Brian McNair Asks – What will 2009 Bring?

It’s been a strange and turbulent year, hasn’t it? The global crisis of capitalism, long predicted by Tommy’s Trots, finally loomed into view, adding to the agony of a Scottish media system already grappling with the structural challenges of digitalisation, online and the fragmentation of traditional markets.

Back In May, I had the privilege of accompanying the Edinburgh Evening News’ editor, John McLellan, to a tropical island off the coast of Venezuela, where we had been invited to deliver lectures to 600 or so young media students.

As we stood at the free bar by the open air pool, sipping Margaritas and wondering what on earth we had done to deserve such a tough assignment, the credit crunch was already biting. But the full enormity of what was coming down the road was not apparent.

A mere seven months later, the world is a very different place, not just for Evening News publishers, Johnston Press, but Newsquest in Glasgow, stv down on Pacific Quay, and even the BBC, sheltered from the storm by its untouchable licence fee but challenged as never before on several fronts.

Last week, UTV announced the closure of talk107 in Edinburgh. Everywhere one looks, media businesses are in turmoil, restructuring, shrinking, merging, closing. In America, the Chicago Tribune group files for bankruptcy, and columnist, Andrew Sullivan, declares that “newspapers are done for”.

In England, the Independent is forced to find space in the Daily Mail’s offices. In Scotland, the talk is of a merged Herald and Scotsman, and of an stv struggling for survival in the wake of analogue switch-off.

What has happened in late 2008 is the convergence of two forces – one deep-rooted and structural, the consequences of which could not have been avoided, sooner or later, but which has now been amplified by the short-term catastrophe of global recession.

Long, slow declines in newspaper circulation and free-to-air TV and radio audiences, challenging in themselves but resolvable with forward-looking management, came up against a sudden collapse in consumer confidence and everything that goes with it, such as advertising revenue. The economic crisis will pass, but not before it transforms what were structural weaknesses in our print and broadcast media to life-threatening ailments.

What will happen next, then, in 2009 and beyond? I don’t usually do predictions, because if history teaches us anything it’s that nothing is going to turn out as we thought it would. I once wrote a book called Cultural Chaos, and that’s exactly how it feels right now, but let’s try and sketch out a few likely scenarios.