Back in June, before the world produced the plate-shifting shocks that were Brexit and then Trump, we started an experiment in publishing.
Our mission: to produce a daily source of positive news about Scots at home and abroad, in an online magazine which actively shunned the media staples of disaster, conflict, political knockabout, and celebrity clickbait, and focussed instead on inspiring people doing inspiring things. Individuals going the extra mile to help others as volunteers; setting up community groups to address real needs; forming charities and social enterprises to tackle specific problems.
The title was an obvious choice – Positively Scottish. Because, whatever divides us (and our site is completely apolitical), Scots are unified by their core identity and, for the most part, have a stoic resilience, no matter the setbacks. Without positivity, how else could we still believe in our national football team?
It’s a not-for-profit operation, run as a social enterprise so we can commission paid articles from freelance journalists, many of them talented recent graduates whose future in the media is severely constrained by its immense financial difficulties. So we simultaneously promote worthwhile causes and provide employment, while also maintaining high editorial standards.
But there’s another dimension. Positively Scottish is part of a wave of change in the wider media landscape, which recognises that many online readers will read and share uplifting articles. It’s called solutions, constructive or just positive journalism. Examples from across the Atlantic include 'What’s Working' in the Huffington Post, 'Fixes' in the New York Times, and 'Take Action' in the Christian Science Monitor. In the UK, the Guardian has launched a section 'Half full: solutions, innovations, answers.'
All stem from a belief that there’s a digital audience which is regularly switched off by the mainstream media agenda. They vote with their cursors and shun articles that leave them unfulfilled or even depressed. But give them a chance to engage with an uplifting story and they’ll both read and share it. They do it all the time on Facebook, on such online platforms with massive audiences as Upworthy and Humans of New York.
So, can it work with a Scottish focus? Our first phase was a proof of concept, and we’re ready to reveal the early results, which we think are very encouraging: an average 10,000 page views per month, almost 1,000 subscribers signed up to the site, and approximately the same number of followers on our Twitter and Facebook pages.
Not mass market, agreed, but this is a niche site publishing just one article each day, Monday to Saturday, and some 95% of the start-up budget is allocated to content, with marketing only via social media and word-of-mouth. The crucial thing is that we’re growing, which can’t be claimed by many Scottish titles.
More importantly, we’ve just received validation in the shape of two important public grants which will help future development. The Big Lottery Fund’s Awards for All programme is providing £8,500, while a further £5,000 is coming from the Scottish Funding Council’s Interface scheme for a joint bid with Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.
The Awards for All grant will primarily be used to fund more journalism, and the Interface grant will pay for a project with two RGU academics, Dr James Morrison and Jack Keenan, based on the early success of our international stream, Positively Scottish Humans of the US/Oz, which features inspiring ex-pats. The RGU project aims to produce a detailed map of the Scottish online diaspora across the world, which will identify the best places to expand the stream.
In other achievements since launch, Positively Scottish has:
• been the only media granted access to the Scottish Recovery Consortium’s annual. The consortium, which supports the work of groups dealing with people in recovery from various addictions, actively shuns the mainstream media because of its focus on the negative, but welcomed our alternative approach. The report on the event is the best-read article on the site to date.
• launched a new section, In Real Life, where bloggers can openly share their personal stories and issues on a safe platform, free from trolls. Some of the Awards for All grant will go to develop this section, with masterclasses for the bloggers.
• commissioned a 10-part weekly audio sitcom, Small Mercies, by a Glasgow-based dramatic team, about an office team trying to stay positive in the face of working woes.
We’re still working on our business model – Positively Scottish will always be free, and we don’t host digital adverts, but we admire SR's voluntary subscription scheme, and we’re exploring editorial partnerships with like-minded parties. And, at the very least, in a year which has seen so much division and uncertainty, we’re proud to have done something positive in Scotland.
Calum Macdonald is the pro bono editor of www.positivelyscottish.scot and a director of the Community Interest Company which runs the site
Photograph of cheerful people in Glasgow by Islay McLeod