We need a Scottish Press – but does anyone care enough to save it?

Today the Ian Bell Prize will be awarded at Aye Write! book festival alongside a public discussion on ‘The Importance of Good Journalism’.

For those who care for democracy, Scotland, or the public right to know, the future of our fragile media should be a cause of concern. But does anyone care enough to reverse the tide?

Cuts in staff. Cuts in quality. Falling print circulations. Strained advertising revenue. Uncaring owners. A rise in PR culture and churnalism. Vitriol directed at reporters. Political inertia on media reform. Legal constraints. A trade union deluged by threatened jobs and conditions. A ‘new media’ without the resources or model to fill the growing void. Clickbait and fake news swirling online.

Together, this represents a crisis for an effective media.

A year ago NUJ Scotland’s ‘Future of News’ conference considered these challenges. Professor Robert McChesney advocated ‘a Citizenship News Voucher’ system – providing funds to individual citizens to pay for journalism of their choice. In short, providing a solution to the resource problem of the media without the state infringing editorial integrity. Where the market has failed to provide a common good, the state and community can intervene.

This raises practical problems and controversy: who would quality? Why would we subsidise existing corporate-owned media groups? Would the subsidy be invested in journalism? Would consumers make choices that benefit the public good? But I suggest that we shouldn’t fear such ‘radical’ proposals. They should be seriously investigated before the media landscape deteriorates further.

In fact a public media subsidy already exists in the UK, albeit in a different guise. We have the £3.8 billion license fee. That BBC license fee now subsidises private newspaper corporations, through 144 UK reporter jobs including at Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest, and DC Thompson.

So some of Scotland’s largest media publishers are now accepting public subsidy via the BBC for twenty reporters. While that scale of support stems the bleeding, it provides no cure to the wider media crisis.

Between late 2005 and 2016 the number of staff at Newsquest (Herald & Times) Limited – which includes The Herald, The Sunday Herald, The National, and The Evening Times – fell from 862 to 392.

While cuts have continued, the group delivered post-tax profits of £12m (2014), £8.4m (2015) and £4.5m (2016). So quality journalism is culled, while the group is a cash-cow for its corporate owners.

Meanwhile media failings, stemming from fewer staff stretched into ever wider roles, ferment internet rage.

At home Scottish nationalists, who may be tempted to embrace schadenfreude against referendum adversaries, must instead see the bigger picture. If Scotland cannot sustain a national press, and the national life that a functioning press helps sustain, it cannot be a vibrant independent nation. Scotland’s so-called democratic revival, if informed only by a handful of broadcasters and London-based print outlets, will be short-lived. Blogs – of whatever hue – will never be enough to sustain a culture or a democracy. Regulation of the press and internet services are within Holyrood’s powers (see the McLeveson process at paragraphs 31-33). Devolved ‘creative industry’ policy concerns the media. We need the boldest of ideas to avert the current acceptance of managed decline.

Within a decade it’s possible that many Scottish titles will fold or be reduced to online-only clickbait chasing outlets. Are we so unambitious, divided, and partisan that we will watch what remains of the Scottish media suffer death from a thousand cuts? Will we accept a self-defeating prisoner’s dilemma where the press, government, new media, and citizens – all with reasons to distrust each other – fail to cooperate in their common interests?

At a local level the crisis of resources is already severe. Hundreds of local titles have disappeared across the UK. This is not just a concern for luvvies who enjoy a broadsheet with their latte. Why did no one hear or listen to the warning cries of Grenfell Tower made for years before the massacre of at least 72 people? One of the reasons: the local paper closed in 2014.

The urgent question – which I address to Scotland’s professional media, the political world (including policy makers and the Scottish Government), and those in the new media – is whether anyone cares enough about this to act before it is too late?

Comments (22)

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  1. Charles Gallagher says:

    If our MSM persists in ‘cutting and pasteing’ at face value Press Releases from Tory and Labour HQ’s with no investigation helps to explain why people like myself no longer buy papers like the Herald or Hootsmon, mind you the NUJ is not without blame for they could do more to challenge why half-truths and downright lies are published in the first place.

    PS I still buy the ‘National’.

  2. John R says:

    The question is – does it deserve to be saved?

    I now only ever buy the Morning Star or, if that isn’t available, the National.

  3. Jo says:

    How weird. This article already appeared in Bella, with quite a few comments on the thread below, including from the author. Where have they gone?

    1. It did – and disappeared – we had to reconstruct it and lost all of the comments. Sorry about that. Not blaming the Russians (!) Dont know what happened.

      1. Charles Gallagher says:

        One word, “Gremlins.”

      2. Jo says:

        “Not blaming the Russians.”

        Made me chuckle.

      3. John Burrows says:

        I note that the “Now IS the Time” article on March 9 has also disappeared. Too bad. It sparked a lively debate – with a particularly sustained effort to expose and confront a couple of dubious trolls.

        Don’t often see comments in the hundreds though. I think republishing it would be worthwhile. Just a suggestion, but don’t bother trying to recover the comments. The trolls are on auto repeat -they will just fill up the comment section with all their usual nonsense, all by themselves.

        Still, their circular thinking, hypocricy, and purblind, bone headed, obduracy, does have some entertainment value.

        The article must have rattled them 🙂

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @John Burrows, the article still exists and can be found by search:
          http://www.bellacaledonia.org.uk/?s=Now+IS+the+Time
          http://www.bellacaledonia.org.uk/2018/03/09/mow-is-the-time/

          I wonder if correcting a title spelling mistake has anything to do with its disappearance from the grid/list.

          Perhaps it would help to have some editorial pages setting out the ground rules, including permalinks, take-down procedure, how things get put above-the-fold and so forth. There are already some sections in the About Us that could be split off into separate pages, now that the site has reached a greater level of sophistication. In the old days, you’d expect a FAQs.

          If my previous lost comment (about science reporting, democracy and a public test framework) cannot be recovered, I guess I might repost the gist of it here, if only to see if anyone else considers it worth discussing.

        2. John S Warren says:

          It has returned to the history pages. As both an occasional contributer to and commenter on Bella Caledonia, I thought the “effort” was both long overdue and worthwhile. I thought the comments spoke quite illuminatingly for themselves; which was my intention.

          I think there are elements of the programming structure of Bella Caledonia that are “creaking” a little (I am no expert on software; I write only as a user). I have noticed that a new comment may be registered numerically as existing on the home page; long before the comment actually appears in the comments section of the article.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Jo, @Editor, it is often possible to recover previous web-page content either in archives like the Wayback machine or in search engine caches.
      https://web.archive.org
      https://support.google.com/websearch/answer/1687222?hl=en

      Anyway, I found a copy of the old page with 46 comments in Bing’s cache (including mine and some of Jo’s):
      http://cc.bingj.com/cache.aspx?q=bella+caledonia+%22scottish+press%22&d=2978347251675&mkt=en-GB&setlang=en-GB&w=WMTn8rnsWMXzx4i9vxZmPoHdANwV-8xg

      I guess if you’ve got a great comment, the advice would be to write it out in a text editor and save it before copying and posting to the site. And I think you can sometimes opt to get your own posts emailed to you (the default is usually not).

  4. Terence callachan says:

    The demise of the Scottish press is no accident it is being done systematically in an organised fashion because only two choices are possible
    1) continuance of the propaganda currently served
    2) new providers willing to do do honest journalism
    The providers of the current propaganda supports Westminster and will continue to do so til it dies or the people of Scotland have their dream of independence shattered.
    If the current providers die there will be new providers taking their place very quickly and Scottish independence will be the start of good honest journalism in Scotland .
    Many of us now realise we have never really had good honest journalism in Scotland.

  5. John Burrows says:

    There is no “Scottish” press. Only a dying “British” one.

    The fact that the BBC license fee, extracted under pain of prosecution, is now being re-directed to subsidizing these dying organs of UK state propaganda, is merely a reflection of the BBC’s need for material to air on their regular “what the papers are saying” roundups. It is nothing more than pre-fabricated cheerleading. I very much doubt the National has been a recipient of this boon.

    The sooner these sorry excuses for “journalism” are gone, the better for us all. They do not represent the majority view of those under the age of 55. This is why they are dying. Forcing Scots to subsidize them with their taxes is counter productive. Let them die. It is only what they deserve after holding us back from self determination for so long.

    A “Scottish” press can only thrive once we actually have a “Scottish” democracy.

  6. Willie says:

    Quite frankly the MSM that is the Scottish press is not worthy of saving.

    Biased and bigoted, for and on behalf of the establishment, the MSM is caught in a perfect storm as print moves to pixels, and where consumers of news and views move elsewhere in their droves.

    But the thirst for good news and views has not gone. Many many folks like, indeed love to read good journalism. The use of the internet is testimony to that and it is here with a very few exceptions, that the biased MSM has failed to turn miserably paid paper readers into paid pixel readers.

    But the MSM’s failures is others opportunity. The poliferation of alternatives like Bella Caledonia, The Ferret, Wings over Scotland or at the other scale, the Huffington Post show that the readership demand is as alive, if not more alive than ever.

    The Hootsman and the Herald in particular are therefore just historical titles heading to oblivion. And in their current form one can only say good riddance.

    As to the future, some of the online journals of quality will grow into entities that will be able to secure a viable financial future that will allow them to deliver great news and views. Examples like Bella Caledonia, the Ferret, being local Scottish examples, but also maybe the Huffington Post or the Gaurdian.

    And very possibly like the Guardian, these new era news and views vendors will have ownership structures based upon charitable or other non profit making structures. News and views outlets not owned and operated by the big money establishment.

    Indeed the fact that many of our new online new and views entrants have secured the large audiences they have on the basis of goodwill, effort and donations shows only too clearly that that the readership now departed from MSM is there.

    So as to the Scottish Daily Mail, Scottish Dailly Express, Hootman, Herald et al, the sooner they are gone the better. Long live the new entrants. Let them, through their efforts prosper, and let us get a news medium that we deserve.

    And yes Mike Small, through you, and others like you, and of course the readers and contributors too, this movement of change has started and has secured a sound foothold.

  7. Mary McCabe says:

    Our household still buys several “Scottish”newspapers, including the National (which I also support online), the Sunday Herald and – yes – Unionist papers. And when I see the Unionist papers presenting glaring disinformation or blanking reports which would help the pro-indy side I challenge them in letters to the readers’ page. And the vast majority of my letters do get printed.

    Although I read outlets like Bella Caledonia and Wings in order to access info censored by the MSM I rarely contribute comments. Nor do I do blogs. Political blogs are read mainly by people who have already made up their minds one way or the other.

    But most older folk get all their info from the MSM. So old-fashioned readers’ letters are one way to get through to them.

    My pro-indy letters go to Unionist papers. Mostly the Herald. I used to write to the Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman too but they became just too OTT for me to support them by buying them.

    If I write to the National I write about the strategy of winning independence, not to present arguments in favour of indy. Don’t want to preach to the converted.

    I wouldn’t like Scottish newspapers to disappear altogether. They present a Scottish-centred Weltanschauung to counteract London-based broadcasting.

    And who knows? their political slants may one day change. The Sunday Herald’s did.

  8. Graeme Purves says:

    A key issue is ownership. The owners of The Scotsman and The Herald have run them into the ground, taking perverse decisions on Editorial positioning. I always thought that it was beyond bizarre that the Barclay Brothers and Andrew Neil, ostensibly deeply committed to the Free Market, deliberately set out to alienate The Scotsman’s core readership, Edinburgh’s public sector middle class. The Johnson Press could have repositioned the paper when they took over, but chose not to. The Herald and The Scotsman taking contrasting positions on the matter of independence might have provided a suitable reflection of where Scotland is now. Instead, both papers have doubled down on a position of strident and intransigent Anglo-British Unionism. It is little wonder that both are struggling for readers.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    [lost, reposted comment]
    If you break journalism down further, you start to see more patterns and problems, such as the poor quality of popular science journalism railed against by Ben Goldacre of Bad Science:
    “Why is science in the media so often pointless, simplistic, boring, or just plain wrong?”
    http://www.badscience.net/2005/09/dont-dumb-me-down/

    I would argue that the reporting of science and methodolically scientific reporting are of greatest concern to democracy. Goldacre’s critism of the kind of humanities graduates writing in mainstream media is that their failure to understand science provokes a reactionary stance most unhelpful to their readers. So journalism training and editorial house style (requirement to provide full references, link to data, explain statistical significance and so on) may be due for a revolution/reformation.

    I am not sure that a constellation of bloggers would help the public understanding of science policy. Goldacre’s blog performs a useful critical function, but you generally need to create a constraining framework where (at least for certain chunk of time and space) agreement on the design and measurable outcomes of a test, as They Might be Giants would have it:

  10. Redgauntlet says:

    Michael:

    I’d be interested in hearing your own remedies for this grave problem for democracy.

    In any case, you are 100% right to link it to the BBC, which should be abolished of course.

    It turns out the BBC have been paying McEnroe 10 FUCKING TIMES what they pay Martina Navratilova, who is a much better pundit in my opinion, for comments on the tennis.

    That’s enough in itself to cause a mass revolt. Not a wee bit more. TEN TIMES MORE money for men than women…

    I mean why would any woman pay for a BBC license? It’s outrageous…

    And why would any person from any minority in Britain, actually pay Westminster to have a telly, a font of their racist, sexist, anglocentric, classist output which is the only public service the British State will not self off because it is so fundamental to their existence?

    Obviously, I include the Scots in the “minority” category…

    I hope you keep going with this Michael. People don’t care about the press, until, when it ceases to exist, we will all miss it…

  11. Redgauntlet says:

    Check it folks:

    The BBC say they are “impartial” while they pay men times more money than women…

    Very impartial…

    And they’re not classist – those fucking insufferable never-ending costume dramas – and they’re not racist, and they’re not anti Scottish, and they don’t skew the news against British establishment interests from the miners strike to the Falklands War to Iraq… of course they don’t..

    They’re “impartial” x 10. Unless you’re not an Oxbridge fucking twat…

    Fucking scandalous….

    That the Scots continue to pay these insufferable shysters money is a mystery to me…

  12. Redgauntlet says:

    I mean, Martina Navratalova is a woman of immense courage and distinction. A truly inspirational figure.

    She is lesbian from a Communist Block country who fought her way past all kinds of barriers and hurdles to achieve excellence way beyond most of us.

    Imagine being a Lesbian in Stalinist Czechoslovakia in the 60’s and 70’s? And a tennis player? And a woman? And then fighting against all the odds and winning the Grand Slam so many times… it’s way beyond 99.9% of human beings… a huge figure in world sport.

    And the BBC – who through their lying, mendacious World Service, try to convince everybody they are morally superior – pay her 10 times less than a loudmouth spoiled brat like McEnroe, who didn’t even achieve half of what Martina did…

    Utterly unforgivable. They treat a heroine like a piece of shit who should be an inspirational figure for anybody concerned for the weak and the humble and the people with the odds stacked against them… utterly unforgivable…

    Instead, they treat her like a waiter or a soft drinks saleswoman on Centre Court…

    Those public school arrogant toffs with their wretched and vile sense of entitlement do not match up to even a ballboy of Martina Navratalova….

    We need a Scottish press. We need guys like Michael and Christopher Silver to have a platform…

    …maybe it has to be free on the point of delivery? I don’t the answer, that that we need a Scottish press, diverse, broad and professional is beyond any doubt to me…

  13. Roger Ewen says:

    The Scottish newspapers are a platform for Westminster propaganda, it’s not the nation that’s to save Scottish newspapers, it’s the reporters, it’s the impartiality and integrity the owners need to find! Until then, the Scottish nation will show these newspapers the respect they deserve.

    1. Charles Gallagher says:

      Aye Roger, let’s just keep not buying them for they’ll never change their pathetic BritNat, unionist ways and that’s a never so long as PM Foster and her DUP are in charge – oh, in this case PM=Puppet Mistress.

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