Iain Hepburn is a journalist, podcaster and the former digital editor of the Daily Record and editor of STV Local. He is currently a multimedia producer, director of brand journalism with social media agency Contently Managed and a misanthropic commentator on the media.
Nat with a bang
We’ve had the pink pound, the grey pound, the Mumsnet pound... So, in these times of economic downturn, revenue losses and news industry cutbacks is pursuing the Nat Pound the way to go?
Given the sudden growth of pro-Nationalist news platforms online, it would appear there’s some merit in the thought.
There’s a definite nationalist community online, one which feels the mainstream media fails to cater for their political or cultural needs and which has grown in voice since the election earlier this year.
But it’s also a community with a fringe element that can drag any debate into the nationalist equivalent of Godwin’s law. Indeed, anyone who’s ever spent time looking at, let alone trying to moderate, user comments on a news site in Scotland can testify the volume and ferocity of pro-SNP, anti-Unionist comments which appear on just about any politics story published in this country.
Presumably this potential audience is the reason why the Guardian - a paper that previously couldn’t find Scotland on a map if you circled the place and wrote This Is Scotland next to it - has suddenly taken such an interest in the nationalist movement and independence debate.
There’s little doubt that the newspaper industry read the signs wrong in the build-up to the election, eventually - and half-heartedly - stepping into line behind the Sun in declaring for Salmond when it became clear the SNP were going to sweep to victory.
The mess that the Scottish political sphere has become since then, with extended leadership campaigns and post-mortems being conducted by the opposition Holyrood parties in the aftermath of May’s vote, has only given the Nationalist audience online further ammunition with which to attack critical outlets.
But a skim through most of the papers and you’d think nothing had happened in May. The debate remains scant, driven by political feuds and point-scoring as much as it is about looking at Scotland’s future.
Hence the growth in alternative outlets, where the trailing arm of Cybernats can take a break from comment-bombing the Daily Record’s political editor or roadblocking anyone else commenting at The Steamie.
The worst - in just about every possible way - offender is Newsnet Scotland, a site which at times highlights the worst excesses of tinfoil hattery, and which includes among it’s ‘contact us’ options a form allowing visitors to report any BBC broadcasts that are ‘questionable’ (ie not pro-nationalist).
The site seems to pander to the hardcore fringes of the Cybernats and their OTT behaviour - behaviour highlighted by outgoing Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray at the weekend - in a way that does them or their legitimate reporting efforts no favours.
Earlier this year it threatened to become a laughing stock after railing against a unionist conspiracy which apparently caused the site to go offline, insisting they would not be silenced by their opponents - only to be forced to shuffle off a mumbled apology after it turned out the site going down was due, not to the combined Unionist hordes, but because of a coding error.
Yet Newsnet Scotland is still going strong, claiming a readership of 55,000 monthly uniques - almost twice what the higher profile Caledonian Mercury boasts - and a thriving level of comment, if not debate, among its audience. Providing a home for niche audiences, no matter the niche, is always a way to find success and Newsnet Scotland both knows and indulges its audience in a way that guarantees repeat business.
Which makes it interesting to note, therefore, that a new kid is moving into the block, with its own ambitious plans to capture the debate around nationalism and independence - and carve its own slice from the Nat Pound.
You don’t have to read between the lines at the Scottish Times site to see exactly who it’s aiming at - with potshots at the mainstream media and talk of putting the ‘future of Scotland in the hands of the Scottish people’.
Currently just a holding site and some sample articles, the Scottish Times has a target of launching properly in January next year, and achieving 100,000 uniques by June - when it also plans to launch an international service. By 2014, according to their Soloco page, they want to be the largest online news provider.
Presumably they mean in Scotland - in which case I refer you to my column last week. If they mean the world... well, good luck with that.
The fact these sites have managed to find traction at all should also be a wake-up call to the country’s national news sites and, by association, their print arms. But the long-term question behind platforms like Newsnet Scotland, the Scottish Times and even, to an far lesser extent, the Caley Merc is just how sustainable they are.
Attracting 50,000 uniques in a year by opening the floor to hardcore nationalists is all well and good, but the revenue needs to come in to make those numbers mean something in the long term.
Will advertisers want to be associated with sites which routinely make near-libelous allegations about MPs, MSPs and public figures for purely political reasons? And if not, then can they survive on the largesse of their audience? The success - or failure - of the Scottish Times to hit its targets will prove an interesting benchmark to see just how strong the Nat Pound really is.
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