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Scottish newspapers in crisis just when they are needed most

Indigenous journalism is under threat as readers, and jobs, are lost. Tim Luckhurst reports

Writing this week in the Caledonian Mercury, Scotland's online newspaper, editor Stewart Kirkpatrick said: "Scotland's newspapers are dying. Soon they will be gone ... Scotland is about to enter a crucial decision-making period with a maimed and crippled media, incapable of properly enabling the debate we need to have."

His comments were prompted by Trinity Mirror's decision to axe 90 jobs at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, almost half their editorial staff. In future, non-Scottish stories will come from the Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People. Some design and subbing will be outsourced to the Press Association.

This is not just a blow to journalists. Neither is it simply a consequence of the newspaper industry's failure to adapt to multimedia convergence – though circulation of both titles has been hard hit. In the early 1990s the Record came within touching distance of 800,000 daily sales. The Sunday Mail hit 900,000. Today their respective circulations are 286,000 and 336,000.

Under the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, these raucous, tabloid newspapers expressed the authentic voice of working-class Scotland. Under one great editor, Endell Laird, the Record built Scotland's first children's hospice from reader donations alone. Along with its Sunday sibling, it made real Scotland's claim to have a distinctive, indigenous journalistic culture long before it had a parliament.

The Act of Union gave Scotland its church, law and universities. After 1707, Scottish newspapers went one better. While the country's claim to self-determination was denied, its media offered a proud expression of cultural identity created, not granted, by native journalistic talent.

Trinity Mirror's Scottish agony is not unique. Scotland's broadsheets are in dire straits, too. Last year the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times cut its staff from 16 journalists and a dedicated editor to three reporters and a columnist. This year, Scottish sales of The Scotsman fell below 40,000 for the first time in living memory, giving a daily sales figure in April of 39,739. The Herald sold just 49,754 and the Sunday Herald's circulation tumbled beneath 30,000 – offering another explanation for its decision to ignore the Ryan Giggs injunction.

Dominance of the Scottish newspaper market by indigenous Scottish titles is no longer guaranteed. Scotland's biggest-selling newspaper is the Scottish edition of The Sun. Its newspaper of the year is the Scottish Daily Mail. These are both edited and staffed by journalists based in Scotland. They have earned the right to be called Scottish newspapers – The Sun now supports the SNP – but for some in Scotland that is not enough.

The Scottish Sun and Scottish Daily Mail are, like the Scottish edition of The Times, edited by former Scotsman supremo Magnus Linklater, editions of UK titles. Critics protest that this newspaper version of devolution within the UK mimics the major flaw in its political equivalent: real power remains in London.

This overlooks the fact that all the failing titles named above are also owned by companies whose major assets are outside Scotland. The Scotsman belongs to Johnston Press which, though Scottish in origin, possesses newspapers and websites from Portsmouth in Hampshire to Peterhead in Aberdeenshire. The Herald, launched in 1783 and one of the world's oldest-surviving newspapers, belongs to Gannett, the US corporate giant.

Among Scottish national titles only the folksy Sunday Post, of which historian Tom Nairn observed that Scotland would not be free until "the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post", is truly Scottish. It belongs to DC Thomson, the Dundee-based publisher of the Beano and Dandy. But the Post is struggling, too. In 1999, it sold 700,000 copies weekly. Today's figure is 300,000.

Charles McGhee, former editor of The Herald and former deputy editor of The Daily Record, argues that the latest redundancies are "a disaster for Scotland". He said: "Scotland could be on the brink of declaring independence and breaking up the UK. Yet the indigenous newspapers which should be at the centre of that debate ... are on their knees, with their own future more uncertain than ever."

Kirkpatrick, a web-entrepreneur and former Scotsman journalist, sees internet newspapers such as his own Caledonian Mercury as the beginning of the solution. But revenue flows to such projects suggest that the internet is no more capable of financing expensive newsgathering in Scotland than elsewhere.

The excellence of Scottish journalism helped make the case for devolution. Its decline has inaugurated an era in which citizens contemplating national independence face a historic dearth of autonomous journalism.

Tim Luckhurst is professor of journalism at the University of Kent and a former editor of The Scotsman