It's merge or die

There's a new editor at the Daily Record - but an old problem. Scottish newspapers, under attack from their English rivals, face meltdown. Tim Luckhurst reports

The ancient Aztecs had a ritual in which one young villager was selected each year to enjoy the luxury and adulation of regal status. The downside was that, at the conclusion of the beneficiary's 12-month term, he was brutally sacrificed to appease the gods. Scottish journalism has adopted a similar practice. With increasing frequency, chief executives in Caledonia's intensely competitive indigenous newspaper market choose a new editor to arrest declining circulation at a once-dominant title. Initially they profess absolute faith in their new appointment and ascribe to him or her near-magical powers. Not long afterwards the hero is a zero and the process starts all over again. Thus The Scotsman has had five editors in just over six years and is selling fewer copies than ever.

The latest victim of the triumph of optimism over objective judgment is Peter Cox, until last week editor of "Scotland's Champion", the muscularly tabloid Daily Record. Cox took over at the Record in September 2000. His predecessor, Martin Clarke, had been appointed to stem a decline from 730,000 daily sales in 1996 to 680,000 in 1998. Clarke toiled with a unique blend of aggression and determination and recorded a further fall to 611,000 at the time of his departure. Cox, a more emollient character, proved equally unable to stem the tide. The Record's current sale is just over 500,000 copies with only 475,000 of those purchased in Scotland.

The new Record editor, Bruce Waddell, who did a good job in his previous position as editor of the Scottish Sun, has my profound sympathy. If he can increase circulation he ought to be considered suitable for any of the more prestigious, but hardly more demanding, editorial appointments soon likely to be available in London. Achieving that will be a formidable task.

Scotland is a tiny, depopulating country of just over five million souls. It has a voracious appetite for newsprint and a commensurately wide range of choice. The days are long gone when purchasing a Scottish national daily newspaper meant exercising choice between The Scotsman and The Herald at the broadsheet end of the market, purchasing the Scottish Daily Express in the middle ground or joining the queue for the Record, once the unparalleled master of Scottish popular journalism. Now these "traditional" Scottish titles face competition from tailored Scottish editions of the Daily Mail, The Times, The Sun, Daily Mirror and The Daily Telegraph and imported sales of The Independent, The Guardian and the Financial Times.

Last year, when its debt burden obliged the Scottish Media Group to sell its newspaper assets, The Herald, Sunday Herald and Glasgow Evening Times, the Barclay brothers - owners of The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News - made an entirely serious and well-funded offer to purchase their rivals. They were beaten by Newsquest, the British division of the US publishing giant Gannett.

The arguments in support of the Barclays' bid were powerful. In the years since modern publishing technology has allowed London newspapers to publish and circulate in Scotland, The Scotsman's daily sale has fallen from just less than 100,000 copies to only a fraction over 70,000. In Glasgow, the once mighty Herald has declined from 130,000 to about 88,000. Each title retains a grip on the advertising market but they are operating on miserly editorial budgets. Their circulations cannot finance the newsgathering, features, foreign news and commentary they need to compete with better-funded UK titles.

One very senior Scotsman executive says: "The future is one national daily and one national Sunday. Merger is the only way to create newspapers that can compete."

I know the truth of that. In three years as assistant editor, deputy editor and, briefly, editor of The Scotsman, I regularly despaired to see ideas my colleagues and I had generated done faster and better by London-backed titles that could invest resources we could not contemplate on travel, investigation and writing. It was like fighting with both hands tied. The punches rained in and you could always see them coming. Properly-resourced competitors, like the devastatingly successful Scottish Daily Mail (more than 120,000 sales per day from a very modest start in less than 10 years) would constantly get there first. We did lose sales to the Mail, particularly among female readers. We lost others to The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and The Times. Their Scottish sales of between 6,000 and 25,000 copies each may look trivial against their UK circulations but they represent substantial wedges chopped from the fragile remains of The Scotsman's glory days or those of The Herald.

In the red-top market, Bruce Waddell knows what he is facing. As his new title has tumbled from unassailable dominance, his former berth - News International's Scottish Sun - has climbed by about 100,000 copies per day.

Four years ago, I, and many others like me, succumbed to a foolish delusion that the repatriation of Scottish politics would provide a substantial fillip to the market. The devolution bonus never arrived. Last month only 48 per cent bothered to participate in home rule elections.

One day The Scotsman and The Herald will be owned by the same proprietor. The only danger is that the merger will be delayed too long to guarantee the health of the resulting title.

It seems highly unlikely that the Record can recover from the battering it has taken from The Sun and its own sister, the Scottish Daily Mirror. Good luck Bruce. You will need it. At least dismissals are carried out with a cheque, not the Aztecs' preferred tool - a stone knife.

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