Scotland’s print media needs digital disruption for journalism’s own sake

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It’s finally relaunch week for and in part the print product too.

And it’s where we’ll learn a lot, not just about any digital ambitions from Johnston Press who have already posted notice they are willing to work with suitors, but how the remainder of Scottish media’s publishing companies respond – or indeed – don’t.

After all, Gordon Stevenson recently joined Newsquest’s Herald and Times Group as Head of Digital, just before two of the three editors at the group volunteered for redundancy. It is now for him to run with the ball and try to convince the company of what it should attempt in the digital sphere.

Stevenson’s departure as Head of Digital at Media Scotland where his career spanned more than two decades means they too have new opportunities ahead, and scope for recruiting a web and mobile savvy outsider for the new role of Director of Digital (Editorial).

There is no lack of journalistic pedigree at Trinity, but a fresh outlook and enthusiasm that comes with a new recruit may do them no harm in developing their growing digital chops if it can be backed by arming the new recruit with the support they will need.

The Scottish Sun, ploughing its own furrow while still joined at the hip with London, must adjust as the paywalls fall down with the re-emergence of Rebekah Wade and addition of Tony Gallagher to take on the work of David Dinsmore’s team.

But Scotland has different needs than other parts of the empire – notably in sport and politics – and it will want to avoid falling behind its main rivals when with a little tweaking, it could achieve so much and set the pace.

DC Thomson, you would think, with its own recent reshuffling and acquisitions such as Shortlist among others, might also be of a mind to venture further into the choppy seas of digital, tempted into revealing more of the powerhouse company than is usually shared with the public facing publishing outlets.

It has already moved to recruit a Digital Editor for the Evening Telegraph titles, with further digital jobs in train. It has a commanding grip on the north and east. Could it be ambitious enough for more?

BBC Scotland are already in the midst of recruiting for the Head of News & Current Affairs post in Scotland and a new Scotland Editor role. An ongoing push on social media and digital in general continues across news and sport and with more and more events.

While over at STV, project ‘Metropolis‘ is on course for release into the wild either side of the New Year, with CMS, editorial and advertising propositions hoping to dovetail with new local TV channels and the mainstream shows, aligned with a desire for more event broadcasting such as that for the Rugby World Cup.

BuzzFeed Scotland is on the march with an expected slew of positions to be advertised north of the Border as editor Hilary Wardle and co look to do best the likes of Scotland Now, another Trinity Mirror initiative, which works some wonders under editor Katrina Tweedie and could, you suspect, do so much more with additional resources.

Even the array of news agencies, including The Press Association under the direction of the highly impressive former BBC executive and MSN thought-leader Pete Clifton, continue to evolve their digital thinking with bold new initiatives to come.

Ten years or so late getting out of the blocks, then, and Scotland could finally be about to enter the digital media age properly. It could be a turning point in many ways for media outlets already in part being challenged by the start of crowdsourced alternatives.

But it can only be a true evolution if the power brokers at the top can convince the money men not to do it on the cheap.

There has to be a clear and fundamental understanding, or acceptance, at least, that while there can be many synergies in roles across print and digital – including mobile – they are quite distinct products demanding differing skill-sets and audience behaviours.

Sadly – and this isn’t a judgement but simple fact –  the current trend seems to be the scaling back of staff – The Scotsman and Herald and Times Group included – at a time when I’d argue for quite the reverse.

If we’ve learned anything from the likes of The Washington Post, it’s investment in staff, skills and journalism that has delivered value for shareholders, for colleagues and for audience in the long term.

It doesn’t mean duplicating teams, but it does mean enabling them. delivering clear workflows and ensuring that none work in a silo, but in tandem to ensure the narrative courses through the entire eco-system of the media organisation who employ them.

It’s about setting a realistic budget, adopting a start-up mentality and looking at digital teams as not so much a Cuckoo in the nest with shiny new toys plundered from the incumbents, but more as a Pheonix allowing the regeneration of journalism for journalism’s sake.

The rewards should be enhanced delivery of news and other content, an ability to learn about audience and create niche verticals to attract more user loyalty, which in turn will deliver more advertising propositions across all platforms including print, and an eventual shift from the current broken business models.

As consumption of material rises on mobile, it can also put these groups ahead of the curve for once, if they take the extra step and prepare for the rise of video which will become the dominant source of content delivery by 2020, powered in part by further growth developments in social media.

Once the new business model is in place, then inevitably, there may be arguments for pruning as with WaPo. But by then much of that will have occurred naturally. It is a false economy and  – crucially – a drag on progress to do so before then. In this case you really do need to speculate to accumulate.

When Jeff Moriarty arrived at Johnston Press in January 2014 as chief digital and product officer, it was an exciting moment for those of us familiar with his team’s work under him over at the Boston Globe, and he gave hints of  what was to come when we shared a stage at the Future of Media conference a few month later.

Quite how much involvement will have been along with the likes of mobile savvy Stephen Emerson preparing for this week’s launch with Errea Communications is hard to say, but if the hints of a Guardian-esque or Rebel Mouse inspired responsive, socially aware platform to come, it should make it someway towards being worth the wait.

It’s easy to spout ideas and blog from the sidelines when you don’t have to deal with the finances, the people or the politics involved. But when other groups start stealing a march, it should provide the ammunition to make urgent solid business cases finally catch fire.

Maybe I’m being naive, overly optimistic or thoroughly misinformed.

But I like to think the Scotsman’s new digital adventures can perhaps a clarion call for the rest of the nation’s often hard pressed news publishers, and provide a new incentive for the people who lead them, too.

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Categories: Launches, Media

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