In My Opinion: Charles McGhee: An European model for Scottish newspapers?

IF the Scottish newspaper industry seems to deliver a constant stream of bad news – whether it’s the recent collapse of Forth Independent Newspapers or the massive job losses announced at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail – that’s not necessarily the story coming out of the rest of Europe.

And certainly not from the Dutch, French, Swedish or Swiss editors who were attending a World Association of Newspapers summer conference in Paris last week.

Their sophisticated integrated news operations, combining the latest technology with old-fashioned news gathering techniques to serve mobile, online, tablet – and print – audiences, appeared to be successful in a way that has eluded Britain’s major regional publishers.

At the heart of what they are doing is a hyper-local, though not parochial, approach. Instead of moving out of towns and cities to centralised production factories, where journalists no longer live or work in the communities they purport to serve, the European philosophy is to re-engage with the local community at a deeper level.

The approach is perhaps best summed up in the title of the Netherlands internet-only newspaper, Dichtbij, which means ‘close to you-close to me’. Launched last year by the Dutch, Telegraaf Media Group, as a pilot project in four areas, their operation has experienced a ten-fold growth in staff, from ten to 100, in just over a year.

Dichtbij’s managing editor, Bart Brouwers, said its success had been built on “thinking niche”. As he put it: “Get personal, work from where your audience is, be social and act social, publish real-time and be easy to use.” But he also warned: “Don’t go into the market unless you have a sustainable business model. You must think about this before you do anything.”

Not only has Dichtbij thought about a sustainable business model, it has applied it in a spectacularly successful fashion.

So what lessons can Scotland’s beleaguered newspaper industry learn from what’s happening in mainland Europe?

First, it is worth noting that it’s not just online news sites which are flourishing. Print titles are also proving profitable while carving out new audiences and new advertising business trading on their legacy value online. Perhaps the best example is Ouest-France, the newspaper that serves the western region of France, including Brittany, Lower Normandy and Pays de la Loire.

With a population of 5.2 million, the area is roughly comparable to Scotland although the population is more densely concentrated. The paper sells nearly 800,000 copies daily and is read by 2.5 million people. Recognise those figures? That’s exactly where the Daily Record stood less than 20 years ago.

In stark contrast, however, Ouest-France has not haemorrhaged readers or advertisers even during the darkest days of the newspaper recession. In fact, it continues to grow with its various editions recording increased circulations of up to four per cent last year. And with 47 editions, Ouest-France is no slouch when it comes to serving its local communities: from small regions with a population of just 12,000 to large cities of 500,000+.

The paper covers everything from global to local news – the ‘glocal’ approach as one speaker put it – and employs 530 journalists in more than 60 offices. Moreover, it has 2,500 accredited ‘citizen journalists’, feeding its print and online editions.

Local websites are hugely important with a local page for each of the 4,800 towns in the region. All journalists have a multi-media approach and 75 per cent of Ouest-France’s reporters carry smart-phones to shoot basic video for the online sites. But this has not been at the expense of print, with a recent multi-million Euros investment in additional presses to develop even more local editions.

Said Francois-Xavier Lefranc, Ouest-France’s director of regional and local news: “We are closer to our readers than ever. We have more local activity, more investigative journalism at local level, more time to analyse, decipher and explain local issues.” And he asked the audience: “Do you still have enough time to devote to your readers – to meet them, to talk to them …?”

It’s a question we should surely be asking ourselves here in Scotland as we bemoan the sorry state of our newspaper industry. And it’s a question our quality dailies, The Herald and The Scotsman, should certainly be asking themselves at this crossroads in Scotland’s political and constitutional history.

These two titles would have been envious of similar-sized newspaper models from Switzerland and Sweden which demonstrated how success doesn’t always have to be measured in large circulation numbers in print or online, provided the content is right and relevant for readers and advertisers alike. Anette Novak, editor-in-chief of Sweden’s Norran, summed it up simply: “ROI should mean ‘return on involvement’, not just return on investment.”

This is something our industry needs seriously to reflect on as it continues to dispense with local editors and journalists and centralise and outsource newspaper production. The four big newspaper groups, which own most of our regional and local papers, see such economies of scale as possibly their only survival strategy. But it is clearly not the only solution. Different business models and different ownership models are proving workable – and profitable – in different part of Europe.

Perhaps then it’s time to stop, look and learn from what’s happening around us before the Wee County News, the best-known of Forth Independent’s stable of titles – is simply the first of many headstones in Scotland’s newspaper graveyard.

Charles McGhee, a former editor of The Herald, is a visiting professor in journalism and media at Glasgow Caledonian University.