Opinion: Same size, same front page, but one crucial difference

Ex-'Scotsman' editor Andrew Jaspan isn't impressed by the paper imitating "The Independent'
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The Independent Online

Last week The Scotsman went tabloid. With much fanfare, it trumpeted that this was a historic decision which would broaden the appeal of the paper.

Last week The Scotsman went tabloid. With much fanfare, it trumpeted that this was a historic decision which would broaden the appeal of the paper.

The paper, launched in 1817, has held a very special place in Scotland's civic life. For the 30 years or so prior to its change of direction under editor-in- chief, Andrew Neil, the paper argued consistently for better home rule for Scotland through intelligent debate and a broadly liberal, literary, cultured, pro-European and pro-business agenda. Since 1997 that editorial direction was reversed. Instead, it pours scorn on most things Scottish, reserving special bile for devolution.

Readers in Edinburgh woke up to Neil's new agenda in 1997, after the paper passed from the hands of Thomson newspapers into the ownership of the Barclay brothers: they didn't like it. Sales slumped from 80,000 to about 60,000 in his first three years in the chair. In 2000, with much marketing hype, Neil slashed The Scotsman's cover price to 20p in order to broaden its appeal. In addition, it hired consultants, journalists, and then an editor from the Daily Mail, which remains the favoured editorial model for the new management. Sales soared briefly to 100,000, but since then it has lost 40,000 of those, and the panic button had to be pressed for a second time. Having cut the cover price, the only thing left for it to do was to reduce the size and hope the tabloid would prove to be their salvation.

So how did the first week go? Monday's Scotsman claimed that the compact was an historic change when, in fact, it was just a poor imitation of The Independent, with a front-page treatment that simply copied the now classic front page of the compact Independent in London. Superficially, it doesn't look too bad. But scratch deeper and you find much of the content has appeared the day before in the London Evening Standard or has been bought in from elsewhere. It has few decent columnists of its own, with the exception of George Kerevan and, on a good day, Bill Jamieson.

Then, of course, it has its trademark sour tone towards all things Scottish and the hated parliament in particular. So Monday's front page attacked the Scottish Executive for fiddling the Highers exam results. On Tuesday the new Holyrood Parliament was accused of not even being able to get its new grass right. On Wednesday the paper ran a feature on how the staff who have moved into the new Parliament complain that it is still a building site. On Thursday it ran a double-page feature, suggesting what else could have been bought with the £431m price tag of Holyrood. It completed the run on Friday with a piece of hokum entitled: "Gloves off as Holyrood builder hits back", and a subdeck: "Dewar Vilified". Everyone got the point? And here we come to the nub of the problem. The Scotsman's real problem is not its size but its message. To paraphrase Ralph Nader, it is unsafe at any size.

Instead, Scotland with its own Parliament since 1999 needs a strong, trusted, authoritative newspaper that is also constructive in its engagement with the issues that face the country. Rather than standing up for Scotland, it attacks virtually every institution and section of Edinburgh society. It accuses Scots of being obsessionally collectivist and needing a good kick up the backside. Its mantra is largely "public sector bad, private good". Going against the grain must be fun, but it sure doesn't make sense when your readership gives up on you.

In the end there's only one thing that counts with readers, and it's the content, stupid!

Andrew Jaspan is Editor of the 'Sunday Herald' and edited 'The Scotsman' in 1994-95 and 'Scotland on Sunday' from 1989-94