Reading the good news over future of Scottish newspapers

IT'S a remarkable statistic that Scots consume 1.78 million newspapers a day, 1.75 million on a Sunday and nearly one million weekly titles. It's perhaps even more remarkable that, for the last few years, just one man has run the trade associations that represent the whole newspaper industry north of the Border.

Next month Jim Raeburn retires as director of the Scottish Newspaper Publishers Association (SNPA), a post he has held since 1984 (he is replaced by Simon Fairclough, the marketing director of the Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre). Since 1996, Raeburn has also been director of the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society (SDNS), the organisation that oversees the country's major daily, evening and Sunday titles.

The combined posts have given this 60-year-old father of two a unique insight into Scotland's fiercely homegrown newspaper industry.

"You build up relationships with people and trust, and people take you into their confidence," he explains.

"You need to be able to keep your mouth shut in situations where you know information... you have to diplomatic at times, you also have to speak very straight so there's no mistaking where you're coming from." He smiles. "It calls for a range of skills."

Raeburn, who will continue to head the SDNS, has overseen the newspaper industry in an era of near constant revolution. Circulations are falling, the Scottish Sun and the Record have engaged in a bitter price war and the internet has demonstrated a potent ability to siphon off classified advertising revenues from the print world. Nonetheless, Raeburn believes the demise of newspapers has been oversold. He cites the performance of the newspapers under the umbrella of the SNPA, which represents 100 weekly and bi-weekly titles.

"They really have demonstrated a remarkable stability over a long period of time," he says. "I measured ABC circulation figures between 2000 and 2005, and over that period the decline in weekly newspaper circulation was 0.64 per cent. That, in my book, is impressive. That just shows the tremendous attachment that there is between local communities and newspapers."

In the daily market, Raeburn says, the fierce level of competition is "self- evident" and he concedes circulations are hard pressed.

"Having said all that, the Scottish newspapers are pretty healthy. You've had recent examples: Johnston Press buying The Scotsman Publications (160 million in December 2005), DC Thomson acquiring Aberdeen Journals (132 million in March 2006) and Newsquest taking over the Herald titles (200 million in December 2002).

"They've gone for very healthy prices and all of these people are highly intelligent; they are not investing at that level if they are not strongly of the opinion that they can continue to make good profits. The newspaper industry has been under pressure in the last couple of years, but the profit margins are still pretty good."

Those margins are likely to face further pressure this year amid reports News International will soon launch a beefed-up Scottish edition of the Times. As News International was prepared to lose an estimated 2 million a month by cutting the cover price of the Scottish Sun to 10p, pundits are watching to see whether Rupert Murdoch's deep pockets will allow him to discount the Times in Scotland. An onslaught on the quality end of the market was further signalled this week when Steven Walker, a former managing director of Scotsman Publications, took up a new post as the general manager of News International Scotland.

So, is a quality price war looming? Raeburn says: "I'm quite sure the Scottish publishers will be preparing their plans on the assumption they will see a move by News International to launch a major Scottish edition of the Times.

"A price cut for the Times in Scotland is not a significant cost in the overall budget of News International."

However, the outgoing SNPA head warns that the newspaper industry is about more than headline cover price. "I think the Times - or any other national of that kind - seeking a foothold in the Scottish market would have to go for more than a price cut. There would have to be an investment in journalism.

"You can win readers over with price for a while, but if the content - the Scottish content - isn't there in the depth in which they wish to see it, then they might not hold on to those readers."

Raeburn admits that one critical issue for the newspaper industry is why should people - especially the young - buy their titles in a world where news is omnipresent, via the internet, TV and mobile phones, and often free.

He thinks it is possible that the free newspaper war that has engulfed London may be replayed in Scotland - "I'm certainly not going to dismiss it" - but points to the legal backlash by local authorities weary of discarded newspapers cluttering their streets as a serious drawback.

While young people may not have the tribal loyalties of their parents to newspaper titles, Raeburn also believes key events - buying a house or looking for a job - can prove the entry points to print as they grow older.

As he leaves the elegant SNPA headquarters in Edinburgh's Palmerston Place, the retiring trade association head remains upbeat about the future of paid-for print.

"I think newspapers are incredible value for what is put into them every day. People get news for what are really quite moderate prices," he says. "It depends what the individual wants; if you want serious journalism coverage in a newspaper then you recognise you have to pay for it.

"Most people would understand that a paper selling at 10p or 15p is, in all probability, a temporary arrangement.

"If you stop to think about what goes into a newspaper at all, it is not sustainable on a long-term basis."

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