The National emerged from the womb somewhat prematurely last week. At an emaciated 32 pages, and far from fully formed, Scotland’s first pro-independence daily title was clearly a work in progress.
As launches go, it looked like a car crash, defying all conventional wisdom on how to enter a fiercely competitive market with at least a fighting chance of surviving.
It should have been dead in the water after its first five pilot issues. Even the basics were ignored – not having the barcode sorted and an agreement in place with the big multiples who make or break sales. People in the business were utterly baffled by that.
Then there was the content – or lack of it. Exclusive news, features, sport, reviews, lifestyle, culture got cameo roles. Instead, we had pieces on indy from the usual suspects – a small band of familiar columnists and politicos from the referendum campaign.
Horror of horrors, it didn’t even have a crossword or TV listings. Although that has been added this week, you wonder why it was only an afterthought.
The broadsheet clutter-free design in tabloid format had acres of white space with just a pull quote or a picture. To some that might look good but any hack will tell you it’s a way of filling pages quickly and cheaply. And that was the case here. Journalist Kevin McKenna said it was “a house still waiting for the furniture to arrive”.
So its fate was sealed. Killed at birth. Or should have been. Of course, the opposite happened. It leapt from the womb in the rudest of health. A launch run of 50k was doubled next day to 100k. Punters couldn’t get enough.
Extraordinary by any standards. Proving we live in extraordinary times. Some of the 1.6 million who voted Yes defiantly wanted their own paper – any paper – good, bad or indifferent.
Newsquest, owners of the National and stablemates the Herald and Sunday Herald, sensed an earner. Not known for philanthropy, they wanted to test the water – at minimal cost. So no blame for the National’s failings could be attributed to those who put it together.
The whole project took just three weeks from conception to delivery. That’s astonishing in an industry where national launches can take a year or more and cost millions. It‘s also a tribute to the talents of editor Richard Walker and his dwindling band of staff who must have burned gallons of midnight oil to make it happen.
Now the pilot is over and the paper’s got the green light to continue. Perhaps Walker – who admitted it was ‘crazy’ to launch so quickly – will get the budget he needs and deserves to ensure his baby thrives.
He will have to fight for extra staff to cope with the increased workload and relieve the stress on his existing journalists who deserve some respite from their almighty efforts. He must also ensure the furniture arrives soon.
As the only daily title in Scotland to support independence its arrival was welcomed by indy fans as going some way to addressing the ‘democratic deficit’ of the mainstream media which, with the exception of the Sunday Herald, backed the No campaign.
The other side are convinced it’s no more than state propaganda – the SNP government’s Pravda. The Nat. The paper, however, insists it backs independence and not the SNP.
It’s also viewed by critics as a cynical ploy by Newsquest to cash in on the voracious appetite of those Yes voters still enthused by the struggle to win another referendum at some point.
Regardless of your view on indy, it’s difficult to argue against its existence in democratic or commercial terms. There is a sound case for it to survive on both counts. Scotland’s London-owned papers have had it too easy for too long.
Of further interest is whether it will persuade No voters to change their minds. Broadsheets tend to have readers with informed and fixed political opinions and are not easily susceptible to change. The National will be no different.
Preaching to the converted was a major failing of the Yes campaign – 73 per cent of over 55s rejected indy but were mostly neglected before the vote. Yet they are the biggest group of newspaper buyers in the declining world of print.
A mid-market tabloid taking on the Daily Record, Sun and Daily Mail would have been the obvious vehicle to win converts. A paper to at least rival, if not better, its bigger competitors. A paper that breaks stories and has great content right across the spectrum plus big-name columnists.
In short, a fine title in its own right with a style, personality and wit that people will buy regardless of their political leanings.
It would also make sense for the National to shift its position down-market as it would not then be competing with sister title the Herald on a daily basis.
However, there’s little chance of that happening because it would require considerable investment – including new jobs – and Newsquest, a subsidiary of US media giant Gannet, is unlikely to cough up. There is already a chequered history of disputes between the company and the NUJ over its treatment of journalists in Glasgow.
I suspect they’ll take the safe route of appealing to a limited but guaranteed niche of post-referendum activists who will support the paper in principle regardless of its quality.
Walker will have to keep the more extreme voices at bay and reach out to the many on both sides of the debate – as Nicola Sturgeon has urged. That would give his paper real purpose and ensure its long-term survival.