Martyn McLaughlin: New media's problems are a blow for our nation's conversation

Alternative voices have to be heard in the political debate over Scotland's future, writes Martyn McLaughlin

Cat Boyd stood as a RISE candidate in last years Holyrood election. New media coverage of Rise and tactical voting didnt suit all independence supporters. Picture Michael Gillen
Cat Boyd stood as a RISE candidate in last years Holyrood election. New media coverage of Rise and tactical voting didnt suit all independence supporters. Picture Michael Gillen

If the work to build a case for a second referendum is under way, the independence movement has suffered a blow with the pending closure of Bella Caledonia, the online magazine that evolved over the past decade to become an influential forum for discussion and ideas.

At its best, the site seamlessly wedded political coverage to cultural commentary, exploring both with a natural curiosity and fluency. The subject and scope of the articles it commissioned were diverse to the point of being haphazard at times, a necessity borne from its limited means.

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It also provided a platform for an emerging generation of new voices, many of whom have gone on to forge successful careers in the arts, the third sector, politics, and the media. In keeping with Britain’s centuries old radical press tradition, its band of contributors was a disparate lot. Few had formal journalistic training and they were largely united by a shared background in activism. It was a formula which inevitably invited occasional erraticism, skittish op-eds, and howling factual errors. These were, however, prices worth paying for vibrancy and vigour.

It is ironic and frustrating that such positive traits are a legacy of the financial limitations which now threaten Bella Caledonia’s future. An emergency meeting of the site’s advisory board took place yesterday. If the reports of its closure are accurate – and now seems an opportune time to remember that its custodians have flirted with the idea of closure before, only to be lifted from their knees thanks to a wave of reader contributions – it will be a black mark against our country’s proud journalistic history.

The full reasons for Bella Caledonia’s pending collapse are unknown, and may never be, but there is anecdotal evidence that the coverage it afforded the Rise party and tactical voting during last year’s Holyrood elections resulted in a torrent of abuse which consequently robbed it of a small yet sizeable readership who subscribe to the view that the 
pro-independence media should be aligned with the SNP and the SNP alone.

It is a regrettable yet entirely predictable development given the febrile nature of an uneasy coalition easily given to schisms and rampant zoomerism post September 2014. The paranoia has worsened of late, to the extent that reasoned criticism of Scotland’s party of government is routinely met with threats of boycotts. If Bella is a casualty, it will send out a message that moderate voices have no place in the debate over Scotland’s future.

That can only harm the pro-independence media at a time when its sustainability and political ambitions depend on embracing pluralism and engaging with a wider demographic – not least that fabled 10 per cent – with the prospect of a second referendum looming. Perhaps such issues will be discussed at this weekend’s Scottish Independence Convention conference in Glasgow.

Then again, perhaps not. Others will point out that money and institutional structures are just as important factors at play as the politics.

While Bella Caledonia’s advisory board of two dozen members is a democratic model, as a company it is considerably less expansive. It was only incorporated at Companies House in autumn 2013 and has a sole director in the form of Mike Small, its outgoing editor and co-founder. Abbreviated accounts show that, as of last spring, the firm had reserves of around £20,000 and it reached only two thirds of its most recent crowdfunding goal.

Whatever happens, the organisation’s precarious economics ought to enliven debate about how the rest of Scotland’s new media can stave off a similar fate. From NewsShaft to the Caledonian Mercury, the ether is already littered with the cadavers of sizeable online ventures which ended in failure. They are unlikely to be the last.

In the ten years that have passed since Bella Caledonia’s launch, it has been joined by some enterprising startups. CommonSpace, the news and commentary site owned by the Common Weal think tank, and The Ferret, a cluster of experienced investigative reporters based in Scotland, have shown how the alternative media need not exist solely as reactive monitors debunking, dismissing or decrying existing output. There is a place for that, though these sites choose to plough their own furrow, breaking public interest stories.

Crucially, they also recognise the importance of scaling up their readership by collaborating with national newspapers to distribute their work and break through to new audiences. Yet the fact remains that they too are dependent on the same model of donations and crowdfunding utilised by Bella Caledonia.

The question of what an alternative online revenue model may look like is one that both the traditional media and the new have still to satisfactorily answer, but it is particularly important the latter finds a solution. New media has an important part to play in the debate over Scotland’s future. No-one stands to benefit from its demise.