In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Time to put the ‘local’ back into local newspapers

WHERE have all the readers gone? Scotland’s hard-pressed local weekly newspapers are in serious bother.

It’s once again a case of ‘read them and weep’ for nearly everyone in the trade looking at the new circulation figures published by the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

Only two paid-fors – the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald and the Border Telegraph – have managed to cling on to last year’s figure and even add a few copies.

But just a few, and I really mean a few, with the Herald up by 0.5 per cent and the Telegraph by a tiny 0.2 per cent year-on-year.

At the Alloa & Hillfoots Advertiser, there was at least the comfort of registering no change.

And there ends the good news.

The rest of the ABC figures – for those publications prepared to reveal how bad things are – make sad and scary reading.

Why are traditionally solid, reliable titles like the Ayrshire Post, the Dumfries and Galloway Standard, the West Lothian Courier, the Perthshire Advertiser, the Montrose Review and the Forfar Dispatch struggling with year-on-year losses of between eight and 12 per cent?

And what can be done about it?

These figures make it obvious that we are on the road to nowhere.

Smart new designs, staff cuts, local office closures, centralised sub-editing pools, shared photographers and reporters, hiked cover prices and editors in charge of more than one title don’t cut it with the Scottish reading public.

The readers don’t want their local newspapers to become like their local High Streets, all looking the same, a mirror image of the town up the road.

They want their own local news and pictures and features and columnists and sport – and they don’t want it served up on templates with everything printed to fit.

And they want their local newspaper to be like their local football team, part of the fabric of their community with its own history, distinctive identity and club colours, their own branding.

There is no question that the turn of the century years have been unkind to our weekly press.

It’s not just editorial that sells newspapers. Property and recruitment ads, a traditional magnet for readers, have almost entirely disappeared from the weeklies.

Local councils have decided that the internet is the best place for their public notices and while they are legally still required to post public notices in the Press, they appear to keep that advertising to a minimum.

I first became a local newspaper editor at the tender age of 21, which is 46 years ago, and I have witnessed many changes during the half century I have been in the business.

I took up the challenge as newspapers moved from hot metal setting and flat-bed printing to the cutting-edge technology of the 21st century.

Most of the changes I embraced enthusiastically, winning many awards and recruiting and training some of Scotland’s best and best-known journalists, which is a source of great pride and satisfaction for me.

However, I am dismayed at the ‘one size fits all’ strategy now being pursued by a number of Scotland’s major publishing companies which has led to a withdrawal from community involvement, centralisation and the closure of local offices.

It’s time to put the ‘local’ back into local newspapers and halt the drift of readers away from publications which were genuinely dear to their hearts and based at the very heart of their community.

That process needs to start now. If it doesn’t then Scotland’s publishers can expect an even worse set of figures from ABC in six months’ time. And after that …

Bill Heaney is a former editor of the Lennox Herald in Dunbartonshire and judge in the Bank of Scotland Press Awards in which he was four times Scotland’s Weekly Newspaper Journalist of the Year.