In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Our weekly newspapers – time someone shouted ‘stop’

READ them and weep. The circulation figures for Scotland’s weekly newspapers are so bad I almost felt I was breaching the NUJ Code of Conduct rules about intruding into private grief as I read through them.

I admire the allmediascotland coverage for having found the one positive line in them and headlining on that – ‘Glenrothes Gazette almost alone in bucking declining sales trend among Scottish regional newspapers’. But isn’t it time someone shouted, Stop?

The fact that the Fife newspaper stands almost alone among Scotland’s paid-for regional weeklies as having registered an increase in its average sales between June last year and two months ago, is a clear indictment of the people who own this country’s newspapers.

Our newspaper proprietors are guilty of having milked every last penny out of them in the so-called good times, and not even the most competent advocate in Parliament House could cobble together a decent plea in mitigation, never mind a defence, for what they have done. Our weekly newspapers are dying of neglect. The jury’s not just out on this, the jurors have left the building.

I don’t know how Gail Milne – formerly with the free title, the Edinburgh Herald & Post – managed to turn things around at the Glenrothes Gazette. But I would bet it wasn’t giveaway CDs or the introduction of reader bingo that caused its average circulation rise from 6076 just over 12 months ago to 6,206 at the end of June (an increase of 2.1 per cent).

I have a feeling that it might just be that Gail Milne is a good journalist who knows a good story when she sees one and goes after it. Hopefully, she did not have to do that on her own and that she had some journalistic staff to assist her in her endeavours. However, my instinct, and not inconsiderable experience in these matters, tells me that the Glenrothes Gazette is unlikely to be over-endowed with reporters.

The same applies no doubt at the Hawick News and Scottish Border Chronicle which joined the Gazette in registering a sales rise – this time of 0.2 per cent – according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Good for them. Breaking even these days is a victory.

So what’s wrong? Why are sound titles hemorrhaging sales? Why is the lifeblood being sucked out of our weekly newspapers?

Ask the managers and they will tell you that it’s the economy, stupid. The recession means there is no situations vacant advertising and even less property advertising and that the articles for sale columns have disappeared out the window.

What they won’t say is that they have cut so far back on their investment in journalism that they are not just into the quick, but severing the veins of their own industry.

I am no stranger to cuts. Cuts have been going on in weekly newspapers since they were prised from local hands in local communities and economies of scale became fashionable. They then tried to extend the boundaries of where their newspapers operated. Anyone who knows anything about newspapers knows that a local newspaper ceases to become relevant to its core readership when it covers matters outside its natural boundary.

The new proprietors first closed the local printworks and then they slashed the editorial staff and now they have even moved the editorial departments into call centre-type operations far away from their circulation areas.

They don’t know their market any more, and their market doesn’t know them because in many places the local newspaper editor is no longer a respected figure in the local community.

Some weekly newspapers no longer have an editor at all, and the only journalists on the staff are young people brought in from outside the area with little or no experience of newspapers and even less local knowledge.

I could not believe my ears recently – well, actually I could – when a young woman reporter telephoned me asking how her newspaper would be able to get hold of a picture of a choir which was due to take part in an event of national importance.

I told her where and when they would be meeting for choir practice, but she replied: “But that’s not possible. We can’t get a picture then. Our photographers don’t work in the evening.”

Excuse me, run that past me again. It used to be that it was the reporters who never turned up for anything outside hours, but now it’s the photographers as well?

I recently took part in a Radio Scotland programme called Old Hacks, New Tricks which I think demonstrated clearly that it’s the journalists who get out of the office and shake off the chains of their computers who get the best stories for their papers.

Isn’t it time that newspaper managements took a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror and posed the question, What is it that we are supposed to be selling here?

The answer is local news and pictures. Okay, it’s a package of local news, pictures and advertising ranging from property to births, marriages and deaths.

But the whole thing is news-led. Newspapers without editors and reporters and photographers, ready and available to do their job as and when news breaks, to take notes and capture events in pictures, are not newspapers at all. They are a sham.

My favourite hack for quoting at times like this is the American iconoclast, H L Mencken, who promulgated the idea that no-one would ever go broke by underestimating the intelligence of the public out there.

I fear the Scottish newspaper industry is about to prove him wrong. The public can see what’s happening. They know what’s missing and they realise when they are being short changed. They are voting with their feet. The newsagent’s is no longer their first port of call when they leave the house in the morning. Who can blame them?

It’s time to put the news back into newspapers, to shout stop at the lack of investment in journalism and to take the financial handcuffs off editors because, at the end of the day, it’s them and only them who will put Scotland’s weekly newspaper industry back on its feet. Journalists like Gail Milne deserve to be encouraged in what they do. Give them the money.

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning editor of the Lennox Herald and special adviser to First Minister, Henry McLeish. He was also for four years media adviser to the Rt Hon John McFall MP, chair of the Treasury Select Committee. Heaney is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a Life Member of the National Union of Journalists. He is now a media consultant.

Lest you need reminding, these are the latest batch of figures for Scotland’s weekly newspapers recently released by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, as compiled by allmediascotland:

Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser – 14,073 (end of June this year) versus 14,788 (end of June last year) = minus 4.8 per cent

Alloa and Hillfoots Advertiser – 7635/8308/-8.1

Annandale Herald – 2936/3056/-3.9

Annandale Observer – 6098/6340/-3.8

Arbroath Herald – 9227/9661/-4.5

Ayrshire Post – 23,254/24,695/-5.8

Berwick Advertiser – 6993/7391/-5.4

Berwickshire News and East Lothian Herald – 5322/5503/-4.9

Blairgowrie Advertiser – 2309/2614/-11.7

Border Telegraph – 3281/4093/-6.6

Brechin Advertiser – 2852/2947/-3.2

Buchan Observer – 6607/6966/-5.2

The Buteman – 2875/2976/-3.4

Carrick Gazette – 2456/2573/-4.5

Central Fife Times and Advertiser – 5950/6498/-8.4

Cumbernauld News and Kilsyth Chronicle – 8993/10,214/-12

Deeside Pipe – 5520/5758/-4.1

Dumfries and Galloway Standard (Fri) – 14,552/15,461/-5.9

Dumfries and Galloway Standard (Wed) – 8771/9478/-7.5

Dunfermline Press and West Fife Advertiser – 16,626/18,096/-8.1

East Fife Mail – 9903/10,621/-6.8

East Kilbride News – 10,492/11,268/-6.9

East Lothian Courier – 12,710/13,653/-6.9

East Lothian News – 3979/4056/-1.9

Ellon Times and Inverurie Herald – 3325/3559/6.6

Falkirk Herald – 24,145/25,685/-6

Fife Free Press – 13,858/14,857/-6.7

Fife Herald News and St Andrews Citizen – 12,084/12,353/-2

Forfar Dispatch – 4920/5094/-3.4

The Fraserburgh Herald – 5038/5369/-6.2

The Galloway Gazette – 5114/5555/-7.9

The Galloway News – 7821/8300/-5.8

Glenrothes Gazette – 6206/6076/2.1

Hamilton Advertiser – 20,181/21,627/-6.7

Hawick News and Scottish Border Chronicle – 5254/5246/0.2

Irvine Herald and Kilwinning Chronicle – 9639/9547/-5.3

Kilmarnock Standard – 15,639/16,422/-4.8

Kirkintilloch Herald – 10,218/10,829/-5.6

Lanark and Carluke Gazette – 10,733/11,362/5.5

Lennox Herald – 9633/10,611/-9.2

Linlithgowshire Journal and Gazette – 7821/8281/-5.6

Mearns Leader and Kincardineshire Observer – 4448/4998/-11

Midlothian Advertiser – 6596/6687/-1.4

Milngavie and Bearsden Herald – 5775/5999/-3.7

Moffat News – 1112/1141/-2.5

Montrose Review – 4333/4820/-10.1

Motherwell Times and Bellshill Speaker – 12,267/12,763/-3.9

Orcadian – 9297/9532/-2.5

Orkney Today – 4797/5312/-9.7

Peeblesshire News – 4846/5148/-5.9

Perthshire Advertiser (Fri) – 13,673/15,140/-9.7

Perthshire Advertiser (Tues) – 7055/7885/-10.5

Rutherglen Reformer – 3593/3903/-7.9

Southern Reporter – 15,998/16,751/-4.5

Stirling Observer (Fri) – 3573/4084/-12.5

Stirling Observer (Wed) – 8738/9940/-12.1

Stornoway Gazette and West Coast Advertiser – 11,057/11.470/-3.6

Strathearn Herald – 2315/2665/-13.1

Wee County News – 5990/6101/-1.8

West Highland Free Press – 8271/8519/-2.9

West Lothian Courier – 13,813/15,565/-11.3

Wishaw Press – 8161/9160/-10.9