In our opinion: Give McNeill’s plan a go

WHEN a senior politician steps in to argue the case for newspapers, you can only applaud their efforts.

Pauline McNeill MSP, Scottish Labour’s culture spokesperson, has probably had occasion, in the past, to wish the media away. Yet, her opinion piece in today’s Scotsman newspaper, suggests that, for all the media can be the source of personal discomfort, it is also vital to the operation of democracy.

In a nutshell, McNeill is suggesting that the Scottish Government copy an initiative in France, whereby every 18 year-old is entitled to receive a newspaper, free for a year, in the hope of establishing the habit of a lifetime.

Insofar as other politicians have argued for government support for other ailing industries certainly does not make McNeill’s plea on behalf of newspaper that much of a special case.

Lots of people are losing their jobs, as advertising revenue falls, partly because of the recession and partly because it is migrating elsewhere, as the number of TV channels, websites, etc proliferate.

She is one among very many to voice fears over a recent Scottish Government proposal that, to save money, local authorities move their public notices from newspapers (mainly local ones) to the internet – as they have already done with their job ads. Encouragingly, as recently as the end of last week, Scottish Government culture minister, Fiona Hyslop, seemed to share at least some of her counterpart’s concerns.

Young people, though, have always presented a challenge for newspaper editors. Unless a young person has a fundamental interest in the world around them, then an occasional two-page or so ‘young person’ section is unlikely to have them flocking. By the age of 18, some young people have developed an interest in politics, international affairs, transport, economics, etc. But many others have not.

A newspaper, free for a year could well result in a surge of interest in newspapers from a previously hard-to-entice age group. There will be those who will argue that it will be a waste of taxpayers’ money and why should the taxpayer be asked to prop up profit-seeking organisations operating voluntarily in a market economy?

But the democracy argument is overwhelming.

What newspapers do that the ‘free for all internet’ can’t be guaranteed to do is provide professionally-researched and written content that operates by certain codes concerning truth and accuracy. If the public are sometimes sceptical about that, then newspapers have no-one to blame but themselves.

And like a New Year’s resolution, the implementation of a proposal such as this by McNeill could be just the fresh start opportunity required to reinforce all that is supposedly good about newspaper journalism. And while they are at it, newspapers could each revisit what they stand for and communicate that to their readers, because there will be many young people who will struggle to separate one newspaper from another, especially when large chunks of one title can too often be found in pretty much all the others.

That’s what older readers are often saying of newspapers these days and if newspapers don’t address that, then no matter the outcome of a plan to turn 18 year-olds on to newspapers, it won’t make up for all those other age groups who have been, in the meantime, turned off.

McNeill suggests there should be ‘strings attached’ to the money: a commitment by newspapers to operate journalism apprenticeships and other training initiatives. Perhaps it would be better were newspapers required to invest their financial windfall in quality journalism, because quality journalism gives a newspaper identity and separates it from the rest.

To do otherwise would be to condemn newspapers to their continuing ‘death by a thousand cuts': as they save money by reducing originated, high-quality journalism (making up the shortfall with content that very often can easily be found elsewhere) they diminish what makes newspapers special, and worth forking out cash for, in the first place.