In My Opinion: Jackie Kemp: Reading a newspaper is a must to understand Scottish affairs

READING a quality Scottish daily newspaper remains indispensable for anyone who wants to be well-informed about Scottish affairs.

If internet browsing is like grazing on processed snacks, a proper paper resembles a plate of meat and two veg: old-fashioned, perhaps, but highly nutritious.

Many people have a tendency to read articles which encompass the world view they already have or which are about their favourite topics.

That inclination informs the choice of daily paper – on a UK basis, choosing between The Guardian or The Daily Telegraph, for instance. But it is exaggerated by internet reading. Many friends mainly read articles re-tweeted by pals or on subject related websites. Those who display a liking for photos of cute kittens find the internet a cute-kitten-cornucopia. Football obsessives spend long hours on fan sites. The veg – whatever it might be: politics, economics, balanced accounts of international affairs – is easy to avoid.

Search the internet and the results may be personalised around you, as an ‘online filter bubble‘. It is the equivalent of being encouraged to pick the cherry tomatoes out of the salad bowl of life. Nice maybe, but reading in this haphazard way cannot maintain and develop a wide knowledge of Scottish politics and culture across the board.

A daily newspaper such as The Herald or The Scotsman carries articles from journalists and writers who are paid to be across their own specialisms and to convey meaningful developments to their readers. No-one else is doing this.

Few internet publications pay contributors at all. Some London papers have a few Scottish staff but they don’t have the depth of coverage. The broadcast media covers hard news but, due to the constraints of time and space and the comparatively small amount of wordage they can deliver, they don’t go into depth. Discussions on TV tend to involve print media journalists.

I would argue that anyone who claims to have a convincing knowledge of Scotland has to be reading a daily paper.

It is depressing then to note the steeply declining circulation of these papers. They are under-resourced, starved of investment by owners who seem to have little faith in their long-term future.

And yet, they could and, indeed, they must survive. Newspapers need to fight back harder. They have fought back before. In the book I have recently completed, ‘Confusion to our Enemies: selected journalism of Arnold Kemp (1939-2002)’, I quote a piece he wrote from The Guardian of 1964 arguing that newspapers were likely to survive the onslaught of television, which, at that time, was expected to kill the business.

“It was perhaps not forseeable how hard certain types of newspaper would fight back,” he wrote.

That is what needs to happen now. Scotland’s newspapers cannot just simply give up, they have to raise their game.

Distribution needs to be improved. People are less regular in their habits, they are impatient. They want to access newspapers easily – how about those boxes you get in the States where you put in a coin and pull out a paper? Distribution is too tight – in Oban station recently I noticed The Herald stand was empty at 9.30am. Yesterday [Thursday] at 9.10am, a busy Edinburgh garage near my home had run out of The Scotsman. Worse still, the newsagent next door didn’t have any, either.

Newspapers also need to drive their content more effectively across different platforms. For instance, I subscribe to the print edition of the New Yorker magazine and every week I get an email asking me to access extra premium online content available as part of my subscription. I also subscribe to The Herald – I get vouchers which I hand to my newsagent and which reduce the cost of the paper. But that doesn’t seem to trigger the same kind of email communication with me. Internet content should be used more effectively to attract subscribers as part of a multi-media package.

For years and years, the owners of the major Scottish papers have annually taken millions of pounds of profit. Now they need to put something back in so that Scottish newspapers can survive and prosper in the digital age.

There is much to gain. Huge technological advances have created wonderful new possibilites for newspapers to communicate with their readers and create communities.

Also Scotland, which is increasingly diverging from England has never been more in need of a well-informed public, able to support our democratic institutions.

Kemp argued in a 1996 lecture that the serious Scottish Press was already in jeopardy. He looked to the trust that sustains the Irish Times and concluded: “The Irish Press is sustained by a readership which accepts that a national Press is an indispensable part of nationhood.”

And so it is.

Jackie Kemp is a freelance journalist and writer. She is editor of ‘Confusion to our Enemies: selected journalism of Arnold Kemp (1939-2002)’, published by NWP.

Pic: Mary Kemp Bruce.