Whatever happened to the newspaper as a nation talking to itself?


by Kenneth Roy

A few days ago, a Scottish newspaper described the Rt Rev John Christie as ‘the head of the Church of Scotland’.  The surname of the head of the Church of Scotland is not Christie, but Christ.  Mr Christie is not even ‘moderator of the Church of Scotland’, as he is more often known in the press.  He is simply moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the chairman of an annual meeting who then spends a year in good works and visits of various kinds.

When I arrived in the office this morning, the first email I opened was from a reader expressing deep regret that I had resigned as the Scottish Review’s leader writer.  Rumours of my demise have been exaggerated: I wasn’t here yesterday because I was tired and just felt like having the day off.  But it seems that, within a few hours, the word was out that Roy had gone. I have reassured my fan that I subscribe to the Alex Ferguson view of life: retirement is strictly for the young.

So there you are: two inaccuracies, one of them involving the head of the Church of Scotland, the other the editor of the Scottish Review.  There’s one born every minute. Inaccuracy, I mean.

A newspaper editor was once defined as someone who is paid to separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff.  There is plenty of chaff about – unparallelled quantities of the stuff.  As the newspapers have become bulkier and bulkier, as the sources of information have profilerated online as well as in print, there seems to be less space than ever for accuracy.  We should not confuse all this excess baggage with the sort of weight that confers reliability.  The newspapers are simply fatter – and lazier.

When I worked for the Glasgow Herald, the first significant paper that employed me, news was what mattered.  The reporters covered speeches made at venerable institutions, reporting what people said.  Can you imagine that happening now?  If you want some coverage for an important speech, then you send out a press release and your important speech is never heard of again.  Reporting of Mr Christie’s General Assembly, once spread over a page, is now reduced to a sketch; for the newspapers, the Scottish Parliament was never more than a sketch.

In the late 60s, we trawled the streets at night in search of the news.  The management provided a limousine and a driver for the purpose.  The 7.30 to 3.30 shift it was called.  Gosh, what a glamorous life it was.

Whatever happened to the newspaper as ‘a nation talking to itself’?  If Arthur Miller’s definition still holds true in general terms, it no longer seems to do so in devolved Scotland.

Years later, when I had a long talk with Tony Howard, I realised that this is how it was for most young reporters.  When Tony worked in the Guardian newsroom in Cross Street, Manchester, and Harry, the legendary news editor, found you with your feet on the desk, he would point to the new edition of the Oldham Chronicle, to a story headed ‘Oldest carthorse in Manchester’, and tell you to be on your way to interview the carthorse.

But is it what readers want?  The first paradox of the trade – the new law of journalism – is that heavy means light; more means less.  But here’s another: the relentless move towards bigger newspapers full of loose opinions and celebrity-driven piffle has been accompanied by a calamitous fall in circulations.  Surprise surprise, the death of news in newspapers has not produced their hoped-for revival.

Yesterday it was announced that the chief executive of Johnston Press, the group which owns the Scotsman, was standing down.  The group has had a better year financially – just as well since its loss in 2009 was a death-defying £114m.  But the underlying decline of the products, as they are known, continues unarrested: advertising was down 11.4% in the first nine weeks of 2011, while the sales of the group’s daily titles fell by a further 7.3% last year.  At the rival Herald group, there are rumours that the Sunday Herald, perhaps the best-written paper in Scotland, may not survive the year in its new incarnation as a ‘news magazine’.

The sad decline and fall of the traditional Scottish press, now accelerating, is no recent development.  Before the Scottish Parliament was reinstated in 1999, I confidently predicted in this magazine that the heightened sense of Scottish identity, the new mood of self-determination, would lead to a burgeoning of the print media and maybe even the establishment of new titles.  How wrong I was. In 1999, the first year of the parliament, the Scotsman’s daily sale was 77,000; it now stands at 43,000.  In 1999, the Herald sold 106,000 copies a day; it now sells 52,000.  The collapse has occurred so steadily over so long a period that, until recently, it was barely noticed.  But it is a remarkable cultural phenomenon; and its impact on Scottish democracy deserves to be more closely studied.

One of the few encouraging signs in the Scottish media is the recent creation of a small community of online papers – the Caledonian Mercury, Newsnet Scotland, Bella Caledonia, SR itself.  If the outmoded rivalries of the trade are put aside, and these papers act in a co-operative spirit, the online press can become an alternative force for good.  But it will be a long time, if ever, before online titles take the place of the old-fashioned newspaper in the popular affection.

Whatever happened to the newspaper as ‘a nation talking to itself’?  If Arthur Miller’s definition still holds true in general terms, it no longer seems to do so in devolved Scotland.  Before it is too late, we ought to be asking why and what, if anything, can be done about it.  Printing less chaff, and attending to such details as the proper title of the Rt Rev John Christie, would be a useful start.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.