Craig McGill: Media future is there for the taking

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LIFE’S tough in the media now but conference is told there are reasons for optimism, writes Craig McGill

When asked about the future of news and media in Scotland, many of those working within the industry will paint a picture of doom and gloom. But there was a spirit of optimism at the Scotsman Conferences’ Future of Media event with an atmosphere more akin to the positivity of events such as SXSW – the annual music, film and interactive media showcase held in Austin, Texas – than a wake for an industry thought to be on its last legs.

Moray Macdonald, Scottish managing director of event sponsor Weber Shandwick, kicked off proceedings by attempting to answer the question of “What is media?” in 2013. 

Yes, he told the packed room of 120 delegates, online is the growing future but formats such as TV are still pulling in high audience figures and while the channel of consumption might change, people are still consuming content.

Even in the area of print – often said to be doomed within a decade – Macdonald repeated there was still a hunger for fresh content, something backed up by Yes Scotland head of digital Stewart Kirkpatrick, who noted: “The majority of stuff people talk about online originated in a newspaper or news website. It starts the conversation.”

Macdonald referenced the New York Times as a model for the future. When it set up its internet paywall, traffic initially dropped. However, the fall in traffic was outstripped by a 13 per cent rise in digital subscriptions, with circulation revenue now greater than advertising revenue.

He also touched on ideas such as how storytelling is now democractised – citing the 1,000 extra online reporters US business publisher Forbes now has – while content too has developed more layers, as text stories now include audio, video and infographics. In closing, Macdonald showed brands will not only be broadcasters but will create, curate and share content that in terms of quality will compete with established news brands, leading to more choice for readers and more intense competition for traditional news organisations.

The Scotsman columnist Joyce McMillan pointed out that despite changing platforms, the role of the journalist was still the same: holding people to account.

Looking to the future, she wondered what impact there would be on individuals and communities when not everyone sees the same front page as the technology and computer algorithms tailor the news we see based on our individual preferences.

As the audience and those following the #scotmedia hashtag on Twitter mulled this over, media commentator Pat Kane took to the stage to ask how might this brave new world of journalism be funded not only in the future but also in an independent Scotland. For Kane, the future is awash with opportunities in the media – except in newspaper publishing – and he put forward a number of funding models to back the news delivery model. He felt the collective media – including bloggers, citizen journalists and everyone else in the field – could flourish in an independent Scotland and make shows of quality such as Mad Men and Borgen.

There was more positivity later in the event as Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield revealed The Scotsman’s plans for a Scotsman TV and how journalists were being kitted out with the latest in storytelling and news-gathering tools. Highfield said Johnston Press is to start offering marketing services to local businesses, claiming news distributors such as The Scotsman only survive for hundreds of years by adapting.

Both Highfield and STV’s Elizabeth Partyka talked about the need to adapt to new platforms and opportunities with more than 50 per cent of engagement with STV coming via mobile devices.

Scottish Media Academy director Courtnay McLeod suggested that media education should not only be for those wishing to be journalists, but for everyone – as a way of futureproofing how people use and engage with content.

As the media industry tries to grapple with so much seismic change – from regulation of a mainstream press with falling circulations, to the challenge of monetising online journalism – delegates were left in no doubt about the challenges that lie ahead. But for those who choose to grab the bull by its horns, the rewards it would seem are plentiful.

• Craig McGill is Weber Shandwick’s digital strategist, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland