By Mike Small
People (including this writer) have been willing the oncoming digital media-revolution since at least 2007. That, in this day and age is millennia ago. Last week after the Tunisian semi-revolution (ish) there was lots of giddy talk about Twitter rebellions (again). There’s even been talk of the iPhone election. I’ve been re-writing the same article in hopeless expectation for at least three years now. Some of it remains true:
“Media changes politics. B92 was a beacon in Belgrade as Yugolsavia transformed itself. The penny press changed 18th-century British democracy. The photocopier brought down the Soviet Union. Now, blogging, vlogging and camcorder activists have altered the flow of information from top down to bottom up and outwards.”
Well, maybe not vlogging.
So what’s stopping the media revolution? Post-Coulson, Tramadol Nights and Jordan (Katie not Joe) it seems that the revolution will be trivialised. Tabloidisation of society – never mind the media – is almost complete. The idea that blogging was the new punk, that citizen journalism would help transform the Scottish news experience and political agenda, that the unionist grip on news coverage would be blasted away is overblown. Partly because politicians don’t believe in anything any more. *
So what’s to write about? AV? The difference between Tory v Labour tax policy? Venal Liberals? Or to take another example, everyone is geared up for digital telly but hunners of thoosands will be watching low-grade programme content on massive flat screens. That’ll be a plasma 3D HD wireless, but your still watching Come Fly With Me.
But the good news is newspapers are dying, and journalism is changing. Anyone can create content now and – while clearly some of it is crap – some of it is better than your professional hack. The once discredited profession of journalism is now further tarnished: from Diana and the murderous Papparazzi to Murdoch and the News of the World. But nobody really cares.
Before we delve in – here’s a few circulation facts ‘n’ figures…
Recently published figures show that “December’s ABCs show nothing, but nothing but newspaper sales decline.” Only one national title, buoyed by advertising campaign spend, managed a positive growth rate in the last four weeks of 2010.
Here are the figures that I think really matter:
Daily newspapers lost just under 800,000 sales compared to December 2009, an 8.15 percent decline.
Sunday papers lost almost 690,000 year on year, a 7.15 percent decline.
The Sunday Times Scotland has closed after a brief attempt to create a sort of Tory-supporting ‘quality’ it flopped and sacked its staff. The Sunday Herald, arguably on the other side politically staggers on but would anyone really be surprised if it folded? Not really.
Looking across the Scottish papers we can see continuing month to month declines:
Scottish News of the World 245,268 (compared to 258,288 for November), Sunday Post 215,387 (compared to 226,274), Scottish Daily Mail 105,193 (112,404), Scottish Mail on Sunday 98,312 (100,016), Daily Star of Scotland 66,803 (75,595), Scottish Daily Express 65,768 (69,917), Sunday Times Scotland 56,884 (59,239), The Herald 51,286 (52,545), Scotland on Sunday 45,996 (52,912), The Scotsman 40,650 (41,752), Sunday Herald 39,687 (41,314), Scottish Sunday Express 35,154 (35,035), Daily Star of Scotland – Sunday 25,625 (26,220), Scottish Daily Mirror 22,837 (24,343), Scottish Sunday Mirror 22,640 (21,995), The Times 20,321 (21,586), Daily Telegraph 18,882 (20,609), The Observer 16,952 (17,991), Sunday Telegraph 16,864 (17,715), The Guardian 12,921 (13,607), People 12,264 (13,328), The Independent 7765 (7909), Independent on Sunday 6123 (6278), and Financial Times 3641 (4164).
Even Scotland’s biggest-selling newspaper, the Sunday Mail (sad but true), was down in December 2010 at 338,508. In November, it was 350,883; in October, it was 354,396; and in September it was 356,313. The Scottish Sun (which outsells the Daily Record in Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh by 3:1, 2:1 and 1.5) is also in decline (The Scottish Sun’s average daily sale in Scotland was 314,897 in December 2010 (compared with 338,246 in November).
But there’s a problem in thinking that all these thousands of people NOT reading newspapers are reading this blog or your blog. First they might just be reading the same old rubbish from their old newspaper but online. This is certainly true of the Guardian who’s declining print sales are eclipsed by its soaring online traffic but it’s certainly not true of the woeful Scotsman and Herald websites. Under investment and lack of innovation and design are, er, apparent.
Second the newspaper decline seems to have pre-dated the arrival of broadband. According to the Gruniad it’s something about the break up of mass society:
“The most profound change since the 1980s, the period that marks the major circulation turning point for nationals, is the twin phenomenon of a fragmentation of society and a fragmentation of media. Newspapers in their sales heyday in the 1960s reflected the segmentation of society in terms of social class: the leftish working class masses bought the Daily Mirror while the rightward-leaning working class bought the Daily Express. Similarly, the intellectual and political elite bought the Times while the solid middle class chose the Daily Telegraph. It is clear that as individualism became more prevalent in society, certainly by the 1990s, the old forms of broadcasting media began to break up, allowing people wide choice of TV and radio and, eventually, infinite choice through the computer terminal.”
Third, the blogs, social media and the like are transient, fragmented and over-dosing on information. As Jason Fry put it “There’s an impermanence to social media that undermines its sense of connection.”
So what of the Scottish alternative press? If the papers are collapsing is everyone racing online to get their news fix?
Most of the big blogs like James Kelly’s Scotland Goes Pop, Go Lassie Go, Lallands Peat Worrier etc get around 1000 page views an article. Some get more – James Doleman’s excellent coverage of the Sheridan Trial got huge figures, but this isn’t really sustainable beyond the media moment. And, whilst Newsnet’s figures seem good, it’s hard to see whether it can break beyond the accusation that it’s where cybernats ‘meet and greet’ as one critic had it. In other words it might confirm nationalists belief in the cause but I’m not sure it’s going to convince a swithering voter.
As one Scottish blogger put it: “I did have a big one-off burst of traffic two or three months ago when I wrote a post about the notorious Question Time edition from Glasgow – a lot of people linked to it from social networking/bookmarking sites (and other blogs). I suppose that’s a small example of how people will turn to alternative media when the MSM fail to cover a story they feel strongly about.”
In a sense then there is an inter-change between the detritus of the mainstream media and a viceral reaction against that.
I don’t know if others – Better Nation? Or others? – are doing much better than this. One journalist told me: “Everyone’s saying the i-pad could be the saviour of newspapers. But given the lack of investment by the Scotsman and Herald, that might not apply to them.” Which is true, the Scotsman still reads like a load of cobblers even if you’ve got the grooviest gadget in your hands. The contents still a load of havers.
The good news? Scottish blogging is getting better and better. There’s a flush of great new blogs every month. There’s more collaboration, more choice and better quality writing. Kenneth Roy’s Scottish Review, Robin McAlpine’s Scottish Left Review, a’body’s Indymedia and Newsnet are permanent landmarks. The SNP are about to launch a major ‘vertical social media’ project and seem leaps and bounds ahead of Labours online output. This is Central Station and Stuart Cosgrove’s 38 Minutes offer the creative community a platform and a system. But for me that sort of offering is still lacking the political community.
The point is blogs are essentially columnists with loyalty. What we need is to bring them all together. Then you would have lift-off.
* I think ecology and nationalism are the exceptions to this rule.