland, and that the value of the print product is still “really high”, citing the popularity of Wings Over Scotland’s Wee Blue Book. The problem, she believes, is one of monetisation and how outlets are going to find models other than crowdfunding to sustain themselves and allow journalists to be paid.

As support for left wing thinking and the left leaning parties in Scotland becomes more visible in everyday life, pushing in from the peripheries of politics and gaining some mainstream momentum, so too must the media reflect a shift in acceptance that parties like the Greens are no longer on the fringes of common ideology.

The door has opened for the multiple streams of varying opinion to pass through. All we can hope is that this apparent spike in diversity in the media continues (as well as a push for gender balance and a move away from the old boys club mentality). Diversity, expansion and localised control of a range of media are key to successful democracy, and the only way in which society can be truly informed and engaged in the political discourse. We need more platforms to redress the balance of the dissemination of information that is relevant to Scotland, and this week the country has come closer to this than ever before.



Categories: Media

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16 replies

  1. An interesting article. I do feel we need to be mainstream – it’s those who use online media the least who are more likely to be misinformed, and that’s something that worries me if we are to grow beyond 45%. We need to get newspapers into peoples’ hands, and that’s where the impartiality of the media is so important.

    My aunties are not users of social media, but have started to watch RT and Al-Jazeera! I was pleased to hear one of the folk involved in Scottish Evening News say they were hoping, longterm, to get a tv channel.

    All of this will help to bring some balance to the Scottish media landscape, though I do feel that ownership is equally important, and rarely discussed.

    BTW, it was Johann Lamont, not Margaret Curran, who described Scottish Labour as a branch office.

  2. If nothing else should be learned from the referendum it is that when your press and TV are owned/controlled by people outwith your country,do not expect a sympathetic hearing when their perceived interests are challenged.
    I hope the National lives up to it’s declared intent and doesn’t have the agenda hijacked in future.

  3. There is an error in the article: it was Johann Lamont who resigned and not Margaret Curran.

  4. Is it correct that one of the supermarkets claimed that they weren’t stocking The National because they needed to remain politically neutral? I don’t know how they can say that with a straight face, given that all the supermarkets quite happily stock newspapers with an absolutely unambiguous anti-independence stance, such as the Daily Mail or the Telegraph.

    It’s the age-old delusion – pro-independence is “bias”, anti-independence is “normality” and “neutrality”.

  5. If the National is selling out in the newsagents, then power to the newsagents. Small corner shops and newsagents have suffered at the hands of supermarkets for decades, because of the greed and power of these conglomerates. If this does something to reverse the trend, then I applaud it.

    • I second that emotion. When you also consider other local businesses such as butchers, bakers and greengrocers who’ve been hammered by the big supermarkets over recent decades, and the fact that farmers are underpaid to produce identikit fruit and veg, etc, you can see that Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the rest have a lot to answer for.

  6. Susan, your understanding of newspaper distribution is about as thin as the availability of The National.

    Newsquest’s predecessor as owner of the Herald & Times Group, was Scottish Television – or Scottish Media Group as it pompously then wanted to be known. The awfully bright accountants at the top, in their wisdom outsourced the newspaper division’s circulation operation to John Menzies decades ago. No more circulation reps to pay or fret over, no more tiresome managing of vans, distribution and all that sort of unncessary overhead. The result was lots of pounds off the bottom line sure, but product availability shrank in tandem (a) because a third party distributor doesn’t really care too much about individual titles, and (b) because the resulting abysmal availability and promotion simply fed a vicious downward circulation spiral where low sales and high returns (the unsold copies sent back to the publisher) persuaded the cost-driven publisher to keep reducing print runs.

    So you see, when you really, really, need to be in control of the distribution of a new title like The National, you find, what?

    You are at the mercy of a third-party which really doesn’t have the time or staff to care too much about a week-long trial or whether or not the circulation reps of your rivals are burying your precious copies under piles of Press & Journals, or The Sun or The Scottish Daily Mail on the supermarket stands. You don’t have anyone any more who can badger truculent corner-shop newsagents into stocking your new paper, or offer little inducements to ensure plenty of copies on the counter – and yes, a few more sales. Well, that’s how it used to work – and still does among the remaining newspaper managements who actually understand the business – and can still afford it.

    And you find yourself facing commentators (yes like you, Susan) who want to blether about diversity in the Scottish media or neurotically see a dark conspiracy by supermarket chains to deny a nationalist-supporting title from reaching the public.

    There may be a gap in the market for The National and Richard Walker’s heart is unquestionably in the right place. He deserves a huge medal for having a go. Whether the US-owned Gannett group, parents of Newsquest UK, actually have the head, and essentially the wallet, for it in the long run is quite another matter.

    More pertinently of course, would a wholly-owned Scottish publisher be any different?

  7. Probably not. D C Thomson, after all, is a wholly-owned Scottish publisher, and they weren’t exactly pro-Yes. But then, as a majority of their publications are distributed UK-wide, that’s hardly surprising.

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