The 200th anniversary of The Scotsman newspaper will be marked at a special reception at the Scottish Parliament tonight, where guests will celebrate two centuries of Scotland’s national newspaper with a walk down memory lane and a look to the future.
This year also marks another anniversary for The Scotsman; not quite at bicentenary level, but a defining moment all the same. Sixty years ago, this newspaper made the momentous decision to take classified advertising off the cover, and replace it with front page news.
The editor of the day, Alastair Dunnett, had been hired by owner Roy Thomson, a Canadian millionaire, and was tasked with delivering what had previously been unthinkable.
So on 17 April, 1957, The Scotsman hit the news stands with a heady mix of headlines, stories and even a photograph on the front page – showing Scotsman billboards at the John Menzies bookstall at Waverley Station, announcing the imminent arrival of ‘Front page News’ and declaring: ‘The Scotsman has changed vitally – You must read it now.’
On an inside page, a comment article addressed the matter directly, by repeating the concerns of many readers with an article headlined ‘What are they doing to The Scotsman?’ accompanied by the summary: ‘Readers have asked that question for well over a century.’
Here, we reproduce the article, written by Robert A. Warren. The debate over front page news is prehistoric, but many of the issues raised over process of change in newspapers remain relevant to this day:
ALL over Scotland, it is safe to assume, people will be asking: “What are they doing to ‘The Scotsman’?” That is as it should be. A great newspaper stands in a peculiarly intimate relationship with its readers. It is a friend and counsellor, familiar yet respected. They like to feel that they know it thoroughly, are at ease with it, and have gauged its personality, habits of mind and idiosyncrasies. Thus, any change in that newspaper comes as a shock, until daily familiarity again establishes the old, easy relationship.
But what are they doing to “The Scotsman”? No more than what they have always been doing – keeping it alert and lively and abreast of the times. What they are certainly not doing is changing its essential personality. It remains “The Scotsman,” with all that that has come to imply in nearly a century and a half of vigorous life. But it has got a new dress – not a teddy-boy suit or an American “city-slicker” outfit but a well-tailored, Scottish-made, soberly fashionable suit, in full keeping with its dignity and its place in the life of Scotland today.
That process of changing its dress and remodelling its home and its domestic arrangements in keeping with the times, or even ahead of them, has, of course, gone on throughout the life of “The Scotsman.” This is no mere slavish following of fashion, it is the process of growth and development without which the paper could not have kept its influence or maintained its service to its readers. One has only to look back through the ranked files of the newspaper to see that it has constantly been changing, and to know that while people have periodically been asking, “What are they doing to ‘The Scotsman’?” they have also invariably come round to the view that what has been done is both right and inevitable.
They asked that question with querulous insistence when, more than a century ago, on the very day of the final removal of the “Taxes on Knowledge,” this paper made its first appearance as a daily. But what would have happened to “The Scotsman” if, as many of its faithful friends and readers urgently demanded, it had decided to eschew all change and progress and continue as a bi-weekly?
Others, over-cautious and afraid to take their opportunity, refused to make the change, but were soon forced either to move with the times or to go out of business. And for “The Scotsman” the opportunity for daily publication at a price all could afford, backed by the enterprise and business acumen of its managers, was the gateway for its rapid surge forward to national circulation and unrivalled influence.
They asked the same uneasy question when “The Scotsman” first began the publication of illustrations on the advent of the photographic process for the reproduction of pictures. Many readers then thought the paper had abandoned all claim to dignity and responsibility, and was entering upon the primrose path that would stain it indelibly with the saffron taint of the “Yellow Press.” But soon the pictures became one of the most cherished features of “The Scotsman,” and the paper gained a new reputation for the excellence of its choice of photographs and of the way in which they were reproduced and printed. The picture page of “The Scotsman” came to be recognised as outstanding even by its rivals, and its pictures of Scottish scenery, many of them by its own photographers, were so cherished that by popular demand they were reprinted in more permanent form in “The Scotsman” Calendar. And those calendars, long after their function as an almanac had been performed, were kept as treasured albums.
The same question was bandied furiously about when “The Scotsman” parted from the Liberal Party after Mr Gladstone had split it from top to bottom over the vexed question of Irish Home Rule. But “The Scotsman” in abandoning The Liberals had not abandoned liberalism, its guiding principle. And its influence was in no way diminished. It lost some of its friends, but it kept and gained many more. Indeed, questioning voices have inevitably been raised at every change and advance in the paper’s history, and it is no small tribute to the place it holds in the esteem of its readers that they should feel this intimate concern, that permits, even demands, that they should speak out when they feel that the paper is making a mistake. But it is the paper’s place to lead and to guide public opinion, and to stand firm for what it believes is in the best interests of its readers, present and future, even though some may not immediately agree.
“The Scotsman” has never been afraid to do that. When it began in 1817, sober though it was, it was regarded by the upholders of things as they were as bold, even revolutionary, and it continued to be a leader and an innovator in the march of the British press to freedom, influence, and authority. It has also been a leader and an innovator in the development of that truly amazing technical and mechanical efficiency that allows a modern newspaper to gather the news of the world and present it within a few hours to its readers. It has been on many occasions the pioneer among British newspapers in the use and development of many of the devices which make that “daily miracle” possible.
It is no mean achievement to have kept that freshness of outlook, that lively willingness to experiment when experiment seems to offer progress, and at the same time to have become accepted as a national institution, with all that that connotes of sober and solid worth. National institutions are admirable things, and to characterise “The Scotsman” as one of them is sincerely intended, and gratefully accepted, as a notable compliment. But such an attitude is not without its dangers. Many are inclined to think that national institutions have no right to change and progress – in fact that their main virtue is that though dead they just won’t lie down. “The Scotsman” must decline to be a national institution on those terms. It goes forward with Scotland and for Scotland – a nation of pioneers, explorers and venturers – and its traditions are not constricting fetters but a living inspiration.