PLANS for three
of Scotland’s major newspaper publishers to forge a working alliance, originally to provide TV news bulletins, could yet go ahead.
The Scottish News Consortium – made up of the Scotsman Publications, Herald & Times Group and DC Thomson, with broadcast support from Tinopolis – pitched for the country’s IFNC slot earlier this year.
They were given preferred bidder status by the Department of Culture, Media & Sport under the Labour government to take over local news bulletins from STV – who themselves also bid with Bauer and ITN.
However the pilot was scrapped when the new Con-Dem coalition took power in Downing Street, and that was supposedly that for now.
But one of those at the heart of the joint pitch has revealed the old rivalries had abated to such an extent that they could still look at other ways of working.
Tom Little, editor of the Edinburgh Evening News and deputy editor in chief at The Scotsman Publications, was among those leading the project.
In an interview for podcast Quiet News Day, he said: “The potential was amazing.”
“If that had come
off, the biggest newspaper groups in Scotland – in the Glasgow area, the Edinburgh area and the north-east – were going to come together and pool their resources to create a new, news channel.
“As part of that we would have created our own, bespoke website for that news channel which would have then allow you to go through that to all the individual newspaper
“We were working on that quite heavily, we were pinning a lot of hopes on that too.
“The Conservative Government has come in and said it will not subsidise news broadcast, so that rug has been pulled from under out feet.”
“Now we are gathering breath, and we are thinking again about how we go forward from here.”
But asked if the groups could still work together, he said: “To an extent, that’s a bit above my pay scale.
“It’s the kind of things that will require chief execs to sit down and talk about.
“I think, personally, that yes we will, because I think some of the old rivalries have been lost now.
“There is an acceptance that while The Scotsman and The Herald will always, to an extent, see each other as rivals – they understand that they have their own areas of importance and hinterlands, and that’ what they will focus on.
“There is a lot more willingness (at Scotsman Publications) to work together now, with DC Thomson and with Newsquest through in the west.
“I think some people were reluctant to come to the table on this one, but when they saw the potential chance for the best newsgathering groups in the country to come together and create their own
TV news broadcast channel and company … the potential was amazing.”
“I was in the editorial group with people of a similar ranking at The Herald, Magnus Llewellin was one of them, and various others.
“The editor of the P&J in Aberdeen, Derek Tucker, was involved, the political editor of The Courier in Dundee, Steve Bargeton, and there were two or three others as well.
“It was a flexible group. It was immense.”
And he remains convinced it would have been a huge success, adding: “I think actually we not only would have delivered a better quality of TV news for the people of Scotland, but it would also have been good for all the companies involved – the three major newspaper groups.
“The financial health certainly, but also in the way we look at Scotland and the world.
“It would have been a step forward and I hope, and still hope, that some developments will still come of that."
Unless reading too much into this – that could go some way to explaining the recent elevation of Henry Faure Walker from general manager at Scotsman Publications to digital and business development director.
But his commentsdid come before that announcement was made.
Little, who himself served as a report at the paper he now edits along with stints at the Daily Record, Scotland on Sunday and in Government as a special advisor, is only too aware of the challenges and the opportunities faced by publishers.
And knowing the market, he said, is the key to success.
He explained: “The Evening News obviously is now my baby and I have a heritage with the paper and love it dearly.
“I think it’s in good nick. I was lucky enough to inherit a very strong newspaper from the last Editor, and a very good team. A young team, but a very good and enthusiastic and good team.
“The paper, I think, is a good balance of what the people of Edinburgh want.
“We tell them
what happening on their doorstep, we tell them a little bit about what’s happening elsewhere in Scotland, and a little bit again about what’s happening elsewhere in the world.
“But our focus is very much on what’s happening in EH postcodes, what they can expect to find when they get on a bus in Edinburgh, when they go into work in Edinburgh.
“We also try and cover a bit of business, arts, sport – again always with an Edinburgh and a Lothians focus.
“We’re very much a local paper, it puts us in a very privileged part of the community, and I think we have a good relationship with our readers as a result.”
“As well as print sales being relatively strong, in what is after all a declining market, we’re also very, very popular on the web, we get lots of hits, a lot more people are
interacting with the paper that way than they used to.
“That’s something some of us found quite difficult to embrace at first, but now we see the potential there, we are trying to expand it.
“I won’t try and gloss over it too much, it is tough out there. It’s tough in every sector of the newspaper market.
“There are one or two titles which are bucking the trend, but usually through cutting cover price or other temporary gimmicks.
“The evening market tends to be down quite badly across the UK – you’re looking at eight, 10 or sometimes 12 per cent circulation dips.
“We’re nowhere near that. I’ll be quite open with you, we’re sitting about five or six per cent down year on year circulation.
“It doesn’t sound great, but it’s actually relatively healthy, and that’s because we have that strong relationship with our readers.”
He praised the
Caledonian Mercury, set up by former scotsman.com editor Stewart Kirkpatrick, for its innovations – but admits that while working hand in hand with web, he still prefers print products.
He said: “Stewart’s little bit of genius in all this was setting it up with a very, very sound business model.
“It would have been very easy to go in with an unsustainable model, one which was predicated on big hits – as it happens he got not bad hits to start with.
“But he obviously set it up so that he could, with the lowest of expectations as it were, and know that it would work. And I think that’s what’s been the clever thing and
that’s why it’s possible.”
Of his own title’s online form, he adds: “While obviously the digital aspect of the paper will grow and grow and grow, I’d like to think paper will still be the skeleton of the product, we can pad some flesh around that with the new media.
“I like getting a newspaper in the morning, I like getting ink on my fingers, I like being able to sit and turn the pages and flick back. I’m quite old fashioned that way.
“But, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a lot of younger journalists who really ‘get’ the new media and social media and help drag me into the 21st century.”
As a time served journalist and editor of some considerable note, he knows social media brings its own challenges to the news agenda.
He said: “Coming from several years working on a Sunday newspaper I think all newspapers now are in the position Sunday newspapers used to feel they were in, where stories would be broken through the week by the dailies and the Sunday’s would then take a story and tell you everything you wanted to know about that story.
“I think now every newspaper in the country is pretty much in that position. If it’s a big enough story, it will break either online or in the broadcast media.
“As a newspaper you then take the whole story to your readers the next day and say sit down, draw breath, here is what you need to know about that story.
to scotsman.com which was a fantastically successful product to start with, we were in our group ahead of the game in terms of new media. I think partly because of resources, perhaps the pace has come off a little bit.”
At a local level, however, they are in the second stint of an online heavy talent competition which truly engaged its audience.
He said: “Edinburgh’s Got Talent was launched last year with high hopes, but the reality exceeded all expectations.
“The readers really took it to their hearts, it was really an old fashioned talent show but done through new means.
“We basically invited anyone in Edinburgh and the Lothians who fancied themselves as the next X Factor of Pop Idol winner to upload their videos onto our bespoke website, and then invited the readers to whittle the numbers down by voting for people.
“The 10 most fancied acts were then invited to take part in a Grand Finale at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. It was sold out, 500 people, and a fantastic night.
“Just exactly what life should be about – a laugh, while rewarding excellence at the same time.”
And while his own paper serves it’s particular niche, Little like everyone else in Scottish journalism keeps a beady eye on the battle between his old stable the Daily Record and the market leading Scottish Sun.
Asked how the Sun managed to outstrip its rival and whether the Record’s management should shoulder the blame, he said: “The editor of the Record, Bruce Waddell, don’t forget –
came from the Scottish Sun.
“He helped make the Scottish Sun the success that it currently is. He’s an excellent editor.
“It just so happens that the guy who replaced him at the Scottish Sun is also an excellent editor, David Dinsmore.
“He’s a very interesting guy, he’s got a very broad range and I think he produces an excellent newspaper.
“Of course the Sun has the marketing power behind it as well.
“They do tend do some things a little bit better though, the headlines are a little bit catchier, perhaps a little bit sharper in news.
“I think the big success of the Sun has been the way its sports coverage has come to rival – and some would argue, not necessarily me – overtake the Record’s sports coverage, especially its coverage of the Old Firm.
“I think they are both still very good newspapers in their own way.
“The Sun’s rise has been partly down to some excellent people in it, but of course it was cut price for a long time.
“To a degree they bought some readership loyalty, but it’s a great product and they deserve to hold onto the readers.”
But he also argued that the papers are very different approaches and said: “I still think they (Daily Record) do investigations better than the Sun, that’s one area they perhaps should be making more of.
“They have that depth still in terms of numbers, and one or two excellent operators who can go out and get those stories in.
“The Sun tends to be better at the punchier, newsier stories and sport.
“I think the Sun is brilliant at what it does, I don’t think needs much changed at all.
“I hark back to the Record I grew up with in the 1970s, which was heavier hitting investigations with a bit of fun and great sport as well.
“The Record still is a good product, I’m not doing it down, I think the Record is still a strong product with some great reporters.
“It hits the nail on the head most of the time, not all of the time, but then none of us do.
“Let’s face it it’s not all that long ago that the Daily Express was the biggest selling newspaper in Scotland.
“The Sun has come up out of the traps very quickly and overtaken the Daily Record. I don’t think the Daily Record will catch it in the near future.”
Little also made a defence of newspaper groups having to cut their teams in terms of staffing, in order just to survive.
He said: “As someone who has in the past had to make journalists redundant, it’s always done with a heavy heart.
“Every newspaper in Britain, and certainly in Scotland, has had it large for too long.
“We had the golden era when we were throwing cash at supplements and papers got bigger and fatter, and we employed more people, sometimes on very high wages.
“That’s not the
business model that works anymore, we have to be leaner, and the kind of cutbacks that have been done at The Scotsman group and The Herald group, and at Trinity – possibly more than anywhere else at Trinity – are designed to keep papers going, to keep journalists in jobs.”
He added: “We do see closures, we see closures in every sector, not just here but abroad of course, in America for especially.
“They will happen. It’s just the market working.”
* Tom Little was interviewed for QND42 hosted by Shaun Milne & Scott Douglas.