By Professor Philip Schlesinger and Dr Alex Benchimol
In the run-up to the independence referendum on 18 September, Scotland’s newspaper press is facing a double challenge. First, can print journalism adapt to the digital revolution, given a continuing decline in newspaper sales? Second, can the press perform its civic role in contributing to an increasingly distinct democratic culture north of the Border?
Oddly, such questions have been largely neglected in recent debate about the media and Scottish independence. Of late, the focus has been on ideas set out in Scotland’s Future, the Scottish Government’s White Paper.
While this discusses culture, broadcasting and communications, it is prudently silent on the future of the press. A wise move, no doubt, after hostile media and political reactions to the ‘McLeveson’ report, commissioned by Alex Salmond and published in March 2013.
This report was widely seen as going further in proposing the regulation of the press and online journalism than anything that might be agreed, post-Leveson, south of the border and so the First Minister kicked it into the long grass. In fact, separate Scottish regulation is now effectively off the agenda.
As it happens, we don’t think that regulation is the fundamental issue for Scotland, although it’s the only issue concerning the press to attract political attention. It’s a truism that for anyone to regulate the press at all it first has to survive and flourish – and that really is not being as widely discussed as it ought. In a rare intervention, more than three years ago, a study by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute concluded that while there was a profound challenge of falling circulations and advertising migrating online, new media developments could also bring new opportunities for the press. That transition is still under way, and no major Scottish titles have yet disappeared.
Scotland’s press is certainly not unique in facing the impact of the online revolution. A key issue for newspapers everywhere is how to make their digital presence pay, as print sales continue to fall and advertising migrates online. That’s why in a 2011 Herald article, one of us called for a new business model for the Scottish press. ‘Expert says Scottish press needs a new business model’ 19 August 2011
Can Scotland learn lessons from what’s happening elsewhere? To see how the press was faring in nations comparable to Scotland, at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Cultural Policy Research we brought together leading national and international experts – academics, journalists, media executives and policymakers from Scotland and the wider UK, Denmark, Norway, Catalonia, the Basque Country and Quebec. In closed seminars, we discussed intensively what is happening to the press in other small nations and states as well as in Scotland.
The ensuing debate showed that at best the constitutional question is secondary to the strategies of those running the Scottish press. That’s because the fundamental issue of creating sustainable conditions for their enterprises dominates, regardless of whether Scotland is independent or not.
In fact, there was a consensus that in national regions in Europe and North America such as Catalonia, the Basque Country and Quebec, as in the rest of the UK, the need for new press business models and the need to attract new readers stand out as the most urgent issues facing their press systems. That’s because (as a recent Reuters Institute study has shown) there is an increasing divergence in how news is consumed across generations, with younger ‘digital natives’ increasingly moving to mobile devices like tablets — as well as using social media — to access news content.
The quest for a new balance between print and digital has enormous implications for the way that newsrooms are organized and how newspapers actually produce daily copy. There is also a new challenge to how news judgments are being made that is posed by the increased editorial use of live web analytics – information about real-time use of content. We are working on precisely this issue in current research at CCPR.
The overriding focus of our international discussion was on technology and economics with politics, surprisingly, playing second fiddle. What became quite clear was that each nation’s institutional history has affected the development of its press system. How each political culture has evolved has also influenced the extent of state intervention in subsidizing national press systems and the reasons that are deemed acceptable for doing so.
While explicit public subsidy to keep a wide range of titles in existence would be regarded as dangerous political interference with press freedom and plurality in the UK, in Norway it is simply taken for granted. There, it relates to both a strong sense of national identity developed over time and the wide geographical dispersal of the Norwegian population. Just think of how this contrasts with the UK press’s reception of Leveson’s proposals for press regulation last year.
It is also clear that national regions for which cultural identity is closely bound up with language have opted for state intervention. In Spain, leading national/regional newspapers like the Basque-language Berria and Catalan-language newspapers like El Periódico de Catalunya and El Punt Avui benefit from wider regional government subsidies to sustain these languages in the wider Spanish-speaking context.
In Scotland, this kind of subsidy is familiar in public service broadcasting, where government funds flow to BBC Alba to sustain Gaelic-language production. It would be unimaginable for such a policy to be applied to the press, however.
In each national press, digitization is re-shaping the economics and very identity of leading national newspapers, including La Presse in Quebec and ARA in Catalonia. Sustained by substantial language communities, both have sought to implement aggressive digital strategies as a means of actively engaging with the new multi-platform media landscape. They have gone digital in ways as yet unthinkable in Scotland.
Taking a long view, technological and existential anxieties about the role of the Scottish periodical press are nothing new. After the Union of 1707, Scottish editors and publishers framed their ambitions in terms that resonate with the ‘double challenge’ facing Scotland’s national press today. How could they provide a dedicated focus for Scotland’s cultural ambitions and distinctive civil society in the face of fierce commercial and technological competition, then, as now, from the London press? How could they promote Scottish national interests in a new constitutional framework and global economic context?
In the first issue of The Glasgow Advertiser in 1783, editor John Mennons described his new venture as engaged ‘in the task of informing and instructing his fellow citizens’, from the perspective of ‘the foremost commercial city in Scotland’. Mennons projected the new venture as part of a wider civic and national effort to maximize both Glasgow’s and Scotland’s commercial potential during a period of economic transition, when the cessation of trade with America had constrained the wealth of Glasgow’s Tobacco Lords, making the kind of commercial and political intelligence available in Scottish newspapers like the Advertiser all the more relevant to the city’s and nation’s economic survival.
The key issues about the current state and future shape of the Scottish press—economic survival; technological adaptation; and the national interest—have been with us since the earliest years of Scotland’s national press. So has the question of how the press might sustain a distinctive national cultural identity in a British, European and global context. These issues will remain an urgent national challenge, regardless of the result of Scotland’s independence referendum on 18 September.
Philip Schlesinger is Professor in Cultural Policy and Dr Alex Benchimol is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. The ‘Securing Scotland’s Voice’ seminars were supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.