In My Opinion: Charles McGhee: Reflections on the proposed job cuts at the Record

THE loss of nearly 100 journalists’ jobs at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail is not just a disaster for the Scottish newspaper industry. It’s a disaster for Scotland.

We have just elected a majority Scottish National Party government for the first time. Scotland could be on the brink of declaring independence and breaking up the UK.

Yet the indigenous newspapers which should be at the centre of that debate – The Daily Record in the mass market and The Herald and The Scotsman as the papers of choice for the chattering classes – are on their knees, with their own future more uncertain than ever.

A vibrant Scotland, especially one that is contemplating such a major constitutional change, needs a vibrant, independent press. It is one of the vital checks and balances essential to any democracy. It is particularly important in Scotland’s current situation, with one party enjoying an absolute majority for the next five years, that there is an alternative ‘opposition’ to hold the government to account.

With nearly 100 fewer journalists, the Daily Record and Sunday Mail will be much less able to fulfil that role. And the same argument applies to The Herald and The Scotsman which have seen swingeing cuts in their journalistic staff in the last few years and, consequently, a reduced ability to cover Scottish affairs in depth.

But what’s happened to Scotland’s great newspaper titles? Less than 20 years ago, the Daily Record and Sunday Mail reigned supreme. The Record, with a daily circulation nudging 800,000, had the highest penetration of its home market of any newspaper in western Europe. It was read by half the population of Scotland. And its sister title, the Sunday Mail, sold 900,000 copies a week at its peak.

Today, the Record – at 286,000 – struggles to maintain one third of its previous sale while the Mail has seen a similar dramatic drop, to around 336,000. Now both titles could take a further circulation hit as they are forced to shed Scottish content in favour of more material from their English stablemates, the Daily and Sunday Mirror. Meanwhile, at the other end of the market, Scottish sales of The Scotsman during April (May figures have still to be published) dipped below an average 40,000 copies a day while the corresponding figure for The Herald was a first-time dip below 50,000.

And, as if to rub salt in the wounds of these one-time great Scottish institutions, the Scottish edition of the London-based Sun has for some time now eclipsed the Daily Record as Scotland’s best-selling daily title; while The Daily Mail, that quintessential Middle England newspaper, now outsells The Herald and The Scotsman combined and was in April voted ‘Scotland’s Newspaper of the Year’. Howzat?

Surely it can’t just be the fault of the internet or the fact that young people don’t read newspapers (if they ever did)? Yes, of course, the digital revolution is at the centre of the structural upheaval the newspaper industry is currently experiencing. Much of the advertising that under-pinned these newspapers – returning healthy profits for their owners and paying for the journalism – has migrated online, but sadly not to online newspapers.

And, yes, young people don’t buy newspapers, preferring to consume their news and information online. But then young people were never major subscribers: newspapers were something you read in your parents’ house or you grew into later in life. So we can’t just blame the younger generation.

Digital delivery will inevitably replace the printed word – just look at the popularity of the iPad 2 – and in our 24/7 social media environment, daily newspapers rarely deliver breaking news anyway (ask Ryan Giggs). But with an ageing population – the middle-aged and elderly still like the tactile experience of reading print – good newspapers, carefully managed, are believed to have another couple of decades of life in them.

So why the crisis? Part of the explanation lies in how the transition from print to digital has been handled, putting at risk not just jobs but Scotland’s rich media heritage as the newspaper industry failed to act quickly enough as fast and flexible broadband came on stream. The business model of these titles has also been found wanting in the digital publishing era. The Daily Record, The Herald and The Scotsman are each part of major newspaper conglomerates – Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and Johnston Press. These groups have major publishing stables of 200-300 titles each and a highly-centralised management structure. In The Herald’s case, its parent company, Newsquest, is ultimately owned by the Gannett in the United States.

The more remote the owner, of course, the greater the danger of a lack of awareness of a newspaper title’s declining influence and the diminution of its rich heritage, tradition and importance to its local community.

Such groupings, and the economies of scale they provided, may have made sense a decade or so ago when print was still profitable, but the chill wind of the recession and the debt burdens of some of these groups have made it difficult to sustain their profit margins and, inevitably, costs and jobs are being mercilessly squeezed.

Many of the Scottish titles which are now struggling became over-dependent on the major classified platforms of recruitment, property and motors which are now flourishing independently online. And this migration has of course also seriously affected our local newspapers, which we hear much less about, but which are also in grave danger.

In contrast, however, national titles such as The Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the tabloid end of the Murdoch stable (The Sun, News of the World) are weathering the storm somewhat better. Of course, there have been job losses, albeit on a lesser scale, and restructuring and on-going adjustments and experiments – for example with pay-walls at The Times and Sunday Times, as the papers attempt to make money out of their digital offerings.

Meanwhile, Scottish regional titles such as the Press & Journal – which continues to invest in good, solid journalism – are still flourishing. In some quarters, at least, there isn’t the same feeling of impending doom that’s hanging over the Scottish national newspaper market.

Which brings me back to where I started. Newspapers and journalists have a vital role to play at the heart of any democracy – just ask any journalist who has been at the centre of the revolutionary Arab Spring about the importance of freedom of expression.

Scotland, however, appears to be marching towards its own revolution with a weakened Scottish press less able to give voice to the range of views that must be heard as we contemplate whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or not. Surely that can’t be good for democracy or Scotland’s future?

A final thought: Scotland has some seriously wealthy entrepreneurs who know how to run successful businesses. Is there a white knight(s) among them who is prepared to ride to the aid of Scotland’s beleaguered national newspaper industry and ensure the voice of the people is still heard?

Charles McGhee is a former editor of The Herald and Evening Times newspapers and deputy editor of the Daily Record. He is a Visiting Professor in Journalism and Media at Glasgow Caledonian University and runs his own media consultancy.

Pic: John Young