Is Scottish politics a turn off for readers?

The Scottish National Party is celebrating the end of its first year in office as the minority governing party in the uber-expensive, but well-appointed Holyrood Parliament in Edinburgh; the Scottish press is covering the celebrations, but uncomfortably so.

The government has survived when it might have been defeated on a confidence vote by a coalition of the opposition parties, which all support the Union, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Tories.

Its minority status has enabled the SNP to put into ‘Park and Ride’some of the more awkward commitments in its manifesto. SNP leader Alex Salmond himself is gathering respect from the business community.

Support for independence is still below 30 per cent, but there is not much doubt that the SNP would win seats from a discredited Labour Party in any early Scottish election.

The success of the SNP in its first year is at odds with the performance of the Scottish press over the same period, however – the papers have done more for politics than politics has done for the papers.

Heavyweights

This is especially true of the Scottish heavyweight titles: The Scotsman, published in Edinburgh and the flagship of Johnston Press, and The Herald, published in Glasgow by a wholly-owned subsidiary of the US Gannet group.

Both these papers give extensive coverage to Holyrood and Scottish politics, not formally backing the SNP, but favourable to more power for Scotland.

They have not been rewarded by the punters for this stance. Between April 2007 and April 2008 their ABC circulations fell seven per cent and six per cent, to 52,000 and 66,000 respectively. Johnston is bringing in a significant Malaysian minority shareholder and offering existing investors a deeply discounted rights issue. Meanwhile, up to 20 journalists are facing redundancy in Glasgow.

The story is similar with the sister Sunday titles. Between April 2007 and April 2008 sales of the Sunday Herald fell by a steep 13 per cent, and by 4 per cent for Scotland on Sunday to 48,000 and 67,000.

Meanwhile, sales of the UK nationals in Scotland are doing, relatively, much better.The Daily Mail was down only one per cent between March 2007 and March 2008 and, at 126,000, sold more than The Scotsman and The Herald combined.

The Sun lost two per cent, to 398,000, in March with the Record at 365,000, a satisfactory lead for The Sun. In April, however, the Record recovered to 396,000. Historically, the Record has been sympathetic to the Labour Party.

Most of the UK nationals did better in the Scottish market than they did in the UK overall, although from low bases: The Times was stable at 28,000; The Daily Telegraph was up one per cent at 23,000; The Guardian was up three per cent at 16,000; The Sunday Times, at 67,000, was down four per cent, but sold more than either The Sunday Herald or Scotland on Sunday, and more than the combined sales in Scotland of The Independent on Sunday, The Observer and The Sunday Telegraph.

There is some good news out of Scotland. The Herald and The Scotsman see themselves as Scottish national titles. The two regional dailies, The Press and Journal out of Aberdeen and The Courier and Advertiser, both now owned by DC Thomson in Dundee, only cover 20 per cent or so of the country. But separately, they sell more than The Scotsman or The Herald, validating their dedication to reporting almost anything that twitches in their multi-edition zones.

Pointers

From all this, it is safe to conclude that the UK nationals are doing better in Scotland than in the UK as a whole, and the Scottish nationals are doing less well than the UK nationals in Scotland itself. Why this should be so is more tentative, but there are some pointers.

The Murdoch papers are clearly benefiting from their £600m investment in new presses.

In addition, the UK nationals, pro rata, spend more on promotion than the locals in Scotland.

It should not be that the Edinburgh-Glasgow caber throwers get punished for too much politics; but they can be wonkish. Perhaps the zeitgeist in middle-class Scotland is not so very different from the Home Counties.

I can get up to 15 morning daily newspapers delivered to my door in rural Perthshire by 7.30am (courtesy of Adam Boyd newsagents). By this time next year I expect there still to be 15 available, unless Trinity decides to absorb the ‘Scottish” Daily Mirror into its stable mate, the Daily Record.

But it will remain a difficult year in Scotland for advertising revenue and circulation sales. There is bound to be further cost-cutting, internecine competition, and more emphasis on market share and internet hits.

In all this, and despite the likely continued drift towards greater powers for Holyrood, it is the colonists, the Murdoch and Rothermere titles, which could perform best again.

So maybe the issue is not politics, stupid; maybe it is just newspapers.

Roger Nicholson divides his time between Scotland and London and is a former managing director of Thomson Regional Newspapers

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