Such has been the tumult in recent weeks at The Scotsman Publications Ltd (TSPL), it is remarkable that a paper has made it out the door every day. The changes have not, though, been confined to the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Edinburgh Evening News, but extend to all Johnston press holdings.
Ashley Highfield, appointed Chief Executive of Johnston Press in July, has set out his strategy for survival and it involves even more tumult and upheaval.
First step has been to flatten the management structure. February saw the first stirrings of this with senior executives of parts of the holdings put on gardening leave and ultimately, made redundant. At the same time, the MD of TSPL, Andrew Richardson, was appointed MD of all the Johnston Press holdings in Scotland. This process culminated in the removal of John McLellan from his role as Editor-in-Chief of the Scotsman and its sister papers, and cue a public outpouring of indignation and sentiment (did John McLellan ever know how much his staff loved him so?!) from the papers’ journalists. Incidentally, McLellan was one of three senior executives to go.
Eyebrows might have been raised by many at the Scotsman winning Newspaper of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards last week, but the newspaper family is a sentimental one. This award was the equivalent of a group hug, a solidarity gesture and as a kind of good luck charm to prevent the rot extending to others.
Some of the other changes coming won’t actually affect the Scotsman or Scotland on Sunday. Johnston press is redesigning and relaunching most of the group’s newspapers. I’m not a newspaper person but this sounds like maximising output from the content system invested in a while ago, by creating templates and sharing non-local content across titles more efficiently. It also means creating a single unit price for similar products. Such harmonisation is long overdue and will raise the profit margins overnight on some publications. The pilot area is the North of England where some dailies will also become weekly papers.
Implementation of the digital strategy will surely involve TSPL. Highfield aims to grow audiences (not readers, note) by being “local, social and mobile”. There will be more ipad apps for example, and mobile content to reach a younger generation currently bypassing newspapers for news. This strategy will also create vertical content businesses, grouping content by genre (football, gardening etc) so that it can be accessed in one place. Frankly, some of this is so basic in marketing terms, it’s remarkable that it hasn’t happened yet.
Clearly, once this process is complete, more jobs, particularly at editorial level will go. You don’t need individual editors for newsprint and digital versions of every local paper, especially when the design and production processes are shared. Traditionalists with inky fingers may despair but it is the way of the future.
There is also comfort to be had in that this is a strategy for growth. It is about maximising profit, cutting costs and increasing revenue, while investing to reach wider audiences. The crucial link in the chain is content. More journalism, not less should result, but it will be different journalism. All this might be bringing some at TSPL out in hives, but they would do well to get with the programme and work to put their papers ahead of the change process.
Kenneth Roy at the Scottish Review might envision a back to the future approach to rejuvenate the Scotsman, but such nostalgia is unhelpful. The newspaper industry in Scotland and elsewhere must change or die. What Highfield is setting out represents a major shift in culture, one that has largely been resisted by the industry in Scotland. Where Roy is right, though, is that the Scotsman (to a lesser extent, Scotland on Sunday) has lost its way, in terms of its purpose and its direction. Politically, its editorial line has become increasingly brittle: how else to explain the contest to produce an independence-bashing front page splash daily?
Being so out of step with the political zeitgeist overshadows the fact that actually, the paper is producing outstanding comment and analysis on political and public issues. The range of voices provided daily is impressive and has become essential reading for the burd. It also masks the rest of the newspaper’s strengths – decent domestic and international news coverage coupled with innovative and solid lifestyle, sport and other content. What is missing is a sense that the Scotsman is happy with its place in our world – resolving this, so that it and Scotland on Sunday better reflect the political mood of the nation, is vital if Highfield’s audience growth strategy is to be realised.
Highfield is a businessman operating in a media universe: he can only do so much to fight for the survival of Johnston Press, and in particular TSPL. This is only the start, not the end of the process of change. Sadly, there will be more jobs going, but there is also the opportunity to create new jobs. And if those journalists currently employed at TSPL want to have a future, they need to get their heads around the changes coming and fast. Best of all, they need to work with their company to deliver. No matter how many platforms, templates and audiences, the key to success is still content: “brands are nothing without content, content is nothing without investment” noted Bill Jamieson sagely at the Scottish Press Awards.
He also reminded (to a standing ovation apparently) the assembled throng that “words are our gift, words are the mission of our life“. Such a noble sentiment, though, is worthless without places to lay those words nor readers to savour them.