The 25th day of January has traditionally belonged to Robbie Burns, author of some of Scotland's finest verse, but if one journalist has his way, tomorrow could one day be remembered as the birthday of yet another important Scottish institution.
Flying in the face of the pervasive downward trend, Stewart Kirkpatrick, a former editor of Scotsman.com, will launch a new Scottish paper, whose name, cryptically, he refuses to reveal. To call it a newspaper is perhaps misleading: the idea is to launch a website providing free Scottish-focussed news with a paid-for print edition to follow, initially produced quarterly. With no central office, overheads will be low, but an emphasis will be put on high-quality content – something he feels has ebbed out of mainstream Scottish papers – which does not come cheap. He has already recruited 10 freelance journalists, each a specialist in his or her field, who will file original, exclusive stories.
"We are not trying to reinvent the wheel," says Kirkpatrick from his Edinburgh office, where he runs an online media consultancy firm. "We are trying to be a provider of specialist news with in-depth reporting in nine or 10 specialist areas of Scottish life, where we believe there are gaps in the market." Concentrating on a limited number of subject areas, rather than the usual wide range of a newspaper, will be key to limiting costs and ensuring high-quality content.
But if established newspapers cannot make free news viable, what makes Kirkpatrick think he can?
The problem, he says, is that newspapers are weighed down by the baggage of their pasts. Employing staff within the established hierarchy of an editor, reporters and sub-editors is anathema to modern news creation. The advantage of his start-up is that it is nimble on its feet, with just a dozen staff, most contributing from home. With several rounds of redundancies at Scottish titles in recent years, he has had a large talent pool at his disposal.
Former Scotsman journalists who have signed up include health correspondent Jennifer Trueland, political editor Hamish Macdonell, and columnist Robert McNeil. Other appointments include John McKie, a former editor of Smash Hits and Q, and sports journalist Richard Wilson. "But if there's a major court story being covered by The Herald," Kirkpatrick says, "we would simply direct our readers there."
Tomorrow's launch comes less than six months after Kirkpatrick issued a clarion call to dispirited, redundant journalists, calling them to start their own news sites. In a blog post in August, he wrote that far from witnessing the end of the industry, now was a good time to invest in new media. The building of pay walls by mainstream media organisations will create a gap in the market for clever, spirited and original free news sites, he believes.
Only last week, The New York Times announced it would be joining the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal behind a paywall, and The Times and Sunday Times plan to give some free content but charge for most as of later this year. "Murdoch's wrong because everything about the net is moving towards sharing and the free movement of content," says Kirkpatrick. "Hiding content behind barriers simply ignores how most people access it."
But where will his newspaper derive its revenue? And will his contributors be properly paid? "Yes, we will be paying our journalists, of course," he says. "Our income will come from advertising, sponsorship and the print edition." The theory behind his print and online model is that consumers are not prepared to pay for news, which they process and discard, but would pay for a quality print product to keep.
So what would the print edition offer? "It would be a high-quality read – a sort of Scottish version of The New Yorker." Details are sketchy, as Kirkpatrick is concentrating on tomorrow's launch of the web version. He has an impressive record, presiding over a fourfold increase in traffic to Scotsman.com during his seven-year editorship, which hit four million unique users a month, and earning the site several awards, including the Newspaper Society's best daily-paper site. He currently runs an online strategy company in Edinburgh with partners Tony Purcell and Graham Jones, both of whom are involved in the paper's launch, but is coy when asked how much money he is investing in the paper: "The great thing is we don't need a lot of start-up funding."
Clearly well-versed in the arts of PR, Kirkpatrick is planning a big-bang launch. He is keen to target his "paper" at Scottish readers – wherever they may be. So it's no coincidence he has chosen Burns Night to go live, a day on which Scots pay tribute to what makes Scotland great. The hope must be that that includes quality journalism – and that the best-laid schemes o' this newspaperman don't go awry.Reuse content