A traditional journalists' pub.
Or a pub for traditional journalists.
Photograph by Islay McLeod
Can the Scottish press be saved?
We are often asked how many people read the Scottish Review. Since I am about to discuss newspaper circulations, it would be hypocritical to be less than candid about our own circulation.
When SR re-launched online in the spring of 2008, the number of visitors to the site in our first week was 581. By July last year, before we took our summer break, the weekly hits had crawled up to 2,886. We returned from holiday conscious that we were going nowhere and determined to give the magazine a harder current affairs edge with more investigative journalism. By the end of the year the new policy was starting to pay off. The week before Christmas the number of visitors was 6,565.
Since then, something has happened. I am not sure what. The latest weekly figure is 12,632. This is not quite as good as it looks. Some readers – it is impossible to say how many – look at the site more than once a week and each time they are counted as 'unique visitors'. Still, we seem to be making spectacular progress. If we managed to maintain the present rate of growth – of course it is a big if – we would be commercially significant by the end of the year. After so many years of commercial insignificance, it would be a strange feeling.
I admit it: I'm surprised. In all the years of SR as a print journal, it never sold more than 800 copies. It never pretended to appeal to more than a tiny minority. Nor does it do so now. In its new life online it has a number of serious disadvantages. We have no money to promote the magazine; if it were not for the Friends of the Scottish Review, whose support enables us to cover our running costs, we would not be here at all. SR is not a cheer-leader for any political party or cause, so fails to attract a homogenous crowd. And, to the irritation of many, we refuse to conform to the rules of the game: we don't allow blogs or instant comments. SR, then, is not so much an online magazine (although we describe ourselves as such on the masthead) as an old-fashioned print magazine dragged kicking into a baffling new world.
Yet, despite all this, we are now routinely attracting a five-figure readership. What might we achieve if we were going for it and had the backing of an established media group or some power-hungry millionaire? Worry not: it's never going to happen. But the remarkable story of the Scottish Review – a case of how to succeed in business without really trying – probably has a wider significance. It shows how the internet, as a communicator of information and ideas, is taking over.
Let's look now at an equally dramatic story: the decline and fall of the traditional printed press. When Arnold Kemp, the last of the great Scottish editors, was in charge of the Herald throughout the 1980s it was selling 120,000 copies a day. Its latest audited circulation is 55,000. When another distinguished journalist, Magnus Linklater, was editing the Scotsman in the early 1990s it was selling 80,000 copies a day. It is now down to 45,000. Scotland on Sunday in its early years under Andrew Jaspan had a weekly sale of around 85,000; I remember Jaspan assuring me quite seriously that he thought 100,000 a realistic target. Instead the paper's circulation has nosedived to today's 57,000. The Sunday Herald, the youngest of the serious newspapers in Scotland, started with around 60,000 and is now down to 42,000.
These figures would be bad enough if the bottom had been reached. But every new set of figures brings a further dip. Just how far have circulations still to fall? No one knows. When do these titles become unviable? No one is saying.
The Wapping revolution – Rupert Murdoch's peremptory strike against the print unions in the late 80s – ushered in a new era of cheap printing technology. It should have facilitated the birth of many new titles. There were a few (one of which, the Independent, clings on), but not as many as people like myself predicted. Meanwhile, the London-based nationals suddenly found they could print tartan editions carrying the results of midweek football matches and other late Scottish news; at a stroke, the superiority enjoyed by the indigenous Scottish titles disappeared. The Sassenach incomers made serious inroads into previously impregnable territory. Newspaper readers in Scotland proved to be disappointingly fickle.
Murdoch's papers exploited the new situation brilliantly. For a while, the Sunday Times with its Scottish edition tagged on to an already formidable product, commanded a sale north of the border much greater than either Scotland on Sunday's or the Sunday Herald's. But, over time, it too has experienced a precipitous decline. In the last year alone, its Scottish sale has fallen 11% from 72,000 to 64,000. Last week, News Corporation decided in effect to pull the Scottish edition, leaving a skeleton editorial staff in Glasgow. Many were dismayed by this news, but no one should have been surprised.
The common factor is the internet. It has stolen both readers and once lucrative classified advertising; it is threatening to kill the traditional newspaper. The greatest single threat is the massive BBC news website, funded by the public, which is fast, reliable and ever-changing. If it's straight news you're after, it is hard to see past the BBC site as the primary source. It leaves the printed press as the journalistic equivalent of a canal boat. By the following morning, most of the headlines cannot help looking stale. Why should the BBC, from its position of enormous privilege, be allowed to compete on such an unequal footing with the struggling press? Some day, this question may have to be addressed.
Newspapers have responded clumsily to the life-threatening competition. They have put almost all their content online where it can be viewed free of charge. On Sunday morning I no longer require a trip to the newsagent. I simply view Scotland on Sunday and the Sunday Herald online; a few years back, I might have bought both these newspapers. If someone as addicted to the printed press as I used to be is now content to Google, the industry is in deep trouble.
From next month, Rupert Murdoch will be charging for access to his newspapers' websites, but I hope he isn't anticipating many takers. If it failed to work for the New York Times, it is hard to see how it will work for the Times (London) or the Sun. The big mistake was to put newspapers online in the first place. The commerically savvy Daily Mail held out longer than the others, but even it succumbed in the end, reluctantly signing up to the industry's suicide pact. The newspaper managements have failed to understand the phenomenon and are now having the worst of both worlds – failing to 'monetise the internet', but seeing their traditional power base eroded almost to the point of collapse.
Can the Scottish press be saved? The unthinkable option – abandoning the print version and converting to online publication with a subscription base – could soon be tempting in a market so small and vulnerable as Scotland. Or we could see a territorial retreat, the Herald and Scotsman, and their Sunday stablemates, becoming essentially regional newspapers with an accompanying drift downmarket. Or we could see mergers. Or we could see titles folding. Whatever happens, it will be journalism's loss – and democracy's. When the Holyrood parliament arrived, many of us confidently assumed that the more exciting politics of Scotland would be reflected in a more vigorous press alive to the possibilities. How wrong we were.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review