West Highland Free Press suspends print publishing amid COVID-19 crisis

It’s been a staple for the Highlands over the best part of half a century. As good an example of community and local journalism as you could hope to see.

When I first started out as a reporter at the other end of the country at the Wigtown Free Press in Stranraer, I even subscribed to the West Highland Free Press, looking for ideas from their patch to translate into my own.

But for the first time, after 2503 back to back editions, there will be no WHFP on the news-stands. It has had to suspend publishing in print because of the COVID-19 crisis.

It’s sure to be a heartbreaking, worrying moment for all the team. Unlike most newspapers, the Free Press is employee owned.

And they are fiercely proud of the the fact.

I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the company of its Managing Director Paul Wood on many occasion. His enthusiasm, belief and drive for the way they go about their journalism with community at its heart is inspiring.

For now, he too is furloughed. It’s a team game. It’s why they reached out to support the people and businesses on Skye, Wester Ross and the Outer Hebrides for as long as they could.

Before signing-off, he said: “That causes us much sadness. But is also makes us determined to pick up the reins again with renewed vigour, when circumstances allow.”

I don’t ordinarily buy into the woes of newspaper publishers, wagging their fingers at the likes of Facebook and Google for coming up with better business models than the once all-powerful news groups who failed to pivot and adapt when they had the chance.

Nor do I subscribe the relentless BBC bashing that goes on for them doing their jobs, funded by us the licence fee payers.

No. News groups had .. and still have .. a chance to get their own houses in order by changing what they do and how they do it. Perhaps this is the moment.

But I do have bucketloads of sympathy for the West Highland Free Press and all who work there and support it. They broke the mould for newspaper publishing on October 27, 2009, when it became employee owned.

It is niche, has a defined USP, delivers journalism for the common good, and national good if you consider the loss it would be for the community and Gaelic language. It innovates and is constantly striving for new, bolder initiatives.

They could do nothing about this.

John Toner, national organiser for the National Union of Journalists in Scotland, said:”We send our wholehearted support to all those at the West Highland Free Press and look forward to June 5 when they hope to begin publishing again.” The-Ferret.png

Last time I met Paul was while attending a journalism conference organised by The Ferret investigations team.

It is another site with a new model, owned by its team and readers who subscribe or donate.

We shot the breeze talking about the future of media, the old and the new, what came next. None of us considered Coronavirus.

As we shook hands goodbye we made tentative arrangements for me and my inner geek to visit their offices at Broadford, so I could see for myself how the operation there goes about business.

I’m still looking forward to that trip over the sea to Skye, now more than ever.

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