In My Opinion: Magnus Linklater: Scotland needs a national (online) newspaper

BACK in the days when Arnold Kemp was editing The Herald, and I was at The Scotsman, we used to meet regularly – usually over lunch, often over a very long lunch – to discuss the state of the world, Scottish politics and the media. Newspapermen tend to find their own profession the most absorbing of subjects – a view not always shared by their wives, or, indeed, anybody else.

In those days (we are talking early 1990s), we agreed that there was a certain predictability about the Press in Scotland. The national scene was dominated by two Scottish broadsheets and the Daily Record, all of them left-leaning, hostile to Thatcherism, and critical of the Tory stranglehold in Scottish politics. We complained about the increasing commercial pressures on good journalism, and the way that management was squeezing our budgets, to say nothing of our expenses.

Those were the days. To say that the Scottish Media landscape has changed out of all recognition since then is to understate the case.

Arnold would have been stunned to know that his newspaper’s daily circulation had slumped from the 120,000 or so it enjoyed in his day to under 45,000 (as at June this year), and I am shocked when I see that The Scotsman has gone from 90,000 to under 40,000, a trend that shows no sign of slowing.

What we did not predict is the way that competition from several London-based titles has eroded the sales of Scottish titles, and the inroads of the digital media (to which I will come back) has lured away the younger readers who should have been the next generation of newspaper-buyers.

Having said that, the competition has been good for Scotland. It has greatly increased the variety of opinion. No-one can doubt that Scottish readers now enjoy a choice, from right to left, that was not available in our day. From the pro-Salmond Sun to the pro-Tory Telegraph, the right-radical Daily Mail and the right-of-centre Times, all of them have Scottish editions which subject news and politics in Scotland to the kind of scrutiny that was unusual if not unknown back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and offer a range of views that was simply not on offer a generation ago.

That’s the good news. The bad is: who is reading them? With circulations faltering and management imposing cut-backs, which make the squeezes we complained about seem like a gentle tap on the wrist, there is a widespread fear that the Scottish Media will simply not have the journalistic resources to do the job they are there for.

Just at the moment when Scotland is facing the biggest decision about its future since 1707, the newspapers which are reporting it are in turmoil.

The assumption once was that with the approach of devolution, the Scottish Press would come into its own, and now, with a referendum on independence looming, that should have been doubly true.

In fact, the opposite has been the case. The jury is out on whether all the Scottish titles can survive the attrition that lies ahead. More to the point, there are serious questions to be asked about the quality of their output.

Arnold and I used to worry from time to time that we had too many columnists (“more columns than the Parthenon” was what they used to say about The Herald) and more features than news.

We could unleash a team onto a big story and pursue it to the death. The big issues were considered by heavyweight pundits like Alf Young, or investigate journalists like Alan Hutchison. Today, newspapers worry about whether they’ve got a reporter spare to cover an entire day’s news schedule. The variety is there, but where is the depth?

At this point, I have to put in a strong word for The Times and the Telegraph –  two broadsheet nationals that have funded, and continue to do so, Scottish editions. They are a valuable counter-balance to a faltering Scottish media.

But even they would struggle to provide the training background for the next generation of Scottish journalists.

News, opinion and comment is more freely available online than it ever was in our day. But it lacks quality control, and it provides none of the experience and training on the job which a daily newspaper offers.

Arnold and I used to talk often about those who had most influenced our careers – editors of the past, ferocious chief reporters, legendary foreign correspondents. All of them contributed to the DNA of journalism, and made us better at our jobs. How can that kind of background be replicated in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of the blogosphere?

Not that either of us, I hope, would have been trying to halt progress.

What we might have been discussing instead, in the Ubiquitous Chip [restaurant], was why Scotland has so far failed to come up with a national online site which draws together the best of Scottish reporting, comment and inquiry.

Something, perhaps like the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, where good online journalism is encouraged and comment is monitored. It cannot be done on the cheap, of course.

But it is needed now more than ever. It would be good to have a Scottish Huffington Post, or a tartan Daily Beast – Tina Brown’s US online newspaper.

We do have some brave attempts. There are online sites that do a worthy, if struggling job. Caledonian Mercury pronounces itself an independent voice for Scotland, but, as it admits itself, it has “no investment, no support from advertisers and no subscriptions. It is not a finished product. It is a statement of intent – a crusade to give our country the journalism it deserves”.

Newsnet Scotland is a professional-enough site, but signals its allegiance immediately with a ‘Yes Scotland’ slogan on its front page.

The redoubtale Scottish Review is always worth reading, for the views of Kenneth Roy, but perhaps lacks the breadth of coverage that a genuine all-Scotland site requires.

All three indicate a gap rather than entirely filling it.

Because, as Scots contemplate the big decisions that lie ahead, what they want more than anything is good, reliable information, well-informed analysis, and expert comment. And they need a place to go to find it. That is what we should be discussing today.

Time, I fancy, for a second bottle of claret …

Magnus Linklater is a former editor of The Scotsman (1988-94) and, more recently, a former Scotland editor of The Times. He continues to write, freelance. On Monday, he and Jackie Kemp are speaking at the National Library of Scotland on the role of the Press in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. At the time of writing, tickets are sold out.