The Scotsman is dying. So is The Herald. Here are some notes towards a plan to save them – and all newspapers. I’d like to see a consortium to put this into practice and save Scotland’s native, quality, national press for the nation. This isn’t born out of delusion but rather a few discussions I’ve had with like-minded senior journalists who believe that the money can be raised and that this is last chance to save these two titles.
A Merger of Sorts
Nobody likes this option but nearly everyone agrees it’s the way forward. In its most commonly-described form, this is not the solution, however, merely a way of buying a little time for both publications. As things currently stand, if one title took over the other it would pick up so few readers and advertisers as to render the exercise pointless.
However, there is a cleverer way: merge the businesses but keep the titles largely separate. This would involve cutting costs by streamlining the 'backroom' functions of both organisations: sales, IT, printing, etc.
Scotland has in it enough talented journalists to make one world-class newsroom strong enough to send the tartanised English editions 'hameward to think again'. With this in mind, some parts of the papers themselves could be 'merged' in the sense that the same content for these sections would appear in both papers.
The aim here would not be to cut costs but to increase quality. While The Herald and Scotsman have distinct voices when it comes to Scottish news, politics, business, opinion and maybe sport but UK news, foreign news, TV listings and features could be shared between them, if it meant the coverage of these areas was better.
However, this will only work if the economic model behind the papers changes.
A Matter of Trust
There is no point in someone buying The Scotsman and/or Herald and trying to run them at Johnston Press/Gannett profit levels. The days of screwing 20-35 per cent profit margins out of papers are dead for ever.
Similarly, there is not much point in the papers being bought by a billionaire with an agenda. The Scotsman has already been through that with [owners] the Barclays and [editor-in-chief] Andrew Neil. What is required is a set-up that guarantees editorial independence, sustainable returns and reinvestment for the long-term health of the business. This means a Trust, along the lines of the ones that own the Irish Times and The Guardian.
The first thing both papers need to sort out is the online dimension.
There is still a lot of potential for substantial online revenue, if the sites are managed correctly.
Design: Obviously the sites need to look and work a whole lot better. They should be tag-based sites that offer related articles (naturally), rating, sharing, 'most read', 'latest comments', trackbacks and basically all the functionality we associate with WordPress and other blogging software.
Archives: Every single article possible from the past should be published online. This will drive online revenue from existing editorial assets.
Online first: Stories should be published online first. We want to avoid telling people things that they’ve already known for 18 hours. Reader reaction can then inform what appears in print the next day and help move stories forward. A lot of effort should be put into online-only features which drive content to older material. Lists, guides and galleries are wonderful tools for doing this.
Comment: In one year, scotsman.com received 700,000 reader comments, the vast majority of which added a great deal to the value of the site – and its revenue. Comment is a vital tool for any serious online publisher. What scotsman.com lacked and what the Herald’s 9-5 moderators fail to provide is proper moderation. A system will need to be devised to encourage lively debate but keep the 'green inkies' at bay.
User generated content: The best way to get people to buy a paper is to put their names in it. And the best way to make them feel valued and involved is to tell their stories. This is not some web2-fanboy suggestion for a reader-written paper – the skills of writing grammatically, spelling properly, indentifying interesting information and presenting it clearly are restricted to a tiny proportion of the population. It is a recognition that we need to get closer to the readers by using their words and pictures. We experimented with this at scotsman.com and it worked very well.
Learn from traffic: scotsman.com was one of Google News’s top 30 sites worldwide. We acheived this by seeing what worked and doing more of it. I’m not suggesting that the Scottish papers of the future should only write stories about sex and kittens but they should take a more analytical approach to what they commission.
Getting Clever About Online Revenue
Many of the new models for journalism being touted (for instance, by Jeff Jarvis) don’t take into account the fact that professional journalists actually want to make a living.
The reason for this is that there is a key problem for online content. For a site to be successful, it needs to have unique content, quality content, lots of content and content that does not cost more than the revenue it generates. This is an impossible square to circle. However, The Scotsman and Herald have opportunities to round off the edges a bit.
Get the basics right: First of all, they should be able to properly monetise their existing properties.
Maximise sponsorship: The beauty of a tag-based site is that every keyword becomes a sponsorship opportunity, with the option for each tag’s landing page to be associated with an advertiser. Other properties, such as RSS feeds and email newsletters, are rich sources of ad revenue.
US market: At its height, scotsman.com was attracting four million unique users a month (ABCe audited figures). Unsurprisingly, most of that traffic did not come from Scotland but the vast majority of advertising effort went into UK advertising. A concerted attempt to reach the more lucrative US market with imaginative products should yield very healthy ad revenue.
Hyperlocal ads: Closer to home, not enough effort has been made to make cheap adverts work for small businesses online. There needs to be a realisation that 'no ad is too small'.
Print will never die: The internet does not mean the death of print. It does not mean the death of newspapers. What it means is a reinvention of how print fits into the economic model. Aside from its permanence and intrinsic romance, there will always be a demand for a print product of some kind. Print has advantages over new media in some areas, especially when it comes to consuming longer articles and complex information. However, some things need to change.
More meat, less filler: I heartily recommend Drew Curtis’s 'It’s not News, it’s Fark – How Mainstream Media Tries to Pass Crap Off as News' as an exercise in learning what’s wrong with our industry. The days of recycling PA and agency copy to fill space are dead. News agencies big and small frequently post their news stories online so those stories are 'out there' hours before their retreaded versions appear on the newspaper stands.
Stewart Kirkpatrick is a former editor of scotsman.com Visit www.stewart-kirkpatrick.com
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