In My Opinion: John McGurk: Reflections on the Scottish newspaper industry

WHAT is surprising about the news that another 90 editorial jobs are to go at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail is that [publishers] Trinity Mirror didn’t do this far earlier.

The blueprint for the future of the Record and Mail is hardly rocket science. It’s what the Scottish editions of the London papers already do: take the best of what’s available from down south and wrap in Scottish news and sport. Who needs an expensive editorial staff in Scotland duplicating work?

The sad and harsh truth is that the management of failing newspapers have only one aim: to produce them for the lowest cost with as few staff as possible. If they can harvest profits for a few more years, those in charge will be retired when there is nothing left to sell.

Former colleagues, Charles McGhee, asks what’s happened to Scotland’s great newspaper titles, while Stewart Kirkpatrick says they’re simply not good enough. I often wonder if they were ever were.

The Daily Record and Sunday Mail, once ‘the jewels in the crown’ of Mirror Group newspapers were successful because they virtually had the field to themselves. Supported by the UK’s first national full-colour presses and helped along in 1974 when the Scottish Daily Express packed up in Scotland, they became giants, employing the best writers on London rates while paying mostly unquestioned expenses and fabulous allowances.

Some of these writers and reporters were indeed super-talented but they didn’t work better or harder than their counterparts today. Many others were only there thanks to the power of the union and weak management who didn’t want to rock the boat. Sunday Mail reporters didn’t work on Saturdays and were replaced by under-stressed Record staffers earning extra loot.

[Then proprietor] Robert Maxwell did indeed end the four-day week, despite the 1986 strike, but even he preferred voluntary redundancies with handsome pay-offs instead of mass sackings. He too wanted to turn the Record into a Scottish Daily Mirror but was talked out of it.

New technology changed everything. It meant the arrival in Scotland of News International followed by Associated newspapers and eventually the rest of Fleet Street which had long looked enviously at the Daily Record’s near 800,000 sales. Today, there are 17 daily papers to choose from north of the border.

While the Sun sold less than 100,000 in Scotland, today it outsells the Record. While the Daily Mail sold 30,000, today it’s 115,000. That’s more than The Scotsman and The Herald sales combined. The invaders, along with The Times and Daily Telegraph, have relatively tiny staffs and low overheads.

Indeed, if the Sun and Daily Mail did not exist in Scotland, the Daily Record would probably still be selling well over 600,000 despite the digital age and changed demographics. The Scotsman and The Herald would also be healthy and thriving without Scottish editions of The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent and the free Metro.

If you add up all the daily sales in Scotland, you’ll see that the newspaper industry here is, ironically, quite healthy. Relatively speaking, London-based titles have flourished while the indigenous papers have suffered. Scotland’s newspapers have become victims of competition.

Aspirational Scots get essential Scottish news, comment and sport in the Daily Mail and The Times alongside features, international and business coverage which The Scotsman and the Herald can never match.

The Daily Record made the elementary mistake made by so many papers facing stiff opposition. It attempted to emulate its competition and turned itself into a poor man’s Sun. When that failed, it moved virtually overnight into the editorial style of the Daily Mail. When that failed, the attempt to re-create its glory days by simply being the Daily Record was too late.

Devolution didn’t help. Tabloids in particular are at their best when they have huge targets to beat up like the Margaret Thatcher and John Major governments of the ’80s and ’90s. When Tony Blair swept to power in 1997, the Record’s clamour for change became muted and ineffective. The new Scottish Parliament pushed it towards parochialism and, frankly, dullness.

When BBC Scotland asked me three years ago to make a film for its Newsnight programme and a 30-minute radio documentary about the plight of the Scottish press, the American journalism professor, Philip Meyer – who famously predicted that the last U.S. newspaper would be printed in 2044 – reckoned Scotland’s might last until 2018.

Given the position today of the Record, Scotsman and Herald, that now looks quite generous. Arresting sales decline in the face of modern news consumption, and the loss of key advertising platforms to the internet, looks like an impossible task.

Despite the valiant efforts of editorial staffs having to work harder, there will be little support from managements who will want to keep on cutting. Indeed, Johnston Press and Newsquest may well be tempted to use the latest news at the Record to inflict more pain on The Scotsman and Herald.

On a quiet Monday, The Scotsman is unlikely to sell much more than 30,000. The Johnston Press share price hovers at 5p, pricing the whole empire at little over £30 million while labouring with some £350 million of debt. Remember, they paid £160 million for The Scotsman alone in 2006, leased the building and then got rid of the presses. Their only real asset in Edinburgh is the title and today that is worth a pittance.

Over in Glasgow, it’s difficult to see how the Sunday Herald will be in business for much longer while the bizarre page one treatment from The Herald most days must have readers wondering where the quality has gone. Turning the Herald into a broadsheet Daily Mail has been a serious error of judgement. Look at their puny sales figures.

The former Herald editor, Charles McGhee, wonders if there are any ‘white knights’ out there ready to pile into Scotland’s newspapers. It’s a nice thought, but I doubt it: even serial entrepreneurs don’t throw good money after bad and if the PLCs can’t get the economies of scale then what chance for independent owners with no London back-up?

Besides, we’ve been here before. When the Barclay brothers bought The Scotsman in 1995, they invested millions in staffing, pagination, heat-set magazines, new presses and even a new building. The rest of the media, and the politicians of the day, hated and ridiculed them and Andrew Neil.

Today, there must be many who wish they, and their like, were back.

John McGurk was managing editor of the Daily Telegraph and editor of The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News between 1995 and 2006. Previously, he was deputy editor of the Daily Record (1991-1994) and deputy editor of the Sunday Mail (1988-89) having joined Mirror Group Newspapers in Glasgow in 1978.