Frank O’Donnell: ‘If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living’

In a thought provoking farewell note to colleagues at ‘The Scotsman Publications’, editor-in-chief Frank O’Donnell reflected on his career, key influences, evolving technology and the changing face of journalism.
He also shares his unbridled admiration of colleagues as they face the latest industry challenge of producing work under the shackles of COVID-19 lockdown.
Here, as he prepares to join DC Thomson Media in Aberdeen next month, he agreed to share his message, which is likely to chime with many others as the industry’s evolution continues.

Hello everyone,

Today is my last working day at Scotsman Publications after more than 20 years. I’m not sure quite what I’m feeling today. But it feels different.

Nostalgic. A little tearful. But also thankful.Z-pnWX_s_400x400.jpg

My first working day was 27 March 2000. I came in on a 12-month contract, shortly after the titles moved from North Bridge into the glitzy purpose-built HQ in Holyrood Road.

I was the Edinburgh Correspondent alongside Andrew Walker. On my bank of six desks was Alison Gray (consumer affairs correspondent), Stephen Rafferty (crime correspondent), Rab McNeil (colour/sketch writer) and Tanya Thompson (home affairs correspondent). The news editor was Magnus Llewellin, assisted by Raymond Notarangelo and Matthew Lindsay.

Things were very different back then.

Executive meetings were held in a walnut-panelled room and the staff canteen was open 15 hours a day.  But there were no laptops or mobile phones and Ceefax was ever-present on the TV above the newsdesk, not Sky News. Scotsman.com was in its infancy and no one paid it any attention.

Only a few weeks into the job I was sent to Dunkeld for an important interview and was handed a Nokia ‘pool mobile’ by a grumpy news editor who barked at me to “keep in touch”. The device ran out of juice as I was crossing the Forth Road Bridge. There was no charger.

This technology failure prompted an explosion from the news editor who insisted I ring him every 30 minutes from local telephone boxes to update on my progress. I was almost sacked.

Frank Odonnell

Since starting as a paper boy Frank O’Donnell has wanted to be a journalist. Pictured here with his dad, also Frank, in 1979.

Back then editors drank too much and resources were squandered on vanity projects. Reporters who couldn’t drive were ferried around in chauffeur-driven cars. One Editor was put up in a New Town townhouse over four floors as part of the role. When The Scotsman turned tabloid in 2003 the planning was akin to a military operation and lasted months.

At that time the newspaper industry was not as accustomed to change. Today we are a leaner organisation. There are fewer foreign assignments and there is no statement building in the city centre.

But we do have something else. Something more valuable.

There are few people from that era who can claim to work harder than any of the journalists on our titles today.

Today we produce two daily papers and one Sunday from a single newsroom. We publish content to our websites 16 hours a day; we craft social posts, shoot videos, record podcasts and manage trolls in our online comments.

We liaise with commercial colleagues on possible leads, support our events business, curate digital newsletters and communicate constantly with each other via WhatsApp.

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And then we go back to more training: updating our knowledge on privacy, data protection, IPSO or copyright law.

A TSPL journalist is more likely to be found in a podcast training course than in the pub.

The journalists of today – that’s you – are multi-skilled and have coped with far more change than those who sat in the newsroom when I started.

Coronavirus and the lockdown has underlined this.

I have asked you to work from home, hunched over laptops at the kitchen table. Home schooling is squeezed in between interviews. Deals are struck over which family member can hog the broadband.

The logistics of producing physical newspapers from people’s back bedrooms are staggering. But we have done it. And all with earlier deadlines.

Specialists have been asked to support the live team. Sports reporters have returned to write news for the first time in years.

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And none of you have complained. You’ve just rolled up your sleeves and adapted and continued to produce great content. The team spirit has been touching.

Yesterday three of our journalists – Craig Sinclair, Dani Garavelli and Gina Davidson – scooped Scottish Press Awards against fierce competition from our rivals.

Three others were runners up in their category, from the 12 we were shortlisted for.

The Scotsman magazine is the current PPA supplement of the year; Martyn McLaughlin is the UK Regional Reporter of the Year; and for the first time in more than a decade The Scotsman was shortlisted at the UK Press Awards, alongside Fleet Street titles.

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Our health correspondent Kevan Christie is producing podcasts on sectarianism alongside his main role covering the pandemic. Roger Cox invented the brilliant Scotsman Sessions overnight to cope with the lockdown.

Online, The Scotsman now has more than 2000 digital subscribers while the Edinburgh Evening News is by far the biggest JPIMedia website bringing in a chunky 25 million page views in March with the support of our brilliant central team.

It’s understandable to want to judge things by historical standards and think back to the days of rumbling presses in the basement. To the days when staffing levels were so luxuriant that some could afford to spend most of the day in the Jinglin’ Geordie.

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But we have something more powerful: we have resilience, hard work, a broad skill set and an ability to ride the wave of change.

Change will continue. The pace will grow even faster. But whatever comes our way we will be ready for it.

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.

I’d like to thank everyone who I have worked with over the last two decades for their support, friendship, diligence, creativity and hard work.

Until my last breath I shall retain a great fondness for these titles. They have shaped my upbringing and given me so many opportunities. I owe them so much.

But now is the time for me to change. To step outside my comfort zone and do something a little different. And to give someone else the privilege to lead these historic newspapers with the care and attention they deserve



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1 reply

  1. A great piece Frank. As someone who started as a Herald trainee in 1975 I have lived through massive change in newspapers and recognise all you touch upon and treasure.
    Your first day in 2000 at The Scotsman was my last day at the Herald and Times and I went to the NHS as director of comms. I have always retained my life-long friendship with journalists and now I have left the NHS I write once more for the Herald as a diary/columnist contributor (for no few other than a free online subscription… changed days 😁). I hope you have a wonderful new era ahead of you. Ally McLaws

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