Newspapers that have refused to give their content away for free are reaping the rewards

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 11 September 2018 in Comment

Those who have embraced the digital revolution probably won’t notice the difference as Sunday Herald is replaced by a seven-day Herald

British newspapers - Image credit: PA Images

The demise of the Sunday Herald has been seen by some as another nail in the coffin for Scottish journalism, but the conversion of stablemates The Herald and The National into seven-day operations demonstrates that, as ever, when one door closes another opens.

Bitter nationalists who knifed one of their few critical friends over a picture of a unionist counter protest at an independence rally will no doubt be dancing on the Sunday Herald’s grave.

This includes Alex Salmond, who said he cancelled his subscription over the paper’s “truly bizarre” coverage.

They will now retreat further into their increasingly eccentric echo chamber to spin MI5 conspiracy theories while occasionally turning for affirmation to The National, which remains a reasonably grounded counterpoint to the right-wing unionist press but has a tough job ahead walking the tightrope between Salmond’s lawyers and Nicola Sturgeon’s government.

Others fear the loss of the Sunday Herald brand will deprive Scotland of a unique voice, but most of the journalists who weren’t already working between the two titles will be retained on The Herald on Sunday and they will still be free to pursue whatever stories and features cross their desks.

Those who believe The Herald is a mouthpiece for the Scottish business establishment ignore some of the radical journalism it pursues six days a week without fear or favour, particularly David Leask’s relentless focus on Scottish business links to international money laundering.

Those that have already embraced the digital revolution probably won’t notice the difference as Sunday Herald content is already uploaded on the heraldscotland.com website with no brand differentiation.

Like most Scottish news sites, heraldscotland.com remains a clunky beast with banner ads and pop-ups, but it is the price they currently have to pay for revenue, much of which is still being used to pay for dead trees and delivery vans.

However, the digital tipping point can already be seen at The New York Times, which turned a $21m profit last quarter as digital subscriptions outstripped the decline in advertising revenue.

And The Times and Sunday Times in the UK recorded its most successful year since introducing a paywall in 2010 with 255,000 digital subscribers – outnumbering print subscribers for the first time.

Quite simply, people are willing to pay for well-resourced journalism again, and those that have refused to compromise by not giving their content away for free are reaping the rewards.

When the printing press was invented, any lunatic could stand on a street corner handing out pamphlets full of superstition, but the first newspaper publishers recognised that people will pay for well-researched facts.

Digital has its drawbacks. I had a conversation with one recent convert to public relations who lamented the rise of ‘deepfake’, questioning how any journalist can faithfully report the news when faced with technology which can digitally render faces to create all manner of unsavoury fake content, from celebrity porn to reactionary speeches.

However, thirteen-year-olds are already being taught how to differentiate between fake news and factual content in modern studies, and will probably laugh at our generation being taken in by doctored content in the way we mock American bumpkins who thought the Martians were invading when Orson Wells was on the wireless.

Journalists will beat the fakers and the haters by doing what they have always done − turn up at events, talk to people, write down what was said, build a credible portfolio, and use it to challenge anyone who calls you a liar, be it a Nat, Yoon, Brexiteer, Bremoaner or Bot.

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