NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY
HL Mencken, the American iconoclast, said the relationship between journalists and politicians should be similar to that between a dog and a lamppost.
I have to admit at the outset that, in a number of cases, I would not let my relationship go that far. I think you all know which politicians I am referring to here.
It came as no surprise to me therefore that a move to have the Scottish Parliament recognise the vital role that local newspapers have played in keeping people informed during the COVID-19 pandemic scraped through Holyrood by just one single, solitary vote.
MSPs were asked if they believe “that a vibrant newspaper sector is essential for democracy” and to call on the Scottish Government “to ensure that its advertising budget spend is invested in a way that supports innovative journalism and regional and local news, and to extend business rates relief to newspapers during 2021-22.”
Predictably, the move to accept newspapers and the journalists who work for them as a vital tool of democracy came from an ex-journalist, Graham Simpson, a poacher turned gamekeeper, whose loyalty now lies with the Conservative Party.
Graham, one could say, has moved from a sinking ship to a lifeboat. The Tory party might just survive, but newspapers, especially local newspapers, are unlikely to keep their heads above water for much longer.
The mastheads of some of them have already sunk beneath the waves, having failed to be able to continue to keep the presses rolling in the face of the withdrawal of government and local council advertising revenue and the public’s shift to digital platforms such as this one, The Dumbarton Democrat,
Property and recruitment advertising and even the staple births, deaths and marriages family announcements have almost all moved on-line.
Graham Simpson told his fellow MSPs: “I open the debate with a heavy heart. The industry in which I started my career many years ago as a raw teenager is a very different beast now. Then, and for a good while after that, local papers were the lifeblood of a community. They were respected and feared in equal measure, and, if they were doing their job properly, the people fearing them could well be politicians.
“I have always felt strongly that a vibrant newspaper sector is essential for democracy and a vital part of a system that holds those in power to account. A bad headline in your local paper could be enough to finish a career, and a series of bad headlines would definitely be enough.
“I found myself on the other side of the tracks when I was elected as a councillor in 2007. Even then, my local paper carried some weight. The East Kilbride News had an office in the town, and you could pop in and have a chat or give them quotes and tip-offs. Reporters knew the town and there were several of them. Then things changed.
“Newspaper companies were up against falling sales and they started to centralise. The local paper office closed, reporters and sub-editors were sent to Hamilton, and from Hamilton they moved to Glasgow. Sales have continued to fall, advertising revenue has plummeted and staffing numbers have been cut.”
At this point I thought of the Reporter, the Lennox Herald, and the Helensburgh Advertiser, all of which are struggling as part of large newspaper groups which neither know much or care much about West Dunbartonshire.
Graham Simpson said: “Most members will have seen their local paper close, amalgamate or move, and we are all the losers. For democracy to thrive, it needs checks and balances—that debate is very much a live one in Scotland right now. A vibrant press is one of those checks, and we must all be prepared to be subject to the full glare of publicity, both good and bad.
“In my view, newspapers do a different, usually better job of exposing things than other forms of media. If they die, so does democracy. According to the industry magazine, Press Gazette, the total net loss of local newspapers across the United Kingdom from 2005 until August last year was 265, and 33 local titles had closed since the start of 2019.
“The year 2005 was considered by many to be the high-water mark of print newspaper profitability in the UK. The pandemic has made a bad situation worse, but, to be fair, I note that Kate Forbes [the SNP government Finance Secretary], right,helped out by approving £3.4 million of public sector advertising in news publishing.
“Emergency Covid legislation granted business rates relief to tourism, retail and hospitality, but it took an amendment from Murdo Fraser [Conservative] to include news publishers in that scheme. The Scottish National Party was against the move. Why? That relief and the advertising are due to end next month.”
John Mason, an SNP MSP whose constituency does not have the benefit of its own local newspaper, interjected: “Graham Simpson describes the problems that the newspaper sector faces, but does he think the situation is recoverable? The tourism sector is recoverable; can newspapers survive?”
They could, said Simpson – but they would need some help, and it appeared that would not be forthcoming while the SNP held power in Scotland.
Simpson said: “Kate Forbes has, so far, rejected calls to extend the relief for this vital sector, which is the reason why we are having this debate when we should not be having it.
“Here are some facts. Despite Government advertising support, regional news brands lost 35 per cent of their advertising revenue in 2020.
“The point about advertising is addressed in Labour’s helpful amendment, which the Conservatives will support.”
This amendment from Claire Baker MSP was in support of financial assistance from government for the newspaper industry.
Graham Simpson added: “Revenues are expected to fall by a further 18.7 per cent in the first quarter of this year, and they are expected to recover by only 12 per cent this year even if we get out of lockdown fast.
“The Scottish economy relies heavily on retail and hospitality, but those sectors have both been severely affected by lockdown, which has had a knock-on effect on advertising and marketing.
“Rates exemptions are being extended for those areas but not for news publishing, which relies on them.
“The advertising package that was agreed with the Scottish Government last April helped to cover that collapse, but the commitment to continue to invest in Scottish news publishers has not been renewed.
“By contrast, the UK Government’s initial package of £35 million has been extended twice, by £15 million and by £22 million, to a total of £77 million.
“It is not a one-way street. Analysis has demonstrated the effectiveness of advertising in Scottish news brands, and it is clear that supporting news publishing helps the Scottish Government to reach wide audiences—in particular, the elderly and those who live in areas with poor connectivity.
“Emergency rates relief has been extended for news publishers in Northern Ireland, and most European countries have some support in place.
“For example, Denmark has provided €24 million, Lithuania and Estonia have subsidised home delivery and France is putting in €337 million over two years.
“Small publishers are being disproportionately affected. The 150-year-old Nairnshire Telegraph was forced to stop publishing at Christmas and the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press suspended publication, although it has since restarted.
“A study of Scottish news publishing in May 2016 found that, at that point, the industry directly employed over 3,000 people, many of them highly qualified and creative. It supported over 4,300 Scottish jobs and created £214 million of annual income.
“However, digital audiences have grown considerably while the numbers of those who read actual papers have fallen off, so revenue is a real issue.”
The Dumbarton Democrat, for example, has hundreds of visitors to its website every day of the week 24/7 while at weekly newspaper, which appear just once a week, sales have now sunk to a inconceivable depths returning figures which no one would ever have believed last century.
Reporter and Advertiser staff working in the community – Ann McKay, Carol Campbell and Alison Fraser
Like it or not, the beginning of the end of local newspapers came about in tandem with the opening of the Scottish Parliament and the decisions made at Holyrood and town halls across Scotland to put public notices and other government advertising on-line, including recruitment advertising.
Ten years ago, pleaded personally with the then SNP Enterprise Minister Jim Mather not to go down that road, but my request which was backed at a meeting in Glasgow by local newspaper executives from across Scotland was ignored.
Graham Simpson said: “What we are calling for today is something that will buy the industry some time. The Scottish Government has a short-life working group on public-interest journalism.
“That is great if the Government means it, but its rather churlish amendment suggests otherwise, and we will not be supporting that. Members of the working group support extending non-domestic rates relief for news publishers.
“Scotland has produced some of the finest journalists in the world, and most of them started on local papers. Let us do what we can to maintain that tradition.”
The Minister for Trade, Innovation and Public Finance, Ivan McKee, said the debate “demonstrates the continuing importance of Scotland’s newspapers,” but it was obvious from what followed he didn’t mean a word of it.
It was just tedious waffle and weasel words designed to deflect the fact that if newspapers were looking for financial support then none would be forthcoming from the SNP government.
His “I love you darling, but … ” contribution began: “Across the country, newspapers report, record and reflect life in Scotland. An independent media is central to a strong democracy, informing readers and holding those in power to account. Local newspapers, in particular, are important.
“They report news that might affect us more directly than national events, and they champion issues and causes, including local democracy, that are not necessarily covered by national newspapers. They are especially valuable just now in informing communities about local restrictions.
“he Scottish Government recognised the impact of the pandemic on the newspaper industry and acted swiftly.
“In May 2020, we invested £3 million in an advertising press partnership to make sure that vital information about the pandemic was available.
[The Dumbarton Democrat received none of that money, nor did we ask for it, and the advertising and information we printed about the pandemic was free as is the public access to our website. In fact, our access to information is restricted by the SNP administration at the Council and none of the SNP’s elected representatives, at any level, will answer any of the questions we ask them in the public interest and in the spirit of democratic custom and practice.]
“That was focused heavily on local newspapers, reflecting their relevance to people who continue to rely on them for exactly that kind of information.
“The importance of community and of place is central to the Scottish Government’s agenda, and the importance of local press serving local communities is a key aspect of that.
“We see advertising support as being the most effective way to direct resources into the sector. It enables support to be targeted more effectively at where it is needed most, particularly those local newspapers that are the main focus of this debate.
“Since the pandemic began, ministers and officials have had an on-going dialogue with the Scottish Newspaper Society, which has helped us to ensure that our advertising investment is targeted where it can be most effective.
“We have not yet made any decisions about our approach to press advertising in the next financial year, but we will continue to engage with the SNS and with others including the National Union of Journalists, which has recently made known its perspective on the issue.
“However, we must recognise that print newspapers are no longer the primary source of news for many people, particularly younger people. The newspaper industry has faced severe challenges for a number of years. In particular, the availability—often free—of online content means that many people now turn to the internet as their first source of news and information.
“The trend towards digitisation is prevalent across society and has accelerated as a consequence of the pandemic. In this aspect of our lives, as in many others, digitisation offers great opportunities as well as challenges.
“Newspapers seek to take advantage of the opportunities by publishing online in addition to producing printed copy and by seeking new ways to engage with their readers through digital means.
“Those factors have led to declines in newspaper circulation and advertising revenue. It is difficult to monetise online content, especially when people have come to expect to access content without paying for it. We can access information on any topic from virtually any source at the click of a mouse.
Keeping it local – Lennox Herald editor Bill Heaney with Rangers’ Ally McCoist and Celtic’s Murdo MacLeod
“There is also a trend towards hyper-local online news platforms that reflect the interests of local communities in a way that is not always possible through local newspapers. Those long-term trends have been accelerated by the pandemic, both directly and indirectly. In the past few years, several newspapers, including a number of local titles, have closed permanently and jobs have been lost.
“Broader issues must be considered if the newspaper industry is to reverse recent downward trends. The impact of tech giants such as Google and Facebook must be considered, particularly in how they use content that is produced by newspapers.
“We must think about how we can support people, especially young people, to be informed and critical readers, so that they can weigh up and evaluate the quality of information that they get from various sources.
“One way to address those challenges is to support public interest journalism, however it is delivered. Therefore, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture [Fiona Hyslop] has established a short-life working group to consider the future of public-interest journalism. It is expected to make recommendations by the end of the summer, and I hope that those will form the basis of sustainable public-interest journalism in Scotland.
“This is an important debate, but it must not mask the long-term issues that the newspaper industry faces. It is by addressing those challenges that we can build a thriving and sustainable newspaper sector.
“The Scottish Government did not support the introduction of non-domestic rates relief for the newspaper industry, as we believe that such relief is a blunt tool that does not provide targeted support to those that need it most, including local newspapers, and that it might provide the biggest benefit to those that need it least.
“I note that the NUJ has called for support to go only to employers that are investing in their productions and not to those that are making redundancies, cutting pay, curtailing front-line journalistic roles, paying executive bonuses or blocking trade union organisation. Blanket rates relief would not meet the NUJ’s criteria for protecting journalism.
“We are in the middle of our annual Scottish budget process, which offers Opposition parties and all members across the chamber the opportunity to engage with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and bring forward proposals for revenue and spend.
“They can identify where best to allocate public funds and where the priorities should lie in providing support or reliefs from taxation for particular sectors. The budget process enables us to make those decisions, taking into account all competing factors and assessing priorities across the full range of Scottish Government expenditure and revenue-raising priorities.
“I encourage Opposition parties to make use of that process by bringing forward their priorities, including those that have been discussed in this debate, so that they can be considered as part of that process.”
Labour’s Claire Baker disagreed. She said: “A free press is vital to democracy, and a private newspaper sector is an important part of that. It has a role in holding Government and all those in public office to account as well as in providing information and opinion to its readership.
“Recent decades have seen huge changes in how the press operates as sales of physical newspapers have fallen and use of online news has increased vastly. The fall in printed publications has meant that advertising spend has reduced, alongside circulation figures. We have also seen the proliferation of fake news, misinformation and propaganda. Now, more than ever, people are looking to trusted news sources for information that they can rely on.
“Local newspapers are also part of our communities and our culture. Many are historically part of their communities and provide local employment. News publishers help local businesses market their goods and services and they advertise many local jobs. Our local press is among the most trusted of the news and information sources that we have. We must support it in continuing to deliver for our communities, not undermine it by removing support and relief at this critical point.”
She added: “Labour supports the continuation of business rates relief for newspapers. The case for support was made last year, and the argument was won when the Scottish Government agreed to provide relief in the same way that it has provided relief to other sectors. It now needs to extend that relief, in the same way that it has done so for those other sectors.
“The Labour amendment seeks to highlight the importance of regional and local news and innovative journalism, and the benefit of supporting the sector, including through the investment of the Scottish Government’s advertising budget.”
LibDem Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “I pay tribute to the local press in our nation for its invaluable contribution not just during the Covid-19 emergency, but for generations beforehand.
“During the past year, local news outlets have proved critical. Not only do they keep people informed about what is going on locally and give an important local perspective on national issues, but they give our communities a much-needed link at a time when tens of thousands of us have never felt so isolated and alone.
“In addition to providing such key public service information, local newspapers have been vital in increasing access to community projects. That has allowed thousands of vulnerable people to receive help from within their local communities in a range of ways, whether that is receiving a hot meal or groceries or even just having a friendly chat.
“Like the rest of us, the local news sector has had to adapt to a new way of working—a new reality. It has managed to do so while continuing to fully embrace its role in providing important information to the communities that it serves.
“It is in part because of its importance to local communities that the newspaper sector plays such an important role in our democracy. A free and vibrant press is one of the most widely acknowledged hallmarks of a functioning democracy.
“Throughout the pandemic, local news sources have been some of the most valuable and trusted sources of information in our communities. In a world of fake news and misinformation, the local press stands true.
“The pandemic has taken so much from our society already, so let us not allow it to threaten one of the tenets of our national democracy and local communities.”
Dumbarton-educated Patrick Harvie, joint leader of the Green Party, said: “I see no evidence that the Scottish Government has conducted any kind of reaching out or consensus building in preparation for its decision to remove newspapers from that rates relief.
Conservative Maurice Golden said the newspaper industry is in crisis. He added: “The director of the Scottish Newspaper Society [John MacLellan] could not have been clearer about the SNP’s plan to withdraw support, by saying: ‘There is no doubt this creates an immediate crisis for Scottish journalism’.
“Crisis” is the right word, because the newspaper industry in Scotland is on its knees. Advertising revenue crashed by 35 per cent last year—a catastrophe for an industry that is so heavily reliant on advertising for its income.
“This debate is not about party politics; it is about saving jobs and protecting a vital part of our democracy. I am simply asking the SNP to do the right thing.”
The Lennox Herald editorial staff, which has now been cut to four, when the company had a local office in Dumbarton High Street and the circulation topped 14,000.