In My Opinion: Hamish Mackay: The new-look Herald

INTERESTING days lie ahead for the editorial teams at The Herald, Sunday Herald and Evening Times as new editor-in-chief, Jonathan Russell, gradually begins to find his feet in a demanding new role where he may sometimes yearn for the ministrations of Mystic Meg.

The 40 year-old journalist – who was assistant editor of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail before taking over from Donald Martin – has more than enough on his plate at present in tackling The Herald, which he clearly edits on a hands-on basis, let alone dilute his energy in devoting any detailed attention to its sister titles.

By my reckoning, Russell is the first Aberdonian to edit a Scottish daily since Ramsay Smith’s vacillating sojourn at the Scottish Daily Mail. Both come from the Evening Express stable in Aberdeen

Russell, a splendid tennis player in his youth, began his career as a reporter on the Evening Express, and also worked on Aberdeenshire weekly, the Inverurie Advertiser.

He has held several senior editorial roles, including Scottish editor of the Daily Mirror and editor of the Paisley Daily Express.

Given Russell’s tabloid pedigree, it was fascinating to behold that his first definitive move was to ‘tabloidise’ the Herald’s front page with an unusual modular layout.

There has followed a series of front pages – dominated by huge (and quality) pictures – not necessarily tied into a lead story which equally dominates the front page.

One of the first off the Russell production line focused on a Scottish soldier killed in Afghanistan, Lance Corporal Stephen Monkhouse, from Greenock, and his baby son Brandon, with the intensely poignant heading: ‘All he Spoke of was Going Home to see the Wee Man’, with a taster for the full story on page 5 as a cut-out insert within the photograph.

This treatment has continued with a big picture on the front page each day – not necessarily adhering to the accepted news agenda. Among the more striking were a splendidly pensive picture of Celtic FC’s manager, Neil Lennon – in the run- up to his club’s Champions League qualifying matches which saw the Parkhead side dumped from the European soccer elite at the first hurdle; bullfighting to be banned in Catalonia; and a Pol Pot torturer.

Puffs or promotional material are a fixture along the top of page one; the briefing column on the right-hand side is very well-marshalled and neatly incorporates the contents box; and the bottom of the page is usually anchored by two stories when advertising demands allow.

Inside, there appears to be a strict policy towards giving big licks to the lead story, and a big, big picture dominating each news page – indeed most of the broadsheet editorial pages (sport remains a greyish tabloid). I suspect that the story count per page has dropped as a consequence but that is no great loss if the copy-taster and chief sub are constantly selective and vigilant.

After initial misgivings, at what is essentially to my mind a Scottish Daily Mail tabloid layout imposed on a broadsheet, I have come to rather like the Russell treatment, and, certainly, The Herald is now a much more visually striking publication on the newsstands where it has to compete with the daily front-page genius of The Independent among others. (The Herald did tentatively dip its toe in those tricky waters following the Budget Review on the 29th of last month, with a typographical/photographical montage which didn’t quite come off).

The Opinion, and Comment pages in the middle of the paper are its core – busy, buzzing and informative, and I am delighted that Jonathan continues to give readers’ letters an excellent show, although it is pity that most of these letters originate in Central Scotland.

I am also really chuffed that the newspaper continues to value the worth of well-written, lengthy obituaries

Given Russell’s Aberdeen lineage, it is fascinating to speculate on whether The Herald opts for editionised news pages for the Highlands and Islands and Grampian.

Media pundits, including myself, reckon Aberdeen is potentially a very rich ground for circulation gains if The Herald gave the city, and its prosperous hinterland, decent and studied editorial coverage.

I understand that The Herald sells less than 2000 copies per day in Grampian – although this may be in part due to a circulation policy that requires readers to trawl half a dozen retail outlets in Aberdeen’s city centre before a copy of the paper is found. This is hugely frustrating, and, although I have frequently complained about this aberration at the highest level, my pleas have always fallen on deaf ears.

One immediate headache, of course, is that The Herald management allowed its highly-respected and hugely-experienced Grampian staffer, Graeme Smith, to depart in a recent round of editorial cutbacks.

Smith – whose father, Bob, was a long-time editor of the Evening Express, Aberdeen – opted for a voluntary redundancy package. He now runs a media consultancy business in Aberdeen. Thankfully, it has retained the industrious David Ross, as a staffman in the Highlands and Islands

Interestingly, there appears to have been a higher than usual story count of North and North-east Scotland articles since Russell delicately perched himself in the editor’s chair. However, on the same day, page leads on Aberdeen FC’s director of football, Willie, Miller, and an Aberdeen oil rig worker found dead in a hotel room in Norwich; and business stories on Aberdeen-based oil supply firm, ASCO; Aberdeen-headquartered Dana Petroleum and Inverness-based renewables company, AWS Ocean Energy, would, arguably, have warranted all-edition treatment anyway.

When announcing Russell’s appointment, Tim Blott, managing director of Newsquest (Herald & Times) Ltd, said: “I am delighted to welcome Jonathan to the group at this exciting point in our history.

“He brings outstanding journalistic ability combined with a clear focus on and understanding of the needs of our print and digital readers and advertisers in a fast-moving marketplace.”

Now, Blott should be prepared to put his money where his mouth is and give Russell more editorial resources to combat the Herald’s ailing sales figures.

The Herald and Sunday Herald have been ridiculously fortunate in that they have an excellent pool of  ‘big beast’ freelances who have helped maintain editorial excellence while splendid staff journalists have been allowed to slip away with redundancy packages.

These freelances include, in no particular order, Ian Bell, Robert McNeil, Tom Shields, Ruth Wishart, Harry Reid, Iain MacWhirter, Kenny Kemp, Brian Cooney and Graham Hunter.

The latest official (ABC) newspaper circulation figures which I have to hand showed The Herald still losing sales while the Sunday Herald has stabilised after sharp falls last year.

However, having seen circulation fall faster than their London-based competitors for months, that situation has, happily, now changed, with recent figures revealing that it is the tartan-skirted London ‘heavies’ that have been suffering the steepest decline over the past year.

In the latest ABC year-on-year figures, The Herald was at 53,033 versus 57,534 – down 4501 or 7.8 per cent. The Sunday Herald was alone among Scotland’s daily and Sunday newspapers to enjoy an increase in its Scotland circulation figures, year-on-year.

Said ABC, the Sunday Herald – which reduced its cover price to £1 last summer – enjoyed an increase in sales in Scotland of 3379 between June last year and last month – equivalent to 9.1 per cent.

Aberdeen-based freelance and sometime PR man, Hamish Mackay, began his journalistic career on the Caithness weekly, the John O’Groat Journal, and then spent 25 years at the Press and Journal – latterly as news editor, before resigning on a matter of principle involving editorial staffing quotas. The 63 year-old is planning to stand, as an independent, for election next year to the Scottish Parliament.