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% 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 the Barclays and 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.

Web first

The first thing both papers need to sort out is the online dimension. The Herald site has always been an embarrassment (though it’s classifieds brands, especially S1jobs, are strong). And  scotsman.com was a tremendous property until Johnston Press got involved.

There is still a lot of potential for substantial online revenue, if the sites are managed correctly. Despite the best efforts of JP, scotsman.com is still visited by some two million unique users a month, the Herald by 500,000.

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, identifying interesting information and presenting it clearly are restricted to a tiny proportion of the population – and not enough journalists.) 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. Certainly, scotsman.com has not been backed up by a sophisticated online advertising team.

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 4 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”.

Reinventing print

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.

Digests, depth and your paper:

The newspaper of the (very near) future will offer summaries of the stories that people can find elsewhere. It will serve as a resource to point readers towards interesting nuggets in the vast landslide of information they are faced with.

The paper should then offer in-depth coverage of its own exclusives (remember them?) and a couple of major issues of the day. By in-depth, I mean lavish, luscious coverage designed to inform, entertain and amaze – outdoing the tartan editions of the London press.

In terms of sales, the Scottish press needs to learn from the Metro. Cheap news that has been regurgitated from PA is judged to have no value by the market. It is given away free. It is therefore no longer reasonable to ask people to pay for products filled with this kind of material.

However, valuable lessons can be learned from the Metro phenomenon. There is a place for free print products. But these should be thought of mainly as a promotional tool for the main revenue generators: the website and the main printed product.

A key lesson of the collapse in newspaper sales is that tens of thousands of people are no longer willing to spend about a £1 a day for news.

However, I believe there is a market for print as a prestige purchase. Readers like to identify themselves as Scotsman or Herald readers – despite the decline in quality of these titles. There is value here – if a product can be created that feels like it is in the premium bracket. Thanks to advances if print technology papers can now offer personalised editions. Rather than have to buy the “shotgun” mix of stories and sections, readers can be given “their” version of the paper. In my case that would be all the news sections, sport and opinion. (I have no need of re-Heated celeb features.) If that paper was delivered to my home I would be prepared to pay extra for it.

Such personalisation would be carried out online at the moment that the user subscribed to the paper. It is important to note that, despite the stubbornness of UK papers, home delivery is the only way to lock in readers. We have to lower the barriers to them buying the product and that means making it as convenient as possible.

Conclusion

So there’s my plan. Chuck rocks at it. Mock it. But remember that no matter how far-fetched or unreasonable it seems it still makes far more sense than trying to save your business by making the product weaker.


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18 Responses to How to save The Scotsman, The Herald and newspapers in general: a modest proposal

  1. Craig McGill says:

    One thing I wonder is how much cheaper we could make the papers if they went down to cheaper paper stock. Treat the product like the disposable item it is.

  2. Add a dimensional function to it. The old Glasgow Herald used to be great for kindling fires.

  3. Iain Mackay says:

    Damn fine article.This has been needed to be said for a long time. The Scotsmans way overpriced. More people are now looking at online even those of an older generation. Printing in Edinburgh has been decimated the last ten years, the last thing the Industry needs though is to lose the Scotsman.

  4. Steve says:

    Just about right, I think. Well done! Now, who’s going to make it happen?

    One uncomfortable truth for journalists is that many folk actually bought The Scotsman and Herald for the adverts. Friday recruitment was always a good day for circulation, but who would buy The Scotsman now if they were looking for a job? Ditto houses and cars with ESPC, autotrader and dealer websites?

    I can’t stand badly-written fluff features either, but can’t see the “something for everyone” model of newsprint being beaten without a retreat into high-priced specialist publications. I’d love it if Scotland had an intelligent weekly or monthly magazine along the lines of Prospect or The New Yorker, but I doubt it would be feasible to fill The Scotsman or Herald with these sort of articles daily.

    I suspect 20-30% profit margins are finished anyway with recession and near-deflation upon us. But that doesn’t mean that Newsquest and JP won’t do a Desmond and sweat the assets until the whole thing collapses.

    Sorry to be negative. I think this is a good plan, but it might be too late already.

  5. Survivor says:

    It IS too late already. Your plan falls at the first hurdle. Bearing in mind both The Herald and The Scotsman are part of much larger companies these days with already centralised ‘backroom’ operations, there is no gain to be made there. They have long since ceased to be autonomous.

  6. Stewart says:

    @Survivor: Why is it that people from TSPL only ever leave anonymous comments? And did you know that your PC number was recorded when you commented?

    To answer your point, while some functions are carried out centrally by JP and Newsquest, many major ones aren’t.

    I’m talking about taking *all* IT and advertisin one and running them centrally. And a major cost saving would involve running one print works.

  7. Great…I agree with many points here but I fear that it is way too late.

    I also wonder why you are still an advocating the hard copy production since most of your observations, one could argue, are in support of the creation of a new online publication.

    In the Netherlands, where subscription sales are higher, a number of newspapers supply customers only with a digital edition during the week days and provide enhanced weekend hard copies… OK, not the same business model but this has helped them push forward their online business and reduce costs.

    If papers are going to stick with hard copy production then they could through the use of digital technology, print local editions populated with extremely local ads.

    Oce has been offering this capability for years and they also developed an application which allowed users to select newsfeeds to populate a digital print on demand edition…User chosen content.

    This technology allows extremely targeted advertising and could fetch a premium.

    I am not advocating this particular company, just pointing out that this technology has been around for years.

    Ultimately I think that we shall see a revolution where the advertisers catch-on to the concept that the best form of advertising is to commission unique content for their online properties, mobile platforms and custom publications.

    I predict that we will see a surge in demand for quality writing and online journalism over the next two years.

  8. Andrew says:

    Especially like the points about “summaries of the stories that people can find elsewhere” balanced with meaty coverage of a few stories exclusive to the paper. There is a lot to be learned and copied from two big contemporary success stories – The Week and The Economist.

  9. [...] broadsheets are finding it harder and harder to survive, Stewart Kirkpatrick suggests de facto amalgamation of the Herald and Scotsman, but keeping the titles [...]

  10. Al says:

    Maybe I’m not one to talk, being a dyed in the wool Guardian reader, but I just can’t see myself changing over to paying for either The Scotsman or The Herald or the mooted hybrid. There’s no real quality to the writing.
    Sorry

  11. scottdouglas says:

    We’re a’ DOOMED!
    Move to PR quick.

  12. Kindle, not kindling. Quick story hits/updates on mobile devices supported by mobile-content revenue streams (like w00t) connecting to mobile-friendly local services/businesses. Web-first publishing ideology with a weekly / bi-weekly advertising-heavy glossy color print wrap / news magazine.

    Now, to find a local cash-heavy trust ….

    Craig Howie can be reached at http://www.one-millionstories.com

  13. Johnnnie says:

    A really excellent article. A mixture of passion, flexibility about using new platforms and an entrenched belief in delivering quality are what are all needed if these once-important and vital papers are to mark out their own territory in the current media soup. The kind of passion for quality exhibited in this piece.

  14. Alan Taylor says:

    These days, newspapers are basically just adverts for the brand – and profits emerge through the web, and through judicious use of the archives. So you’re absolutely right – the web site needs to be kicked up the **** big time, as it looks like an amateur piece of junk. I’d agree that a good interactive site generates repeat visits, and that the focus of web advertising should be global rather than local.

    I’d also consider archive access for a fee as a revenue-generator – effectively using the quality of the website as a guarantor of the quality of the archives.

  15. Christian Storstein says:

    Yet another convincing post calling for complete rethink by newspaper industry on its future:

    http://xark.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/05/the-lack-of-vision-thing-well-heres-a-vision-for-you.html

  16. mark gorman says:

    A lot of sense Stewart. I largely agree. Great article.

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