The Scottish press – from 1955 to the present day: an essay

David Hutchison, a research fellow in media policy at Glasgow Caledonian University, is co-editor of the recently-published The media in Scotland.

Here, from a chapter in the book, he considers the Scottish newspaper industry during the last half-century…

WHEN radio began in the 1920s, British newspapers were not only wary, bordering on hostility.

But it was not long before a modus vivendi was established when newspapers found that they could not only exist alongside their new competitor but could also use its activities as the basis for material of interest to readers.

Then came television.

Evening papers were the section of the press which proved most vulnerable to the challenge of television, specifically early evening news bulletins, whether from BBC Scotland, which began broadcasting as part of the UK network in 1952, or from the ITV stations: STV, which came on air in 1957 (one day after BBC Scotland in a pre-emptive strike launched a brief early evening domestic news summary), and Grampian and Border, which followed in 1961.

By 1963, Edinburgh had lost the Dispatch (1886) while the News (1873–) survived. Glasgow lost its News (1875–1957) and Citizen (1864–1974), and that city too has only one remaining title, the Evening Times (1876–).

The one city/one title pattern is common throughout the UK and the evening papers which survive struggle constantly against declining circulations.

Local weeklies have enjoyed mixed fortunes, and there has been much consolidation, with companies such as Johnston and Scottish and Universal Newspapers being dominant in the field; titles owned by the latter, which for much of the period was part of George Outram (once publishers of The Glasgow Herald), have passed to Trinity Mirror.

Very few local newspapers are now owned by a company based in the area concerned.

This is true on both sides of the border, so the Scottish-based Johnston now vies on the acquisition trail with Trinity Mirror, Northcliffe (Daily Mail and General Trust) and Newsquest (a subsidiary of the US company, Gannett).

The limited regulatory powers available to the state against concentration have been applied only very intermittently. Local newspapers remain very good investments, for they do not pay journalists particularly high wages, they often enjoy monopoly status in their areas and they continue to attract large volumes of advertising.

Advertising revenue has been crucial to the press for hundreds of years, and currently a mass-market daily would expect 50 per cent of its revenue to derive from that source, while, for an upmarket one, and local titles, the figure is nearer seventy per cent.

Chain stores look for a profit level of up to 50 per cent of turnover – and beyond – a figure undreamed-of by many industrial companies and rarely achieved by national papers.

Commercial television and commercial radio – the latter began in the early 1970s in the UK – have clearly taken revenue from the press, although New Media can and do have the effect of increasing total advertising spend.

A major challenge facing all newspapers at the beginning of the 21st century is how to deal with the increasing importance of online advertising, particularly in the lucrative classified field, at a time when online sources of news are also proliferating.

Newspapers can, of course, set up their own websites and seek to attract advertising in that way, but significant profits from such endeavours have so far been hard to come by.

Raising cover prices is another option but might that course of action simply drive more readers to online and broadcast sources of news?

One supposed solution has been the introduction of give-away morning titles (free local weeklies having existed for several decades).

The Swedish Kinnevik company has been the free mornings pioneer throughout Europe and has based its operations on urban transport networks, through which distribution is relatively easy.

In Scotland, the publishers of the Daily Mail are responsible for Metro, an advertising-financed tabloid which offers a digest of news, much of it in snippet form, alongside extensive entertainment listings. Metro, in contrast to its owner’s paid-for national titles, is devoid of editorial comment and analysis.

Despite the commercial success of Metro, it is highly doubtful if it possible to run a serious newspaper which is willing to challenge those in authority solely on the basis of advertising finance. And Metro, particularly for young people, seems like another good reason not to pay for a paper.

Furthermore, the spread of such titles saps the goodwill of newsagents and other outlets on which newspaper companies continue to rely for distribution of their products.

Despite the difficulties evening titles encountered in the new television age, other segments of the market were more buoyant. The Scottish edition of the Daily Express in the late 1950s reached a circulation over 650,000, and when the Daily Record became the leading morning in the 1970s, it managed to sell over 700,000 copies per day.

However, there were setbacks: the demise of The Bulletin (1915–60); the ill fortune which attended the Scottish Daily News, an attempt in 1975 to create an employee-owned paper after Beaverbrook drastically curtailed its Scottish presence; the short lives of the Sunday Standard (1981–83) and Business AM (2001–3).

Nonetheless, two up market Sunday titles – Scotland on Sunday (1988–) and the Sunday Herald (1999–) – were founded and are now well established, with their current owners, Johnston and Newsquest, apparently committed to their survival.

Significantly, both titles appeared after Newscorp’s 1986–87 victory over the print unions at Wapping in London, which led to the widespread introduction of computer-based production techniques and substantial cost savings throughout the industry.

Until the two new Scottish papers made their debuts, there was a real gap in the Sunday market, for although The Sunday Post and the Sunday Mail enjoyed very large circulations relative to the population of Scotland, they did not offer the kind of service provided by the English broadsheet Sundays, which is one reason why The Sunday Times continues to sell well north of the border, despite the erosion of its market share by the new arrivals.

These two titles represent a maturing of the Scottish newspaper market. Paradoxically, the amount of space they and their daily stablemates give to the discussion of public affairs and the arts makes it even less likely that a Scottish weekly journal along the lines of the New Statesman or The Spectator will ever emerge.

Several quarterlies such as The Scottish Review (1995–), Scottish Affairs (1992–) and the revived Edinburgh Review (1969–) do provide opportunities for in-depth debate about politics, culture and the arts, while ethnic and specialist magazines flourish in their niche markets, but it is noteworthy that the fortnightly Holyrood (1999–), which focuses on Scottish politics and local government, is only available on – a rather high – subscription. It is not targeted at the general reader.

The range of Scotland-based titles may have been extended but the overall trend has been one of decline. In the mid 1970s, Scottish-produced titles represented almost two-thirds of the dailies and Sundays purchased in Scotland, 64 per cent and 66 per cent of 1.7 million and 2.7 million copies respectively.

By 2006, however, the situation had changed markedly: the daily and Sunday totals were now lower, at 1.5 and 1.6 millions, and English titles had eroded the shares of the indigenous papers. Some had done so by introducing editions substantially different from those on sale south of the border.

Newscorp was to the fore here and, with a printing plant and substantial editorial presence in Glasgow, it was able to produce The Scottish Sun, the Scottish News of the World, and the Sunday Times Scotland.

Enough account is taken of Scottish readers’ interests – not least in sport, football in particular – and the political and social contexts in these papers to justify the adjective.

The Scottish Daily Mail has gone down a similar route: it was selling 124,000 copies in the second half of 2006, three times its 1970s figure, and not far short of the combined circulations of The Scotsman (58,000) and The Herald (70,000), which in the mid-1970s were selling 90,000 and 109,000 respectively.

The most spectacular success has been that of The Scottish Sun: its non-editionised version sold 155,000 in 1976 compared to the Record’s 676,000, but in mid-2006 it managed 394,000 against the Record’s 384,000.

This was achieved by both editorial flair and price cutting, with The Sun selling for a next-to-nothing ten pence against the Record’s 35 pence, a prima facie case, it might be argued, of predatory pricing.

It will be noted, however, that the overall sale of the two papers, combined, has declined in the period by six per cent; however, given the annual slide of two per cent plus in overall circulations, which has become the norm in recent years in the UK – and in North America and much of Western Europe – this can be regarded as something of a success, particularly when it is remembered that in Britain as a whole it is the tabloids which have suffered the steepest declines (‘broadsheet’ and ‘tabloid’ are used here in their traditional senses rather than as descriptive terms for page sizes).

In Scotland, sales of broadsheet dailies – Scottish and English in origin – have declined by 19 per cent overall since the 1970s, while Sunday broadsheets have seen an increase of 35 per cent; the daily tabloid market has declined by nine per cent and the Sunday one by 46 per cent.

Scotland has diverged from UK trends, in that in Britain as a whole there has been an overall increase in broadsheet daily sales and a much sharper decline in the tabloid daily market.