The Scotsman newspaper, and the man with the golden hiya


By Kenneth Roy

The Johnston Press, publisher of the Scotsman and the Falkirk Herald, not to mention the Todmorden News, has a new chief executive. His name is Ashley Highfield and he joined the company earlier this month. His arrival in Scotland is interesting for several reasons.

Johnston, which began life in my native town as the publisher of a local weekly paper but has expanded more than a little since those pioneering days in 1767, acquired Scotsman Publications Ltd in 2006, at which point it announced that it had become ‘the second largest regional publisher in the UK’. To some of us, the notion of a great newspaper and once-proud Scottish institution being regarded by its new proprietor as ‘regional’ – to be spoken of in the same breath as the mighty Todmorden News – was an insult to the Scotsman and to Scotland. Let that pass. No, let’s not. Let’s note it as indicative of a point of view.

This statement of the company’s size, the fact of its ownership of so many newspapers (270) on both sides of the border, was a sharp reminder of its position of monopoly or near-monopoly in many parts of the country. The desirabililty of such a situation has never been properly challenged. There is, however, a downside to this rapid expansion, most of which occurred just before the crash of 2008. The company is burdened with a whack of long-term debt and has only just returned to profitability after posting a £114m loss in 2009.

More worryingly from the perspective of its new chief executive, the company’s core business is in what the Americans call a sunset industry: print newspapers.

The sun in the winter sky can be viewed with some clarity through the telescope of the latest audited circulation figures. Scotland’s online media magazine, The Drum, headlined its report on the Scottish stats for October ‘Real shock horror story’ and its seasoned analyst, Hamish Mackay, calls the figures ‘hugely depressing for media buffs like myself who adore newspapers in all their shapes and sizes’.

The figures are indeed shocking, though not terribly surprising. The saddest part of them is the near-collapse of the Sunday Herald’s once-solid base. Since it was re-invented in a hybrid magazine format, it has lost almost a third of its readers and now sells fewer than 29,000 copies a week. It is a lively, well-written paper with many stars, elegantly designed, and deserves to do a lot better. But in the sunset industry, quality counts for little: the sun goes down regardless. Its stablemate, the Herald, which in its 1980s heyday was selling 120,000 a day, is down to 45,813 in October 2011. In the last year alone it has haemorrhaged 13% of its readers.

What, then, is the prospect facing Mr Highfield as he surveys the state of his flagship ‘regional’ titles in Edinburgh? The Scotsman used to sell 80,000+, but has seen its circulation more than halved to last month’s 38,787 – a dispiriting figure, although its editor has succeeded, where some have not, in restricting the year-on-year loss to just under 10%. Remarkably, the combined sale of the Scotsman and its Sunday sister is now less than either paper was selling independently 25 years ago.

Online, I can confirm, is indeed a wonderful place to be, as we have discovered in our small way since February 2008 when we abandoned dirty, old-fashioned print and a readership of 700 loyal souls and went marching off into cyberspace.

Enter Mr Highfield. Clearly the Johnston Press chaired by power man Ian Russell – repeat power man, not power mad; he is big in gas – is investing considerable faith in its new chief executive. It has been reported that he has received a ‘golden hello’ – what we in Scotland prefer to call a golden hiya – of half a million pounds in shares. It cannot all be a form of compensation for having to live among the flyting Scots, whose idea of civilised debate has been so gloriously exhibited all over the Scottish Review in recent days. There must be an element of this impressive bonus (for doing nothing at all so far) which is related to the company’s expectation of what Mr Highfield can deliver. So it is worth having a look at him.

Significantly perhaps, he comes from a background in new technology and online publishing; he has no experience in newspapers. Ominously, he is also described as a management consultant. It is therefore fairly safe to assume that (a) the Johnston Press may be seeing a new future for itself online; and (b) it will be employing fewer journalists in the future.

Online, I can confirm, is indeed a wonderful place to be, as we have discovered in our small way since February 2008 when we abandoned dirty, old-fashioned print and a readership of 700 loyal souls and went marching off into cyberspace. In an outstanding week we have 20,000 visitors to the Scottish Review; in a good one around 15,000. A single edition last summer was read by 18,000 people. No doubt, if we had any money, we could give the Sunday Herald a run for its. We depend on word-of-mouth and such occasional gifts as BBC Scotland’s lovely coverage of the George Gunn/Robert Livingston bust-up.

Imagine, then, what could be done by so experienced an online practitioner as Ashley Highfield, who has at his disposal that wonderful thing – a marketing budget – and such gifted journalists as the only person in Scotland who is officially not a misogynist.

Sooner or later – probably sooner – a serious newspaper in Britain will ditch print, giving it up as a lost cause, and go for broke online. Could it be the Guardian, which in print is sinking faster in the west than most of its rivals, but has an internet-savvy readership? Or might we see some pre-emptive strike north of the border – Mr Highfield, anxious to justify his golden hiya, leading the dear old Scotsperson into some revolutionary reincarnation? Stranger things have undoubtedly happened.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review