The ‘crisis’ within Scottish newspapers – part one

ON Wednesday, the Scottish Affairs Committee at the House of Commons grilled five key figures in the Scottish newspaper industry, as part of an investigation into a ‘crisis’ within it.

They were: Jim Raeburn, of the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society; Tim Blott, managing director of the Herald and Times group; Mark Hollinshead, managing director of Trinity Mirror nationals division, including the Daily Record and Sunday Mail; John McLellan, editor-in-chief of The Scotsman group of newspapers; and Michael Johnston, its managing director.

It is worth watching: here.

Over the next few days, will be building up a timeline of the two-hour event.

00.00 Introductions.

01.53 Profit. Tim Blott said his group was still profitable, but it was considerably down, year-on-year. Of the four businesses within the group – printing, internet, newspapers and magazines (eg The Great Outdoors and the The Scottish Farmer) – newspapers now represented just over 30 per cent of the profit being made when it was over 60 per cent just six years ago, when the group was bought by publishers, Newsquest.

The group’s 2008 accounts have still to be filed. Later – around the 11-minute mark – he was to say that the internet (primarily its S1 classified ads portfolio) was responsible for about 40 per cent of the profit being made, with printing 20 per cent and magazines ten per cent.

Meanwhile, Mark Hollinshead said organisational changes taking place at the Record and Sunday Mail were necessary to ensure the papers remained viable, as a business. He referred to an increase in newsprint prices, a reduction in sales and a “cataclysmic downturn” in advertising revenue. An interim management statement is due on Wednesday [May 13] and the forecast is profit in the mid-teens: “significantly down”.

Michael Johnston said The Scotsman group had made a small profit last year, but revenues are “significantly down”, about 40 per cent year-on-year. As at the Record and Sunday Mail, there is a reorganisation taking place, to ensure the sustainability of the business. The Scotsman’s parent company, Johnston Press, was trading profitably but its issue was a [large] debt accumulated through a series of acquisitions.

08.00 Online. Mark Hollinshead noted that when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped producing a print edition [in March] for an online version-only, produced by 20 journalists, after three weeks, internet traffic was down circa 25 per cent, “which indicates that, to have a very good companion newspaper website, you need a very good newspaper to feed it”.

12.30 Morale. Michael Johnston said his company was working closely with the National Union of Journalists and he couldn’t disagree with NUJ Scottish Organiser, Paul Holleran, that journalists were suffereing stress and anguish.

“Hard decisions are having to be made and people are having to leave the business,” he said. He added there had as yet been no strike action at The Scotsman group [unlike at the Record and Sunday Mail] and it was fully committed to health and safety.

He mentioned he was still waiting for a health and safety audit, from the NUJ, first talked about eight months ago. “It is not in anyone’s interest for people to work anti-social hours, to work hours that make them sick or distressed, but it’s a difficult time… I think industrial relations are pragmatic.”

Mark Hollinshead said consultation [over working conditions and job cuts at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail] with the NUJ had been extensive, but had reached the “disappointing and unfortunate conclusion where industrial relations did break down” leading to strike action.

But that the parties are now “back around the table with regard to negotiating a sensible solution as to how we move forward, to protect the future of our newspapers”.

He continued: “The changes taking place are technology-led.”

Tim Blott suggested morale might be, ironically, higher among staff at the essentially non-unionised DC Thomson and News International.

“Morale is shifting sands, can move from a Monday morning to a Friday afternoon and journalists aren’t necessarily the most positive…”, before he was interrupted by one of the committee.

He added that his group’s move in December, of inviting all but a handful of staff to re-apply for around 40 fewer posts, followed a number of years of negotiation with the NUJ over voluntary redundancies, without any resolution to what he considered to be certain terms and conditions anomalies while, at the same time, some very good staff were being lost.

He noted the ‘desperate/drastic action’ had not led to any industrial action or a day’s lost production.

23.00 To be continued…