News media fail, social media score in Scottish referendum

By Jim Chisholm

It was back in 1979, and, as a 22 year-old research manager, I was summoned to see The Editor. Towards the end of our conversation in his oak-panelled office, I naively plucked up the courage to ask: “Mr. MacKay, what is it like running Scotland’s national newspaper?”

“Run a newspaper?” he hollered. “I run a country!”

Move forward 35 years and Scotland remains united with the United Kingdom. After a hard fought referendum battle in September, 55% of Scots voters decided to maintain links with the U.K., with the promise for greater devolution.

It’s been an exhilarating experience, but for me after 20 years of studying and envisaging news media’s evolution, it has been fascinating to witness the media’s future be presented in my homeland as it’s people made its most important decision in 300 years.

Scots may be associated with whisky, kilts, bagpipes, and haggis, but we also boast the world’s highest per capita share of outstanding universities, and have been described as the “inventors of the modern world.”

Media players and positions

Scots used to boast that we read more newspapers than any other country on earth. That is no longer true. But, to my experience, Glasgow, with 16 dailies vying for the attention of its 1.2 million people, is the worlds most-competitive market.

Today it is a mishmash of local, national, indigenous and U.K. titles. In fact the Sassenach (slang in Scotland for the English) interlopers account for 84% of Scottish sales. 

The major “popular” titles are either Scottish brands of U.K. companies or Scottish editions of U.K. brands, with substantial Scottish content. The major “quality titles,” The Scotsman and The Herald with their respective Sunday titlesm are both owned by English-based companies.

The Scotsman struggles as a misfit in the dysfunctional Johnston Press portfolio. The strategically stronger, more confident Herald presents a far more confident aura. It is, for now, the mighty U.S. Gannett’s most remote outpost. 

All the titles reflect the strategies of their London parents for better or worse. But while The Scotsman has been lost in the vacuous void that is Johnston’s ... er … “strategy,” The Herald — and in particular it’s Sunday edition — still enjoy some sparkle. It has long been my favourite Scottish newspaper.

In fact, of the cornucopia of newspapers, only the Sunday Post is truly Scottish. It is owned by the very Scottish Thomson family. At one time it was declared “the most popular newspaper in the world (according tot he Guinness Book of World Records) with a circulation approaching 1.5 million.

Today it’s circulation is 150,000.

In broadcast, the BBC, dominates the scene, of course. The indigenous Scottish Television is largely a populist commercial entity, and I, for one, never watch it.

The referendum

As the referendum day approached, the sense of excitement and engagement was electric. Passions rose. Brains switched in, and, as a result, Scotland will never be the same again. I don’t think anyone can remember a time when there was such an electric atmosphere across society. 

Over time, the polls narrowed from two to one against independence,  to neck and neck. The Yes Campaign got its brand across, while the No Campaign, collectively called Better Together, sat on its complacent thumbs.

Two weeks before the vote, one poll suggested that Yes might win. Over night, billions were wiped of the value of Scottish companies. The pound slid. Voters awoke to the real world and suddenly Better Together” came back from lunch, with severe indigestion.

Significantly, at this moment of epiphany for the No Campaign, The Record stepped in. For the Nos to win, they needed to demonstrate a united front, as well as a series of concessions/propositions that the electorate would trust.

At this point The Record led on “The Vow,” a commitment, published within the newspaper, that the coalition of the No camp would deliver far stronger devolution. From this point, the Yes Campaign had a battle on their hands.

In the end, an extraordinary 85% of the population voted. A rollercoaster ride ended with a clear majority of 55% to 45% in favour of the retention of the Union. While I quietly felt common sense, two million No voters were quietly reassured by the result, 1.6 million were left feeling let down, ready to fight another day.

How did the media perform?

Performance in print: The reality, however, was less encouraging. As the graph below demonstrates, sales are typical around 7% down on last year. The best performer, was the Daily Mail’s Scottish Edition, which reduced its losses during September from around -6% to -2%.

For others the benefit in print was minimal. 

Figures for the Scottish quality dailies are not available. However figures for the Sunday editions are very instructive. Here we see the year-on-year variance of the two Scottish quality Sunday products:

What is clear from the available data is that this momentous moment in Scotland’s history — and the newspaper’s generally good coverage — had little or no impact on circulation. Only a few titles achieved any significant benefit in print.

The Sunday Herald achieved an outstanding result, reflecting its courage in being the only newspaper to confidently come of the fence by firmly supporting the Yes Campaign. Johnston’s Sunday Standard showed no benefit and the result was that its share of the combined market fell for 55% to 40%.

But as Richard Walker, its editor, pointed out: “I don’t understand why we are the only newspaper that sees Independence as a viable option, when so many people across all sections of society of Scotland are supporting it.”

Performance of digital newspapers: The saw a 30% gain before returning to its normal level, while The Herald saw an 80% gain. Allan Rennie, managing director and editor in chief of Media Scotland, publishers of Scotland’s major national newspapers together with a raft of local titles, believed the lesson was in the scale and nature of engagement.

“The biggest impact on the Record was online. Our digital audience switched from a diet of crime, show business, and sport to one of politics and commentary. On the day of the referendum, our live coverage drove 1.7 million page views in just 24 hours — a record.”

New entrants: Then are a number of partisan sites. Most notably, the audience was around half of that of the long-established Herald site, growing by 60% as the vote approached.

Two other significant sites, and, also enjoyed significant followings. Since the end of the campaign, their audiences have wilted.

As Richard Walker says: “Because there have not been media who support independence, there is a vacuum there. And social media Web sites have stepped into that.”

In addition, wealthy benefactors endeavoured to provide objective facts encouraging the Yes and No camps to focus on what matters and not poltical dogma.

Most critically was the role that social media such as Facebook and Twitter played in the campaign. Not only did both sites generate levels of interest that the traditional media could only watch and weep, but critically they acted as platforms for mobilisation.

Rennie’s view was more sanguine: “I think the role of social media has been overstated. You cannot summarise or debate complex issues in 140 characters. Alternative [partisan] sites … mostly preached to the converted. Most of the data I have seen points to voters making up their minds based on multiple sources, including newspapers, TV, townhall meetings, and party political advertising.”

As in most things in the referendum, the Yes Campaign was far more effective in exploiting the engagement strengths of social media.

Andy Oakes, head of content of The Drum, Scotland’s leading media publication and digital service, pointed out , the difference in usage and following of social media:

“On Twitter, Yes had an impressive 103,000 followers compared to 42,000 for Better Together. Alex Salmond had 95,000 followers whilst poor old Alistair Darling had only 21,000. The story was the same on Facebook. The Yes campaign picked up over 320,000 likes compared to 218,000 for the ‘No’ side.”

These channels reached out to the young, but also enjoyed a franchise across all generations. Many of my late-50ish, professional friends were avid Facebookers, of whom the Yes supporters were the most energetic.

Perhaps the best overview of the role of new media is summed up in this Drum video

What are the lessons from the media’s referendum experience?

The first it is that it is easy to brand an aspiration. Our inherent patriotism was brilliantly turned into a “Yes” brand, even if the actualité was flaky.

By comparison, “Better Together” hardly grabbed the imagination. It’s dullness is compounded by a lackadaisical performance and complacency, in terms of execution.

For the traditional media, “Yes” provided any amount of imagery while “Better Together” was a story, but without characters. This is no fault of the traditional media; it is simply that today’s brands are messaged in different ways.

But as Kevin McKenna, a columnist for Guardian Media Group and one of Scotland’s most respected writers, put it: “The Scottish Media, certainly large parts of it, have missed a golden opportunity. Its not a surprise that a lot of the papers are going for No because a lot of our titles are owned by people based on England or multi-national interests overseas.”

The second issue here is more fundamental. Past politicians relied on the media to get their views across. From U.S. President Barack Obama down, today’s politician’s are far more adept at “below-the-line” stealth and the allure of social media.

Perhaps the biggest message of the referendum experience was that people are no longer willing to be lectured. For many, the media could not be trusted. Many newspapers were subject to the same voters cynical perspective as the BBC.

That most newspapers sat on the fence was also a big disappointment. 

All this represents a new pinnacle in the evolution of modern media. I’ve long argued that the Internet was only another social factor to threaten newspapers’ legitimacy and circulation. But the more potent advancement of digital engagement, and social media, suggest that each media house’s response to this is now a defining factor between “Pioneers” and “Innovators,” who will survive indeed flourish, and “Denihilists, who will fail.

But Andy Oakes offers perhaps the most sensible perspective: “Even though Yes won the social media battle, it lost the important one at the ballot box.” 

It would be over simplistic to say join them or die. I’ve said in the past that to be over-dependent on established social media risks a diminution of core brand values and audience scattering

I’ve also raised the challenge of creating a completely new culture of news curation and dissemination. It’s not simply Tom Peter’s adage “If I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t start from here,” but also that for most publishers, the elucidation of a destination remains intangible. 

Peters went on to conclude that it was nearly impossible for major organisations to affect massive cultural change. A few examples contradict this, but observation suggests that for most companies, contemporisation has been an agonising experience and, for many, is still work in progress. 

Recently, I’ve been approached by a number of people seeking to create a new media “solution” for Scotland. And I have found myself discussing ideas with potential stakeholders and participants. Three notions have emerged.

First are populist movements, where one, or a cluster of enthusiasts, by intent or circumstance create a focus for a particular cause or concept. 

Second, I’ve been contacted by potential investors, many of whom have examined individual publishing houses and found them unviable. They suspect that digital media could be means to profit from exhorting their personal agendas.

Then third are the worthy professionals; laudable experienced journalists, in their late 50s or older like myself, who believe there is room for a “quality” medium, featuring themselves as protagonists. Invariable their business models are pants. The world has moved on. 

My analysis from my meanderings around all this is that the only solution is a completely new medium, conceived and managed by the next generation of thinkers and doers, who get the issues of engagement and social partnership. They will welcome good journalism, but as the basis for social interaction. 

It is conceivable that a traditional player could spawn this concept, but my money would be on a new structured entity will come forward. They already exist across Europe. 

In conclusion: 

There is an increasing demand for knowledge, engagement, and participation. 

Social media have taken us from a concept of friendly engagement into a force for converged idealism and activism.

As the sense of separatism inevitably spreads and magnifies, the challenge is presenting the status quo. Perhaps status quo is now redundant, but if so, how can media report, guide, and empower citizens?

Increasingly for me, rather sadly, I concur with Tom Peter’s view of the impossibility of reculturising the organisation. I wish it wasn’t true and for the exceptional companies it’s not.

But for the many, perhaps the majority of the solution will only be realised through a set of specific frameworks that provide a compass through this treacherous landscape. This includes nurturing a successor.

So where does this leave the media in my homeland?

Is there opportunity in Scotland, and elsewhere, to create something new, exciting, influential, and profitable? You bet! But I’m happy to leave the very evident opportunities to the next generation. For now. 

About Jim Chisholm

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