Scotland today is a diverse and complex country teeming with good news stories. But nobody has figured out the right media to tell themby Dominic Hinde / November 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
The news that the Scottish media group Johnston Press is no more—its business transferred to a new company—had been coming for some time. The owners of the Scotsman, the i and a raft of regional titles had built an empire from humble roots in Falkirk only to contract spectacularly as it failed to deal adequately with its past or properly plan for its future.
It is telling that when the Scotsman and sister paper the Edinburgh Evening News vacated their cavernous offices next to the Scottish Parliament a few years ago for more modest premises, the new tenants were games developer Rockstar North, a company with a multi-million dollar turnover that has taken advantage of an evolving technological landscape which the Johnston Press empire hadn’t foreseen.
In a country that has lost so many of its lifeblood industries, and in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there remained a resolute faith in the ability of Scottish journalism to outlive all of the other vanished industrial giants of 20th century Scottish history. What is now apparent is that the Scottish media is a part of the post-industrial conversation, as it struggles to find both a business model and a purpose fit for the 21st century.
There is a power to the Scotsman and its equally troubled Glasgow-based rival the Herald as symbols of Scottish identity. Though neither are known for being fans of independence, both have previously been crucial to the sustenance of Scottish intellectual and civic identity.
There have been a few attempts to create a viable digital media scene in Scotland. One of the success stories—the investigative start-up The Ferret—hits well above is weight but is still constrained by meagre resources and the time commitments of its journalists. Various magazines and sites launched with great hubris have come and gone, running on goodwill and good intentions without any long-term sustainability.
Similarly, some endearingly misguided pro-independence media projects have cast themselves into the hole left by the decline of print press—soon finding out that the economics of media are challenging whichever side of the constitutional divide you come down on. During the Scottish independence referendum, a huge amount of vitriol was direct at both the BBC and the print media in Scotland, but it is budgets and formats that shackle the people who work in both rather than unionist puppetmasters.
The Scotsman and the Herald, in a hunt for clicks, have fostered a below-the-line comment culture to stimulate traffic and created impenetrable websites of (respectively) pop-up ads, auto-play videos and consumer surveys. Caught in the death spiral of volatile advertising markets and content farming, the much-trumpeted defence by both that they have more readers than ever before sounds impressive—yet it is debatable whether those readers have any loyalty to the mastheads when the content is increasingly threadbare. There remain a handful journalists allowed the time and space to do deeper qualitative reporting—but rates for long form reporting are poor and Scotland is a sprawling country that costs a lot to do justice.
There is a glimmer of hope in the creation of a new BBC Scotland channel, forever delayed but now finally happening, which may raise the bar and give talented younger journalists a reason to stay in the country. The BBC alone, however, cannot save Scottish journalism—nor should it have to. The harder question is whether journalism exists to employ journalists, to make money for shareholders or to pursue higher aims. What is clear in Scotland is that it can no longer do all three.
From its post-industrial malaise, Scotland today is a diverse and complex country teeming with good news stories, but what it still needs to do is find the medium to tell them. The current Scotsman editor, Frank O’Donnell, pledged business as usual in an article on Monday. But at the moment “business as usual” is the last thing the Scottish media needs.