Scottish democracy needs a vibrant, diverse media

by Paul Holleran, Scottish Organiser National Union of Journalists • A major measure of any functioning democracy is the state of its media and anyone looking closely at the newspaper and broadcasting industry in this country would be rightly concerned about the current position of the fourth estate in particular.

Despite the efforts of the Scottish Newspaper Society to talk up the industry and minimise the facts about the downward spiral of sales and advertising revenues, we continue to see job cuts impacting on journalism across the country.

There are less than half the number of journalists in newsrooms of the Scottish indigenous broadsheets compared to ten years ago, while daily tabloids have also suffered from budgets being slashed.

And at this time, only weeks after the Scottish parliamentary elections, many local newspaper offices around Scotland are the focus of disputes and industrial action ballots as members fight for better staffing levels and to protect hard won terms and conditions.

Amazingly as redundancies are decimating journalist posts, Newsquest Media Group are trying to cut sick pay entitlement and impose an extra two and half hours a week, while reducing holidays too.

The Johnston Press experiment known as “Newsroom of the Future” has cut dozens of jobs and union members this week have refused to accept the newly established staffing levels as being unsustainable.

Unsustainable for the reasons of their health and safety, because of the increased stress of dealing with newly set workloads for each individual. The other stressor for journalists is the negative impact on the local identity of the titles because of the use of much more generic feature copy used across many titles to help compensate for lost jobs.

The refusal of companies like Newsquest to absorb falling profits without slashing budgets is leading to the demise of great Scottish titles such as The Herald and its sister titles.

Hopefully the management regime at Newsquest in Scotland will be successful in growing advertising and circulation revenues as they did in running Clyde & Forth Publishing in recent years. However their London bosses appear more keen to follow in the footsteps of their US parent company Gannett and cut jobs rather than pursue growth to meet budgets.

Let’s be blunt, the positivity being pushed by the SNS and employers is correct in that the papers are still very profitable for their owners, but not pulling in as much dosh as they used to. That is may be the crux of the matter. How much money do papers have to make to encourage publishers to keep them alive?

At a public meeting a couple of years ago in Glasgow, organised by the NUJ and Co-Operative movement, the importance of press ownership was discussed. Paul Wood Managing Director at The West Highland Free Press told the captive audience that his company set a minimum target of 1 per cent profit per annum. Their view was that their title was a community asset, a cornerstone of their local democracy and not just about coin.

The NUJ Scottish Executive Council will be placing this issue firmly on it’s agenda for the next few years, with a view to exploring different models for press ownership and development in this country.

We have recently engaged with Robert McChesney, an American professor who specialises in the history and political economy of communication and the role the media plays in democratic and capitalist societies. Further discussion is planned with this founder of Free Press, a US media reform organisation and supporter of community owned media.

A real enigma facing the industry which is also having a major impact on staff, is the demand to not only to fill the pages of the print copies but the online editions of each title.

The inability of most publishers to establish an alternative and comparable revenue line by this route is a tragedy which is further undermining the industry. A lack of innovative ideas to attract advertisers and more readers has plagued print media despite much effort but not enough smart thinking.

The additional workload is obviously another obstacle facing journalists trying to produce the best product every day and week with a diminishing pool of resources.

It is clear that the numbers of journalists in each newsroom cannot be reduced any further without causing very serious damage to the substance of the titles and the health of staff.

The very existence of some local newspapers is at risk and steps need to be taken at government level to put in place mechanisms to protect all titles from closure.

It remains to be seen if there is anything resembling a considerable impact for print media through the recent announcement in the Westminster White Paper on BBC Charter Renewal. Certainly there could be opportunities for young people taking on Modern Apprenticeships ni partnership between local papers and BBC stations. However staff working at BBC Scotland are more interested in how much extra resources will be provided as part of the licence fee agreement.

The NUJ submitted proposals putting forward arguments for an expanded news service across Scotland, including a new radio station to supplement Radio Scotland. The injection of money would lead to growth in news and current affairs, but also increased drama and music from Scottish writers and artistes.

The boost to Scottish culture and entertainments industries would be invaluable on many fronts, with a “made in Scotland” stamp on the new productions. However following another pathetic licence fee settlement negotiated between Westminster and BBC senior people, we were told “the Nations and regions will be getting nothing extra”.

Fortunately the Scottish Government, in partnership with Welsh and Northern Irish politicians lobbied ferociously for a better deal. We now wait in hope and expectation for the details of that new investment.

An expansion of journalistic jobs across BBC Scotland and a possible “Scottish Six” providing a new perspective on news and current affairs would be a great boost.

Although the amount of investment will not be anywhere need what was on the shopping list it will be a shot in the arm for a beleaguered industry. Broadcasting in Scotland should continue to be in a reasonably healthy condition particularly if STV plough on with their steady growth, developing further with stability and innovation the keywords.

There is still a lot of quality in the Scottish media but it is being undermined, thereby reducing the ability to make profits, and of course substantial amounts of those profits should be reinvested in a qualitative fashion.

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