Size isn't always everything

The Scotsman is hoping a compact format can work its magic on dwindling circulation figures. Tim Luckhurst is not so sure
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The prospectus for The Scotsman, published two months before the newspaper's birth in January 1817, promised that it would be honest and useful. The modern paper is resolutely honest, particularly about the reality of Scottish politics. But if circulation is a measure of usefulness, then The Scotsman is failing badly.

The prospectus for The Scotsman, published two months before the newspaper's birth in January 1817, promised that it would be honest and useful. The modern paper is resolutely honest, particularly about the reality of Scottish politics. But if circulation is a measure of usefulness, then The Scotsman is failing badly.

According to July figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the title sells just 65,069 copies a day, down 3.81 per cent month on month and 3.73 per cent year on year. Monthly sales are nearly 20,000 fewer than in early 2000 - and a full 40,000 below the figure achieved after the cover price was slashed to 20 pence in the summer of that year. The paper remains profitable, but it sells some 11,000 fewer copies than its broadsheet rival The Herald, and a little over half as many as the Scottish Daily Mail.

At this rate, it will not be long before the high-value advertisers that keep The Scotsman viable go elsewhere - or demand lower rates. Last week, the editor-in-chief Andrew Neil confirmed that, "Over the long term, if you see the circulation withering, you risk undermining the advertising base."

The paper's owners, the Barclay brothers, have a solution. Yesterday, 10 months after The Independent pioneered the shift, The Scotsman adopted a compact format. It is based on a tabloid Saturday edition that was launched in March.

The Scotsman's editorial director John McGurk says: "Since we launched the compact Saturday edition, sales are probably up by 8 per cent in the face of some pretty intense competition. Year on year, they are slightly ahead of that, but an 8 per cent gain is quite an achievement. We're pleased with the results."

Will being compact every day revive The Scotsman's fortunes? The paper maintains its reputation as one of Britain's most attractive newspapers. But looks, and the energy of its editor, Ian Martin, may not be enough. It depends whether The Scotsman's decline is simply part of the broader picture that has seen all of Scotland's indigenous titles lose circulation since the advent of devolved government in 1999.

The Herald's daily sales have fallen from 91,000 in 2002 to 76,554 today. In the same period, the Daily Record has seen its circulation fall from 548,573 to 485,802. The perverse effect of devolved government has been to make exclusively Scottish titles less attractive to Scottish readers.

The Scottish market is ruthlessly competitive. Between indigenous titles, tailored Scottish editions of British newspapers and British titles that are distributed in Scotland unchanged, there are 16 daily national newspapers available at newsstands. Promiscuity has been encouraged by numerous cut-price experiments, including The Scotsman's own expensive and short-lived move to 20p (it now sells for 50p). The Mail's editorial investment, including the coup of capturing the former Daily Express editor Chris Williams as editor of the Scottish edition, has been matched by promotional investment aimed at the long-term objective of delivering a Scottish circulation of 230,000 (the Scottish Daily Mail's circulation in June was 125,012, up 2.5 per cent year on year).

It is a far cry from the days when editors and proprietors believed the creation of a Scottish Parliament would revive interest in Scottish newspapers and give the purely indigenous titles a lead over regional editions. But if politics does nothing to sell newspapers in Scotland, is it possible that taking an unpopular political line has damaged The Scotsman irreparably?

It is the consensus view among Scotland's overwhelmingly left-of-centre political class that this is true. From the members' quarters of the Scottish Parliament to the Glasgow headquarters of the Scottish TUC, the paper that was once the beloved voice of Scotland's anti-Thatcherite consensus is universally reviled.

The Scotsman is perceived as a pulpit for the free-market, pro-American views of Neil. As such, it is condemned as an anti-Scottish newspaper, guilty of betraying its founders' idealistic ambitions and its own, once-dedicated support for home rule.

The accusation is inaccurate. The Scotsman has never declared itself opposed to devolved government. It welcomed the return of political power to Edinburgh, but immediately declared its intention to hold the Scottish Executive to account instead of being a docile cheerleader. Its critics' anger owes as much to the extent to which Scottish politicians have become accustomed to criticism being levelled at targets south of the border as to any genuine reading of The Scotsman's admittedly acerbic coverage.

But perception is all, and the fact that Martin and his deputy, William Peakin, have made The Scotsman sharp, witty and altogether less predictable than its caricature allows may make no difference. Valuable alliances have been shattered between The Scotsman and Scottish society.

The Edinburgh Festival offers a good example. There is lingering resentment that, four years ago, the then editor Rebecca Hardy massively reduced the paper's commitment to the annual arts extravaganza. The mistake has been rectified: this year, The Scotsman's Festival coverage, contained in a daily 24-page supplement, is more comprehensive than anything else on offer. But resentment dies slowly.

The success of The Independent's compact format offers no reliable guide to what will happen to the Edinburgh paper. The Independent was not disliked before it changed; The Scotsman's compact gamble must contend with jealous local politics as well as determined competition.

The Scotsman has worked hard to win back lost respect. Yesterday's compact edition benefited from the care that was invested in designing its Saturday predecessor. But in Scottish media circles, the sceptics expect it to fail. They believe The Scotsman has become a compact solely in order to distinguish it from its proprietors' new acquisition, The Daily Telegraph, which publishes a Scottish edition of its own. If that is the case, The Scotsman is being pitched into a headlong battle with the Daily Mail. The Barclays will need every inch of their very deep pockets, and luck as well, if they are to hold their own in that contest.

Tim Luckhurst is a former editor and deputy editor of 'The Scotsman'