Crisis in the Scottish press – Charles McGhee writes

THE best of them have toppled corrupt governments, campaigned tirelessly against injustice and defended the public’s right to know. The worst have sensationalised, trivialised and misinformed.

Current phone-tapping allegations aside, newspapers have been an indispensable part of our democratic culture for generations. Only yesterday, the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee was acknowledging that the Scottish press is “highly valued both by its readers and by the institutions that it scrutinises”.

Yet now, more than at any point in its 400-year history, the newspaper as we know it is on the brink of extinction.

The recession hasn’t helped, of course, but competition for advertising from internet rivals, a seemingly irreversible decline in circulation, and a younger generation more interested in pixels than print, have combined to plunge newspapers into crisis. And not just at national level: your local weekly is feeling the pinch too.

Without doubt, the greatest challenge has been from the internet: the most powerful communications tool ever invented. It has transformed our lives, turning our homes, businesses and educational establishments into always-on information hubs, shrinking the world in the process.

When major news breaks, the first Twitterings are not on traditional media but via an increasing variety of social networks which distort time and distance.

The first news of Michael Jackson’s death was broken by entertainment website, TMZ, for example, and those first dramatic pictures of the plane crash-landing on the Hudson River earlier this year were broadcast on Twitter long before TV networks or newspapers were on the scene.

As a breaking news delivery platform, print has been left behind by the sophistication of online technology, while key classified advertising platforms such as property, recruitment and motors – the average newspaper’s commercial backbone – are being offered in a richer form online.

Critics blame the newspaper industry for being too slow to embrace the internet and invest in the future. Yet that’s not entirely true. Many publishers invested heavily in the first online ventures in the early 1990’s, only to get little in return when ‘dial-up’ failed to engage the public or advertisers in viable numbers.

Yes, they were slow off the mark for the second wave of the internet revolution when broadband changed the landscape completely, but given their earlier experience their caution was hardly surprising. What did take them by surprise, however, was that online enterprises born in a back room with a handful of staff could, in just a few years, threaten businesses built up over centuries.

Even those newspapers that have conquered the internet – The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph regularly attract audiences of around 30 million – are coy about online profitability.

The fact is advertisers are not rushing to newspaper sites online to place content at premium rates or at the same volume that allowed publishers to subsidise print-based news-gathering operations. And newspapers feel they cannot charge for online content while the state-funded BBC provides a comprehensive online national and local news service for free.

So if the internet is not the Holy Grail, what is?

Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report suggests top-slicing the BBC licence fee to help fund independent regional TV news, in some cases through the collaborative efforts of commercial broadcasters and newspaper publishers.

The Scottish Affairs Committee report also asks CoSLA and the Scottish Government to think again about the impact of removing public service advertising from print media. Both are welcome moves, but time is running out.

The industry accepts the current newspaper business model is bust, but in spite of wholesale restructuring, with publishers forced to close some titles, merge others and reduce staff to previously unheard-of levels, a long-term solution appears as far away as ever.

Yet long-established titles still have a powerful bond of trust with readers and the strength of great brands behind them which could continue to sustain them in print and online, if they get the new business model right.

When the world’s most successful media magnate, Rupert Murdoch, while fully embracing online and mobile technology, refuses to write off print having just invested around £650 million in his UK newspapers – including new printing plants in London, Liverpool and near Glasgow – perhaps all is not lost.

Newspapers may not be first with the news any more (their own exclusives apart), but they are often the first place people turn when they want the news behind the news: the analysis and commentary that puts information and events into perspective. And the closer to home that process is, the more relevant it is to local readers.

It’s a cruel irony at this point in Scotland’s history, ten years into devolution and with a buoyant SNP government in power, that our indigenous national press is in a weaker state than when Scotland was a fully-integrated member of the United Kingdom.

As Scotland ponders the Calman route of more devolutionary powers or the SNP route of full independence, a future scenario of a London-based media dominating that debate in Scotland is not improbable. What price democracy then?

It would be tragedy if our major daily and Sunday titles were not here to record Scotland’s unfolding story.

Or if regional and weekly papers were not around to stand up for the local community.

Newspapers may be struggling, but Scotland would be a poorer place without them and such a democratic deficit should be unacceptable to publishers, politicians and the people of Scotland.

Charles McGhee is a former editor of The Herald and a past president of the UK Society of Editors.

A version of this article appeared in The Scotsman yesterday.