Ten years ago the Scotsman and the Herald had “an air of prosperity about them”, says Kenneth Roy, a veteran Scottish journalist and the editor of scottishreview.net. “Now their poverty is painfully obvious. They are so thin, the paper is cheap, they have been starved of resources. They don’t have any original international coverage, they don’t have the numbers of staff who are totally dedicated to producing a great newspaper every single day.”Circulation is in decline at the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. According to ABC figures, the Scotsman sold 48,139 copies last month, down from 55,997 in April 2007, and 67,327 in 2005. A merged subbing pool of 25 is producing several titles plus magazines, and non-production journalists face the loss of 25 jobs in addition to the 20 lost in the last six months. Freelance budgets have been slashed. “Journalistically, this is raising the white flag of surrender. It is like butter spread thinner and thinner,” says one insider.
At the Herald, which is cutting costs by merging with the Sunday Herald, 290 staff were made to apply for 210 jobs – a process now completed. Things are no happier at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, where more than 70 jobs have gone since the beginning of the year, and talks have reached stalemate after seven angry strike days over 24 redundancies during which senior editorial staff were airlifted to the London office to avoid crossing the picket lines. A work to rule is preventing the management from merging the daily and Sunday operations.
The NUJ estimates that about 200 Scottish journalism jobs have gone across national and local titles. And yet, this month Scots celebrate 10 years of the Scottish parliament – the establishment of which was supposed to inaugurate a golden age for the Scottish media. “I have been re-reading with some embarrassment what I was predicting at that time,” says Roy. “I foresaw this great flowering of Scottish journalism which would accompany the devolution process.” Instead sales of all six national daily and Sunday Scottish titles combined stand at roughly half the total they reached a decade ago. Then three-quarters of Scots bought a daily paper, and more than half of those read a Scottish title. The total number of readers has now fallen to nearer a half of Scots, with only a third reading a Scottish title. Newspaper websites are popular, but do not make enough profit.
Local authorities have already taken their advertising to the internet and are now trying to do the same with public notices – a move being fought by newspapers on the grounds that many Scots don’t have broadband. In Glasgow, for example, only around a third of homes have it.
The steep decline in the number of Scots reading newspapers is “alarming”, says Magnus Linklater, the former editor of the Scotsman and now the Scottish editor of the Times. However, the move of London-based papers such as the Times into the Scottish market could be seen as contributing to the falling circulations at Scottish national papers. The Times has almost tripled its circulation in Scotland since the run up to devolution to 30,000 – still many fewer than the 120,000 the Herald sold at its height, but narrowing the gap with the less than 60,000 it manages now.
The heyday of Scottish papers may now be seen as the era of the devolution campaign: the fight for Holyrood being of more interest to readers than what goes on in it (although aggressive coverage of the Scottish parliament, the cost of the building, and its work have probably not helped). “It was a rite of passage, the biggest political issue of the day has been settled and it is almost as if the peace is less interesting than the battle,” says Linklater.
But what does the decline of newspapers mean for Scottish democracy? “Newspapers are in decline nationally and internationally,” says Professor Charlie Jeffrey of Edinburgh University. “But that is only a problem if people aren’t getting news, and there is plenty of news coverage on the internet and on the radio.”
People have much less exposure to Scottish affairs without newspapers, however, says John Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University. “Newspapers nationally are suffering,” he says, “But given the smaller market for Scottish titles, the steep decline in circulation and the loss of advertising there has to be a question mark over how long they can keep going.” The answer may not come from within newspapers. The Scottish chain of newsagents, Menzies Group, is seeking backing from the Scottish Parliament for a scheme to give every 17-year-old in Scotland a year’s free subscription to a daily and Sunday paper. It is a creative approach to the future of some of the oldest titles in the world.