(A cautionary note - I am not a journalist, I have never worked for any media organisation in any capacity, and I have no insider knowledge of the operation of newspapers, print or television media. All of what I have to say represents the perceptions of a consumer of media channels, as viewer and reader and occasional contributor to letters pages and online comment. My views also reflect some limited experience of dealing directly with them in industry.)
Figures recently released by ABC reveal what must be alarming statistics for the owners and employers of our national newspapers - Every national loses print sales in March - and doubtless there will be much agonising over the factors that have contributed to this decline.
I have been reading UK national and Scottish newspapers for almost 70 years now - I came from a generation that regarded newspapers as an indispensable part of life, and lest anyone think this was a middle class or income related value, let me say that I was brought up in grinding poverty in an east end Glasgow tenement by a widowed mother on a tiny income (when she had one at all) who was dependent on state benefit in the pre-welfare state era. Despite this, we had one daily and one evening paper every day for six days, and at least three Sunday newspapers. We would almost have rather not eaten than be deprived of newspapers, and we had radio, which meant the BBC, and equally vital part of our life - free libraries and the cheap, fleapit cinemas.
Were we exceptional? No - we were typical, in our reading, radio and cinema-going habits, of at least a large minority of the working class, and perhaps even a majority.
By and large, I have maintained most of this media consumption: I am a cineaste, but the cinema going went to the wall a long time ago - after my courting days - to be replaced by television and much later by the video cassette, then the DVD and the computer.
Newspapers matter fundamentally to me, and television matters too, as a window on the world, in the way that cinema newsreels and documentaries mattered in the past.
But I have also become a creature of the electronic age that I have lived to see. I was going to say that it is something that was unimaginable to someone of my generation, but as a science fiction buff from the age of six or thereabouts, I did imagine it, and couldn’t wait for it to materialise. It has fulfilled my wildest dreams, but it also has delivered the potential to fulfil my worst nightmares.
One of those nightmares is the destruction of print journalism - of newspapers and magazines and periodicals devoted to current affairs and the exploration of ideas.
I have already written a fair amount about newspapers and journalism in my blog, but it was mainly in a political context - Journalism and standards - Moridura blog -but I want to revisit some of my core concerns, so bear with me if I am repeating themes and ideas …
The concern of over circulation decline must have resulted in much analysis and soul-searching among newspaper proprietors and journalists over the causes of the decline, ranging from the hard bottom-line, commercial analysis to more high-minded introspection. The News International/News Corp earthquake has left many reeling at the scale and speed of the destruction of reputations and livelihoods, but may also have caused much self-delusion and denial about the causes, and where the future may lie.
The ABC March 2011 figures tell a bleak story, ranging from -27.51% to -0.71%. The average circulation decline percentage change, year on year are as follow.
(N.B. Check ABC source figures for any reuse, and for additional notes and qualifications: these are my abstracts, and may contain errors.)
15 National dailies - decline league table
Daily Star 699,216 -15.45%
The Times 446,109 -11.21%
Racing Post 61,588 -9.87%
The Herald 50,621 -8.92%
The Daily Telegraph 626,416 -8.78%
The Scotsman 41,806 -8.16%
The Guardian 261,116 -7.75%
Daily Mirror 1,155,895 -7.31%
Daily Express 620,616 -7.13%
The Sun 2,817,857 -6.24%
Daily Record 312,655 -6.21%
Financial Times 381,658 -4.89%
Daily Mail 2,039,731 -2.05%
The Independent 181,934 -1.20%
The i 171,415 n/a - new newspaper
14 National Sundays - decline league table
Sunday Herald 31,123 -27.51%
Daily Star Sunday 293,489 -14.14%
The Observer 296,023 -10.70%
The People 477,815 -10.21%
News of the World 2,664,363 -8.27%
Sunday Mail 365,923 -8.29%
Sunday Mirror 1,063,096 -7.3%
The Sunday Times 1,031,727 -7.19%
Sunday Express 533,192 -6.46%
Sunday Post 312,188 -7.38%
The Sunday Telegraph 481,941 -5.46%
Scotland on Sunday 56,466 -3.57%
The Mail on Sunday 1,888,040 -3.31%
Independent on Sunday 153,183 -0.71%
These figures shock and surprise me to some degree. The population of Scotland is around 5.2m, of which I reckon about a quarter are under 16, leaving an adult population somewhere over 4.1m. The population per household has dropped in recent year, so taking as a very rough guess two adults per household reading the same paper, and leaving out the number of readers under 16, this gives a potential readership of around 2m.
(My figures are crude: doubtless the newspapers themselves have detailed demographic analyses to fuel their well-founded panic.)
This means that on the last circulation figures, the two ‘quality’ Scottish dailies between them are reaching (i.e. each edition read by two people) 50,621 + 41,806 = 92,427 x 2 = 184,854 readers. That represents just over 1 in 22 of the adult population, with the Herald reaching about 1 in 40 and the Scotsman about 1 in 49.
This does rather lead me to the question - Why the **** do I bother about what these two newspapers say about Scottish politics?
Of course, one can argue that they are reaching the top 2.0/2.5% of the population - the movers and shakers - but what evidence is there for this? And if they are, what does it matter, since it’s the opinions and perceptions of the majority of the voters that determine elections, and will determine the referendum outcome?
The statistics for the Sunday Herald (31,123) and Scotland on Sunday (56,466) give no comfort either. In fact, rather than just courting Rupert Murdoch, Alex Salmond should have been offering Oor Wullie a new bucket, and trying to get an invite from the Broons to Glebe Street and the but-and-ben, since the Sunday Post has a circulation of 312,188, although it has a very much wider reach than just Scotland.
THE CAUSES OF CIRCULATION DECLINE
The reasons for this catastrophic decline in newspaper circulation has some obvious contributory causes - television, new media, social media, the computer, the smartphone - but why then does The Independent buck the trend by a single figure decline?
The Independent 181,934 -1.20%
The i 171,415 - a completely new newspaper and format
Independent on Sunday 153,183 -0.71%
Well, the answer may have some relevance for Scotland, (it certainly has relevance for all national newspapers)but since both The Independent and The i behave as if Scotland doesn’t exist most of the time (although they are occasionally catalysed by negative or trivial stories) they don’t appear to matter too much to Scottish politics.
But I think that for The Herald and The Scotsman, there is another significant contributory reason - lazy, derivative, cut-and-paste, CTRL-C journalism.
When did either of these newspapers last break a significant story that was not already in the public domain and had legs because of the work of better journalists?
Why has there been no coverage worth a light of what Glasgow City Council has done to the people and small businesses of Dalmarnock in the name of urban regeneration and the Commonwealth Games?
Why do the journalists of both papers think that hanging around the law courts, reading press releases and spin documents from political parties and municipal councils constitutes real journalism?
The way both papers treated the Souter knighthood story is utterly typical. They reacted to Cathy Jamieson’s story - and presumably a Scottish Labour press release - and regurgitated the blindingly obvious. but failed to ask any of the real questions that should be asked.
I have asked some of the relevant questions, and I have more, which the SNP - my party - may or may not welcome. Why can’t journalists ask them - or perhaps why won’t they ask them?
Would they call the whole rotten honours system and the very nature of our United Kingdom’s power structure and patronage into question?
As Private Eye might say - I think we should be told …