In My Opinion: Maurice Smith: A digital tipping point for the Scottish Press?

THE Daily Record’s news team were especially busy at this year’s T in the Park festival.

Yes, they had the usual news and features, covering all the top bands and artists who appeared at Scotland’s biggest annual music event. But throughout the festival, reporters and feature writers were blogging and tweeting too.

The true scale of the Record’s coverage – which also included no less than 40 video reports – demonstrated that the concept of digital has finally reached a tipping point, in production at least. It would be fair to describe the Record’s coverage as a truly multimedia delivery.

Five years ago, when the Record began daily web updates from Glasgow (rather than a single daily ‘group’ update fed from London), its audience was around 300,000 monthly users, many of them expatriate Scots making an once-a-day check on news back home.

Today, the Record has almost three million users a month, with 70 per cent of them based in the UK.

It’s an impressive figure, and very important for the Record, whose print edition continues to experience suffocating competition from The Sun and other UK tabloids, including the Mail. The T in the Park experience demonstrates that online could be a different story, in terms of offering uniquely Scottish content.

Ewan Watt, digital editorial director at Media Scotland – the Trinity Mirror subsidiary that runs the Record, Sunday Mail, and 17 regional papers – traces the significant growth of online activity to the company’s controversial but necessary creation of a truly multimedia operation based at Central Quay.

He believes the news operation’s approach to major events such as T in the Park illustrates that well, with digital updates playing a major part in attracting a new audience, particularly among users of devices like smart-phones and tablets.

Next year, every news operation – newspapers and broadcasters – will discover the truth of that, with a run of major events in Scotland including the Ryder Cup, Commonwealth Games and the independence referendum.

The Scotsman and its sister papers are being geared up, as digital entities by Johnston Press CEO, Ashley Highfield. The new was unveiled yesterday and its progress will be watched with interest, as it attempts to recover lost ground. DC Thomson is speeding into the digital age, and is shortly to relaunch The Sunday Post website.

There is evidence that Scottish titles are getting to grips with the digital challenge more than ever before. Recently, Herald & Times MD, Tim Blott, made an ebullient speech at Glasgow University, urging us to take the industry’s ‘doom-mongers’ with a pinch of salt.

Blott said the Herald & Times’ new device app was attracting 100 new paying customers a week. The key challenge will be to keep them, whilst attracting more.

And this comes to the heart of the newspaper industry’s dilemma. In truth, most Scottish newspapers are actually still making money. It just doesn’t come as easily in the past, and the cost-cutting nearly everywhere has been painful. Mr Blott’s doom-mongers will point out that his papers have just shed another 17 editorial staff, for example.

So, while print continues to turn a profit, and digital advertising remains difficult to find and retain, the industry will remain in something of a digital limbo.

How much non-print material should appear online, and how much of that should be free of charge? The good news regarding mobile devices – accounting for anything between a third and a half of all newspaper access online – is that their owners are more used to paying for apps. But conversely, when they pay, will they expect to receive everything that appears in the print version?

I was fascinated by Blott’s figures: “In 2007 The Herald brand reached a monthly audience of 593,000 adults. It now reaches 1.2 million. The crossover between print and online is very low – 98 per cent of online users do not read the print edition,” he said in June.

That suggests that the Herald & Times are gaining a new – possibly younger – audience, many of whom simply will not buy conventional newspapers.

That is great news. But sooner or later, the industry needs to find the means of taking those statistics and somehow making them pay.

Maurice Smith is a journalist, video producer and consultant.