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July 9, 2015updated 04 Aug 2015 3:02pm

Scotland sees ‘flowering’ of news websites as national press wilts north of the border

By William Turvill

The growth of Scottish nationalism has been accompanied by a dip in the popularity of established national newspapers north of the border and a "flowering" of news start-ups online. (Picture: Reuters)

Since the independence referendum in September last year, the total circulation of the UK’s 24 national newspapers (including the Daily Record and Sunday Mail) has declined by 7.8 per cent in Scotland – compared with 6.5 per cent elsewhere (see table at bottom of article).

The Daily Mirror lost 19 per cent of its circulation in Scotland between September 2014 and May 2015 (compared with 8.4 per cent elsewhere), the Sunday People 17.2 per cent (compared with 13.9 per cent elsewhere) and the i newspaper was down 8.1 per cent (compared with 2 per cent elsewhere).

Six national newspapers have performed better in Scotland than elsewhere over this period – The Sun titles (which backed the SNP in their Scottish editions), Sunday Express, Daily Star and home-grown titles the Daily Record and Sunday Mail (which have circulations of 7-8,000 outside of Scotland).

Meanwhile, Scotland has seen a boom in web-only news operations in recent years.

The Ferret

The most recent title hoping to join the Scottish media scene is the Ferret, an investigative journalism website that has started crowdfunding individual stories.

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It is currently run by a number of experienced journalists who rely on income from elsewhere. The Ferret is aiming to raise £3,800 for its first investigation – into fracking, as voted for by 800 readers – of which £1,800 is to go towards paying its journalists. Just over a week after opening its crowdfunding page (which was ‘hard-launched’ this week), it has surpassed its target, raising just short of £4,000 so far.

According to joint-founder Rob Edwards – the Sunday Herald’s environmental editor, a Guardian correspondent and freelance journalist – in the long-term it plans to make its money through subscriptions (it costs £3 a month to become a supporter), more crowdfunding, applying for grants and through selling stories to other media outlets.

“We’ve ruled out adverts… because other people have tried it and it doesn’t work,” he said. “And I know others like The Guardian see a future in that. But we’ve decided we’re not going to go down that road. That’s become one of our articles of faith. We’re not going to have adverts, and we think people like that.”

He believes that investigative journalism has “suffered” in recent years for various reasons, including the damage brought to the industry by the phone-hacking revelations. He said that the internet has been a part of the problem, but noted that it also enables “huge opportunities and huge reach”.

Edwards describes the Ferret as a project aimed at  “trying to work out how to make a sustainable future for investigative journalism”.

“I’ve seen talented young journalists in Scotland who I would have thought in the old days would have had a long and fruitful career uncovering scandals, who have become disillusioned and left because opportunities for journalists are so [much smaller] than they used to be. Obviously we’re trying to counter that in the small way we can.”

Asked about the journalism industry in general in Scotland, Edwards said: “There is a lot of new media online – particularly in Scotland where there’s a definite thing happened since the referendum.

“The referendum was a political awakening – political with a small ‘p’ in the widest sense – and one of the things that’s resulting in is a flowering of websites, like Bella Caledonia and Wings Over Scotland and Common Space and others.

“But they are mostly comment-based, often founded in a particularly political part of the spectrum. We are different from that.”

Common Space

Common Space, which was launched in January this year, is more news-based and independent than political commentary websites like Bella Caledonia and Wings Over Scotland (see below).

Editor Angela Haggerty, formerly of media magazine The Drum, said the site was launched “because the thing that was missing from the new media stuff was a news website".

Common Space has five editorial staff – Haggerty, three reporters and a graphic designer – all of whom are currently being paid what she describes as “three-quarters pay”, which she said equates to the living wage, but she is hopeful this will change soon.

Common Space is funded by the Common Weal think tank which campaigns for more equality in Scotland, but is “editorially independent” of this, Haggerty said. It also invites readers to make donations. Her editorial staff are first-jobbers in journalism, having come from activist backgrounds. Therefore, a large part of her job has been training them up, which the National Union of Journalists has assisted with.

“So you’re [seeing] that transition from activism to journalism as well in the new media up here,” she said.

“[It] has been interesting to watch that evolve as well – because it’s essentially come from activists that were unhappy with media coverage of events around the Indy Ref, but those people have then seen the wider problems around media, and they want to create a better media.”

Despite emerging from the independence referendum, Haggerty said that Common Space covers a far wider area. She said that on a typical day, at full capacity, her staff produces ten or more stories in a day.

Asked about what the site covers, Haggerty said: “When we come in in the morning we do a quick round-up of the main stuff that’s in the papers that would be of interest to our readers…

“And then we tend to spend the rest of the day chasing up our own stories and leads. So we try and do a bit of both.”

She said that Common Space is able to uncover stories that the mainstream media, hit by circulation drops and staff cutbacks, doesn’t have the “resources” for.

She said: “Our readers are unhappy with that situation, so we can: one, provide it by getting the stories ourselves, but secondly, we can get those stories into the mainstream media and that then goes some way to helping correct that problem of the stories never being there in the first place”

Haggerty said that the website began in January, February and March attracting 60-70,000 unique users a month. She said this “jumped” to 160,000 or so in April – when the site’s Facebook ‘Share’ button was fixed – and peaked at 200,000 in May, the month of the general election.

Asked about how Common Space will be funded in the future, Haggerty said: “There are no plans to move into advertising at the moment – our readers are really happy with us not doing that. I think that gives us them some confidence in what we’re doing that we don’t have any of those problems that they associate with mainstream media. How the funding model evolves in the future that we do not know yet.”

Bella Caledonia

Bella Caledonia launched in 2007. Editor Mike Small said that the political commentary site was an early advocate of an independence referendum and that its traffic became “massive” last year as international interest grew.

According to a Bella Caledonia media pack, the site attracts on average 1.15m views (as opposed to unique users) a month and has 7,500 email subscribers.

Small is the only full-time member of staff, though the site pays freelances for contributions. He said that the website is following the model of Dutch site De Correspondent. “We’re in a transition from a citizen journalist model where everything is free, which was previously the model, and now some paid freelances with other people contributing or sharing articles for free.”

So far, Bella Caledonia – like the Ferret and Common Space – has largely relied on crowdfunding, and has an annual appeal, the last of which raised £54,000 – up from £27,000 – with around 2,000 people making donations of between £5 and £500.

Small said: “Our hope is that the amount that we have to raise decreases each year because we’ll have other income streams – either some small advertising, but more likely events…

“There is a limit to how sustainable crowdfunding can be in the long-run, but I think this model of your readers being a part of your organisation – so we would have events, for example, where people could come and give us feedback on our content and create ideas and steer the project, so they’re more actively involved than they are with other media outlets.”

Asked why he believes his website and others have become more popular in recent months, Small said: “I think it’s a collapse in trust in traditional media, particularly around Scottish independence where there was a massive gap.

“Because there was no traditional outlet that was actually supportive of independence up until the Sunday Herald came out. And now, I think because they had some commercial success, they have the National – so there was that obvious gap in the market.”

Wings Over Scotland

Wings Over Scotland was founded in November 2011 by Stuart Campbell “chiefly because I was dismayed at seeing things written in newspapers and spoken on air – both by politicians and journalists – that I knew to be categorically untrue, but which weren’t being challenged by anyone”.

Campbell works on the site full-time, and relies on “many contributors, some paid and some volunteers”.

Wings Over Scotland is “crowdfunded, running an annual appeal and occasional one-offs for specific projects”.  According to Campbell, the site has raised “a little over a third of a million pounds in the last two years”.

Asked whether this funding technique will continue, he said: “The business model – though I don't really see it as a ‘business’ as such – seems perfectly sound the way it is, but will obviously have to be monitored to see if it can carry on indefinitely.”

He said that the website attracts around 350,000 unique users a month and peaked at around 1m last September. Before the referendum, the site average at 254,000 a month, he said.

Asked about the future, he said: “Our aspirations are basically to keep going and keep increasing our audience size. We're trying to get more professional writers in at the moment, as freelancers in the first instance but eventually – if I can face all the paperwork of employing someone – as full-time staff.”

Newsnet Scotland, a politics and current affairs website, was founded in 2010 by Yes supporters “frustrated by the ‘mainstream media’ coverage of the independence referendum”.

It was relaunched as in December last year after being handed by its founders to former BBC journalist Derek Bateman, who merged it with his political interview podcast, Bateman Broadcasting.

The website is now overseen by Bateman and volunteers. It has no full-time or part-time paid staff, though some contributors to the site are paid “nominal fees, sometimes in lieu of expenses”.

According to the website, it has so far been funded by subscriptions and one-off donations. “That covers operational costs such as site maintenance, studio and equipment hire, and events. We are also planning to increase video content.”

A statement from the site, which supports home rule for Scotland but is not party-affiliated, said: “Longer-term we hope to maintain and improve coverage, reporting on a broader range of Scottish news and current affairs, and extending our podcast and video content. The site will continue to be updated during the months ahead.

“We are currently reviewing plans to improve the site and take it past the next elections in Scotland, in May 2016, and forward to the European referendum. The review includes funding.

“Long term we expect Newsnet to broaden the range of its coverage and its type. This will include social affairs, arts and culture. We expect to work with collaborators to some extent in future too.”

Press Gazette understands that the website has averaged around 130,000 unique users a month, and attracted 500,000 in the month of the referendum.

National newspaper circulations in Scotland, September 2014/May 2015

Newspaper Scottish circulation, September 2014 Scottish circulation, May 2015 Scottish Sep/May % change
The Sun 238,823 218,708 -8.4
The Sun on Sunday 172,652 155,469 -10.0
Sunday Express 26,951 24,989 -7.3
Daily Star 41,519 37,597 -9.4
Daily Record 202,831 186,978 -7.8
Sunday Mail 227,160 205,046 -9.7
Mail on Sunday 81,237 80,416 -1.0
The Times 19,736 19,561 -0.9
The Sunday Telegraph 15,667 15,010 -4.2
The Sunday Times 45,771 44,460 -2.9
Daily Star Sunday 22,723 19,422 -14.5
Daily Mail 94,028 91,288 -2.9
Sunday Mirror 17,398 15,174 -12.8
Daily Express 47,570 43,230 -9.1
The Observer 13,706 13,593 -0.8
The Daily Telegraph 18,192 17,013 -6.5
Sunday People 9,274 7,673 -17.3
The Independent on Sunday 5,548 5,230 -5.7
The Guardian 10,189 9,501 -6.8
i 18,870 17,343 -8.1
The Independent 3,001 2,657 -11.5
Financial Times 2,425 2,149 -11.4
Daily Mirror 17,529 14,202 -19.0
Total 1,352,800 1,246,709 -7.8


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