Last month Britain's newspaper industry witnessed an historic event that few noticed. Not because it was a frivolous development but because it happened 400 miles away from the newsrooms and circulation departments of Fleet Street - in Scotland. For the first time, the combined sales of the main English broadsheets, the Independent, the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, exceeded the sales of the Scotsman, Scotland's national newspaper.
This fact may seem irrelevant to all except those media barons bidding to buy the Scotsman, which was put up for sale two weeks ago. Yet it marks a fundamental shift that could transform the newspaper business over the next decade.
Since the Scotsman was established in 1817, Britain has had two distinct "national" newspaper markets - the English, centred on London-based titles, and the Scottish, dominated by regional papers such as Edinburgh's Scotsman, the Aberdeen Press & Journal, the Dundee Courier and Glasgow's Herald and Daily Record. The English titles prospered south of the border and did not invest greatly in Scotland, leaving the Scottish papers free to pile up sales and profits in their city-based fiefdoms. It was a cosy duopoly.
But sales of English newspapers are rising sharply in Scotland at the expense of local titles (see table). As the newspaper price war rages on, the old duopoly is breaking down and England and Scotland are merging into a single newspaper market. This is a radical change which, media analysts argue, threatens the long-term future of indigenous Scottish titles.
"The trend is unmistakable," says Morven Gow, a Glasgow-based analyst. "The old myths - that English titles could not prosper in Scotland and that, come what may, the Scotsman and the Herald would continue to sell around 100,000 copies each day - have now been debunked. As sales of the English papers increase, the more the media landscape changes, and the weaker the Scottish titles begin to look."
The speed with which the Scottish newspaper market has been transformed is startling. What is less surprising is that it is the result of the actions of one man - Rupert Murdoch, head of News International. In 1987 he challenged the conventional wisdom when he launched a separate Scottish Sun, written, edited and printed in Glasgow. At a purpose-built plant on the banks of the Clyde, the cockney title changed its character almost overnight. Unlike the kilt-edged Scottish editions of other London- based titles, the "Currant Bun" wrapped itself in tartan, put a thistle on its masthead and abandoned the Tories for the Scottish nationalist cause.
At first, Glasgow's legendary hack pack scoffed. Despite the Sun's best efforts, they predicted, Scots readers would not be fooled and the "Sassenach pretenders" would receive a drubbing. It didn't happen. Within months the English-owned title began to capture readers from its rivals and attract a new generation of young Scots. Circulation rose steadily from its 231,000 daily sale in 1987 to 370,000 copies early last year - a 60 per cent rise.
Then Murdoch made his second move. His decision to cut the price of the Times, first to 30 and then to 20 pence, led to a sharp rise in circulation north of the border. Daily sales of the Times, which had been threatening to dip below the psychologically important 10,000 mark, leapt to more than 20,000 and began to nudge 30,000 on Saturdays. By last summer all the other London-based broadsheets, except the Guardian, had entered the price war. Their sales, too, increased as readers abandoned Scottish titles, which could not compete on price. Faced with falling circulation, Scottish editors like Andrew Jaspan, then in the chair at the Scotsman, began to warn that the future of the quality press north of the border was at risk.
Following his success with the Sun and the Times, Murdoch began printing a Scottish edition of Today in Glasgow. The Mirror and the Daily Star secured new offices and printworks on Clydeside last summer, to be followed at the turn of the year by the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. Their success was instant. The Mail increased sales by a huge 85 per cent in its first six months.
Today, Glasgow is Britain's most competitive media marketplace. Eight national dailies and three national Sundays are now written and printed on Clydeside - more than at any other time in Scotland's history. For Glasgow veterans like George McKechnie, the editor of the Herald, the change is startling. "It's always been a competitive business here but it is tougher today and more fluid than at any time I can remember. After everything we've been through, this is wild and at times worrying."
Analysts insist that McKechnie and his opposite number at the Scotsman, James Seaton, have good reason to worry. Both the Herald and the Scotsman are losing market share to English titles. The Herald, which sold almost 130,000 copies a day eight years ago, has now slumped to 108,000, and Caledonian Publishing, which owns the title, is the subject of bid speculation. The Scotsman, too, is up for sale. Its circulation figure for last month - 76,616 - is the lowest in living memory.
Media observers argue that most Scots are abandoning local broadsheets because the English papers are bigger and cheaper and therefore offer better value. The Scotsman and the Herald are also vulnerable because, they say, their editors have been content merely to shore up local city- based circulation and have failed to tackle the uncompetitive working practices which disappeared south of the border after Murdoch's Wapping revolution.
McKechnie refutes this. "We have made great efforts to improve efficiency and to widen our appeal across Scotland and we will continue to do so," he says. "It is true that the English imports which are being dumped on the market offer lots of supplements, but their Scottish coverage is just tokenistic. Scots readers want Scottish content and that is what we supply better than anyone else. In the long run, we are a daily national Scottish newspaper and we, like the Scotsman, will prosper."
One thing is certain. Scotland is now an integral part of the UK newspaper market, and Scottish papers are locked into a new battle for readers.
Scottish newspaper circulations*
Jan-June '94 Jan-June '95 % change
Daily Record 736,674 746,861 +1.0
Scottish Sun 370,000 369,799 -0.05
Scottish Daily Express 129,091 120,827 -6.5
The Herald (Glasgow) 113,342 108,247 -4.5
The Courier (Dundee) 108,223 104,883 -3.5
P&J (Aberdeen) 106,960 108,521 +1.5
The Scotsman 83,553 79,227 -5.5
Scottish Daily Star 43,000 41,845 -3.0
Scottish Daily Mail 37,852 69,763 +85.0
Daily Telegraph 26,678 28,686 +7.5
Scotland's Mirror 17,432 20,431 +17.0
Scotland Today 16,262 19,790 +21.5
The Times 15,708 23,340 +48.5
(*Average daily sale. Source: Audit Bureau of Circulation and trade estimates)
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies