Scotsman 200: Appetite for news is huge in digital era

Technical innovation allows greater interaction with an audience unconstrained by print runs, writes Alan Young

The newsroom today at Orchard Brae House.
The newsroom today at Orchard Brae House.

As the ink dried on the first edition of what would become The Scotsman on 25 January 1817, William Ritchie and Charles Maclaren could look back on a job well done.

They could be also be fairly sure that the news contained in its pages would be exactly that – new to the reader.

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So what would they make of today’s 24/7 media, where every story of note breaks first on social media, is posted online in the blink of an eye, and can be dissected by 24-hour rolling TV news channels, all in the time it would take to set a paragraph of type?

Our online audience far outstrips the traditional print readership.

Nothing endures like change and the pace of change in the past decade alone has been little short of blistering.

But while print sales have declined, The Scotsman now enjoys the sort of audience reach of which Ritchie and Maclaren could surely only dream.

To put it into context, online alone our stories are now read by more than four times the population of 1817 Scotland – every month.

We’ve had to change and innovate to serve our audience and that has meant our operation has been reshaped with, sadly, fewer people now employed across the business.

The growing mobile audience has become hugely important.

With a more streamlined team, we moved out of our offices in Holyrood Road in September 2014 and took up residence in Orchard Brae where we enjoy a fresh space fit to meet the challenges of 21st century reporting.

Where once there may have been a case room, there is now a broadcast studio. In the place of rows of cuttings files, a giant TV screen displays the performance of our stories online in real time.

All of which would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago.

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The first tentative moves towards digital began in mid-to-late 90s with the early launch of Scotsman.com, a portal unrecognisable from the dynamic website of today. The uneasy relationship newspapers initially enjoyed with online would see a smattering of print content uploaded with little thought to presentation.

Our online audience far outstrips the traditional print readership.

It’s fair to say a generally suspicious attitude towards the internet endured for some time among hardened print hacks in those early days. Cries of “the web is putting us out of business”, or dismissals of online content as little more than whimsical fluff, were common. No more.

Everyone has come to realise that skilled journalists are needed more than ever before to tackle a job which is ever more difficult but just as fulfilling - if not more so - than at any time in the past.

Today, Scotsman staff work to the principle of digital first – breaking their stories online to the biggest possible audience at the time when we know they are most likely to be read. But crucially, they operate in exactly the same way and uphold the same high standards which have stood us so well over two centuries.

What has changed is that our journalists can now use a range of online tools to paint a picture in a far richer way than ever before.

The growing mobile audience has become hugely important.

For example, we can complement news coverage online with live video straight from the heart of the newsroom. That, along with our huge presence on social media, gives our readers the opportunity to engage directly with the story like never before.

A conversation that has traditionally been held – and still is – on our letters page can now take place instantly on social media, as anyone can question a reporter or editor directly (in 140 characters or less) about why a particular angle was taken or the reason we are covering an issue.

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The change in the way people consume news has not just seen our audience move online however. One of the biggest changes has been the rapid increase in mobile as the platform of choice.

The Scotsman has introduced a fully responsive website which is optimised for whichever platform the reader happens to be on – desktop, tablet or mobile. We also have a news app on Android and Apple giving quick access to the headlines, and offering push notifications of the latest breaking Scottish news. As the market place changes, we will continue to innovate in the best traditions of The Scotsman.

Having moved online, the next switch may be readers consuming Scotsman journalism away from our website altogether, indeed we already use “instant articles” to display our content on Facebook.

Of course, no-one can confidently predict where the future of news is heading, but we can say for sure there will always be a need for our work. It is now easier than ever for people to access the Scotsman wherever they are, and we have a potential audience which is not constrained by print runs or borders.

A story is still a story and a big exclusive will cause the same level of excitement around the newsroom as ever.

No less consideration or scrutiny is given to each article, in fact quite the opposite. While papers for years have been put together on the “gut feeling” of news editors about what is of interest to readers, we can now tell beyond doubt what people are choosing to read, as daily statistic reports tell us the best performing online content.

Is a story only a story if it goes viral online? Clearly not or our pages would be dominated by sightings of the Loch Ness monster and psychic octopuses, but this does give us access to detailed information on reader habits which can help inform our print product.

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And let’s not forget that’s the reason why we are here.

The newspaper itself continues and has undergone major change in recent times.

Having reverted to our original tabloid size in 2004, the paper underwent a complete redesign in 2015, bringing a fresh, modern look to our pages, introducing new features while staying true to our core values.

The challenge, and one which we must rise to every day, is to keep those values front and centre as we plot a course for The Scotsman into the future.

Newspapers are needed more than ever to navigate readers through the fog of social media rumour and the unwelcome phenomenon of “fake news”; to provide context and insight to events in a fast-changing world.

When everyone is shouting in the dark, trusted news sources like The Scotsman can turn on the light.

It is what we have been doing for 200 years and it is what we will continue to do.

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What would Ritchie and Maclaren make of today’s Scotsman? We hope the founding fathers would recognise that as we expand into the digital world and innovate in the way we tell stories, we have not lost sight of the aspirations set out in the original 1816 Prospectus statement.

Indeed, we are simply seeking to continue in the same vein and proud tradition as the countless great journalists who have worked for our title.

In the face of unprecedented change, whether in print or online, The Scotsman’s philosophy remains the same today as on 25 January, 1817. Our “first desire is to be honest, the second is to be useful … The great requisites for the task are only good sense, courage and industry”.