Frank O’Donnell: Protecting The Scotsman’s independence is paramount

Alex Salmond has said that The Scotsman should have a 'pro-Scottish' agenda
Alex Salmond has said that The Scotsman should have a 'pro-Scottish' agenda
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Narrow political agendas will harm The Scotsman, a trusted brand with a loyal, intelligent audience says Editor Frank O’Donnell

Just like Alex Salmond, I too began my working life as a delivery boy for Edinburgh’s city newspaper. After school I crossed to Ross’s newsagent on the corner of Roseneath Terrace to collect the City Final editions of the Edinburgh Evening News.

Unlike Alex I was never given the grand title of ‘junior agent’. Oblivious to this, I raced up and down the stairs of the tenement flats, letterboxes snapping shut behind me, secretly trying to beat my quickest delivery time. Ronnie Corbett’s mum was a regular reader.

Along the way I read the broadsheet front and back page, fascinated by both in equal measure.

Later, I delivered The Scotsman and the ink somehow seeped into my blood. I loved it and it is one of the reasons I became a journalist.

Thirty five years on and the newspaper delivery staff are now running the shop. And the challenges are bigger than ever.

Mr Salmond has joined forces with Norwegian activist investor Christen Ager-Hanssen in a bid to topple the board of Johnston Press, which owns The Scotsman, as well as the i and the Yorkshire Post.

The former First Minister - part of a so-called ‘dream team’ - has gained a lot of headlines over the last 24 hours by attacking Johnston Press and in particular The Scotsman.

I am not a spokesman for Johnston Press, but I can’t allow an ill-informed attack on The Scotsman to go unchallenged.

READ MORE: Alex Salmond joins bid to take control of Johnston Press group

For those who missed it, Mr Salmond said the title is now “largely irrelevant” and that he would restore pride and confidence through a “pro-Scottish” agenda.

And this is where his logic starts to unravel. Mr Salmond doesn’t appear to have read the title much recently, or perhaps he has a very different definition of pro-Scottish and relevance.

When I began this role in April I set out an aggressively pro-Scottish strategy.

Our manifesto, outlined as part of the general election, specifically underlines our unrelenting commitment to Scottish news.

We also said that we would no longer support any political party at a future referendum or election, a pledge we upheld in June and will continue to do so.

Put simply, we don’t think along party political lines, but rather what is best for Scotland. Why? Because we trust the intelligence of our readers and they have backed us in this position.

Our election manifesto said: “There is only one edition of The Scotsman. You will not find a London version with a different editorial stance, or different stories on the front page.

“We are based in Scotland, with reporters across our key regions and the rest of the UK. Our journalists and editors live and work here, raise their families here and care deeply about the future of this great country. We pledge to write 
in-depth – not from afar, 
but as citizens and residents.”

Just words? Of the 26 front pages in October - 20 splashes were Scottish. And the front page picture has been Scottish 19 times out of 26, the exceptions being around Brexit, Catalonia and the Las Vegas shooting.

Turn to the sport pages and you will find near-100 per cent Scottish-focused coverage.

Delve deeper into business, the arts, features, property and the weekend magazine and again you will find the vast majority of content written in Scotland, about Scotland.

Our opinion section boasts Scottish names like Joyce McMillan, Brian Wilson, Bill Jamieson, Lesley Riddoch, Kenny MacAskill, Stephen Jardine and Kirsty Gunn, alongside our great staff writers.

So, Mr Salmond is either ignorant of the paper’s content or perhaps he equates “pro-Scottish” as being pro-SNP.

Under his guidance he says “editors will decide the editorial policies” but significantly doesn’t rule out installing a pro-nationalist editor.

The idea of Mr Salmond being chairman of Johnston Press and restricting his involvement to prosaic monthly business meetings seems highly unlikely.

With The Scotsman, Edinburgh Evening News and Scotland on Sunday as well as 25 Scottish weekly titles, would he really sit patiently and let editors take decisions on stories?

Those who know him well say he will want to get involved. And once a chairman starts to call an editor asking about a story, alarm bells should start to sound for editorial independence.

It has long been known that nationalist supporters in Scotland have coveted a quality daily newspaper that supports the Yes movement and have looked at buying The Scotsman to further their agenda.

Already, I have had concerned emails. One said: “I like your impartial stance, but if the paper is going to be turned into the house journal for the SNP then I’m cancelling my subscription.”

One also wonders whether in a world of multimedia, Mr Salmond is still judging titles by their print circulation.

The last decade, in particular, has been a time of transformation for all newspapers.

But this transformation is a good news story when you look at how they have grown their audiences.

The total audience reach of The Scotsman remains very strong.

Our print circulation was up 4.5 per cent in the first six months of 2017 to 21,000 per day, making us the best performing regional daily newspaper in the UK. This means that over 50,000 people read The Scotsman print edition on a daily basis.

Online, the paper attracts 150,000 unique users every day. Add together print and digital and around 200,000 people are interacting with our brand on a daily basis.

Not bad.

Even when The Scotsman’s price was reduced to 10p in the early 2000s - print circulation only briefly tipped over the 100,000 mark.

So, it is incorrect to say that The Scotsman is irrelevant.

That is disrespectful to all of the readers who purchase the paper daily, who subscribe, and who choose to spend their time on our website rather than elsewhere.

It is also disrespectful to the staff who work long hours to produce the best paper possible.

The difficulties faced by The Scotsman and Johnston Press are the same as those faced by publications across the world: how to maintain revenue in a digital age.

Even the largest sites such as Wikipedia and the Guardian have had to resort to a reader appeal to help balance the books.

So why would Mr Salmond think he has the knowledge or expertise to make a difference, when so many others globally have struggled?

He admitted in interviews that he’s not a businessman; and he’s certainly not a journalist, so what is he going to bring to Johnston Press and its 150 titles?

And why announce that Johnston Press headquarters would move back to Scotland, when the vast majority of revenues are from titles in England?

Understandably, some will think Salmond’s move is great sport. But it shouldn’t be dismissed as an inconsequential gamble.

In this the paper’s 200th year, perhaps more than ever, myself and all of the staff are conscious of the weight of history.

We are custodians of a great and important title.

And beyond that, jobs and livelihoods are at stake. More than 2,000 people are employed by Johnston Press.

If I was searching for a top class after-dinner speaker, I would definitely give Alex Salmond a call.

But the man to help steer newspapers through their most turbulent times for 200 years? Perhaps not.