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1 May 2000

The flying Scotsman

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

When the headquarters of the Scotsman newspaper were at North Bridge in the heart of Edinburgh, the thistle-encrusted masthead fixed to the Victorian facade seemed to knit its brows and glower like a Scottish schoolmaster over the city below it. Inside, it was a rabbit warren of corridors and cramped, badly lit offices whose windows gave onto a close leading down to Waverley Station and looked only at the building opposite. All except one. Like one of the panoramic covers of the New Yorker, the office of the editor of the Scotsman had a magnificent view over Princes Street, the Georgian New Town, the Firth of Forth and the world beyond. Outside was an oak-panelled vestibule decorated with dignified portraits of previous editors.

Now there is barely time for a polaroid. In the last six years there have been seven editors, and last week the latest incumbent, Tim Luckhurst, took indefinite sick leave suffering, from high blood pressure and severe stress. He is 37 and had been in the job for only two months. During the same period, a steady stream of departing senior staff has developed into a flood. The deputy editor, the features editor, and the night editor have all gone, along with many of the reporters from the news and business desks; and last Friday one of the paper’s sharpest journalists, Dean Nelson, resigned. Only the sports department seems untouched.

Executives from the Scotsman‘s sister papers and related businesses have been drafted in to bolster the staff who are left and to make sure that the paper hits the streets every day.

This is a remarkable state of affairs. For more than 30 years, the Scotsman campaigned vigorously, and occasionally unfashionably, for home rule; but now that a parliament has finally arrived, it has so far failed to establish itself either as a newspaper of record or the first place to look for informed comment.

With a new parliament on its doorstep and a city economy booming around it, the Scotsman was wonderfully well placed to enhance its stature, its sales and its advertising revenue.

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What has happened? A very substantial clue appeared recently as a full-page advertisement for the Herald, the Glasgow-based rival newspaper. It said simply: “We Don’t Pan Scotland. We Are Pan Scotland.” The first assertion was a reference to the generally anti-devolution and anti-nationalist stance taken by the Scotsman under the direction of its publisher, Andrew Neil. In columns carrying his byline and in the general editorial line, the newspaper began to look as though it did not much like what was happening around it. In addition, Neil wanted to develop a new market position for the paper. The Scotsman was to appeal not only to the sort of middle market served by the Daily Mail, but also to become a British newspaper rather than merely a Scottish one. While this may seem a sensible strategy in a mature marketplace, and the foreign and British coverage (sometimes seen as the same thing in Scotland) has undeniably improved, one effect of this policy has been to leave behind significant sections of the Scotsman‘s traditional constituency. For example, the Kirk and the Scottish legal establishment find themselves less reported and, and as a consequence, less willing either to read or to talk to the newspaper. And the rapid turnover of editors and senior staff only compounds a growing sense of dislocation. To an extent, newspapers need to be plugged into the establishment whose doings they want to report, and the Scotsman appears to be losing important links.

The newspaper’s difficulties are about to increase with the launch of the first new daily paper in Scotland for more than a hundred years. The Swedish company Bonnier has invested in the set-up of a paper that will focus on business and politics and be a supplementary read aimed at an upmarket audience. If the Glasgow-based Herald can improve its east-of-Scotland news coverage, the new paper might be supplementary to it rather than the Scotsman. With the entry of the Sunday Herald 18 months ago and the launch of the Bonnier paper, business plans are showing that the Scottish market is not inelastic, but that substantial growth can only really come from attacking the circulation of established titles. Despite a great tradition behind it, the future of the Scotsman looks increasingly difficult.

Other newspapers and commentators have criticised and even gloated, but a general mood of genuine concern is beginning to spread. Not only are the troubles of the Scotsman bad for the newspaper industry, they are bad for Scotland.

Evidently, a relaunch is planned to take place soon. Let us hope that it recognises not only that the Scotsman is the best brand name in Scotland, but also that its loyal readership wants it to succeed and to flourish.

Alistair Moffat

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