False Doorway

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.

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Digital-only should Herald the future

It’s been interesting watching the reaction to Kenneth Roy’s comments in the Scottish Review regarding the future of the Scotsman, and his speculation that it could make the move to digital only.

While Roy ponders if the arrival of Ashley Highfield at Johnston Press will result in the Scotsman going digital only, the latest set of circulation figures suggest a far better candidate elsewhere.

Indeed, given the spectacular circulation collapse suffered by the super soaraway Sunday Herald this year, it's only a surprise they haven’t tried it already.

Or it would be, if the Herald’s digital division wasn’t clearly a bunch of brainless chumps with the social media strategy of a dodo.

Harsh? Here’s a little stat for you. In the last 90 days, the Herald has not once linked to a single story on its website via the paper’s official Twitter feed. Barring a handful of retweets - largely linking to commercial ventures - it has singularly failed to promote a single piece of copy on its own digital platform.

Rare, too, is a link to content in the paper from any of the reporting staff on Twitter, instead urging readers to buy the paper version and read the story there instead.

Let’s not forget, this is a paper which earlier this year announced plans to introduced a metered paywall around its web content - content which it currently delays putting online every day in order to try and shore up paper sales.

It’s almost as if there were a strategy to direct potential readers away from online entirely, with Twitter being little more than a 140 character version of the hoardings outside newsagents.

Well, clearly that strategy is failing. As the ABCs revealed this month, the Herald is down 13% year on year, while the Sunday Herald - after its much vaunted switch to the ‘news magazine’ format and the publicity boost of THAT superinjunction front page - saw circulation collapse, dropping an astonishing 31.4% in a year to just shy of 29,000 copies.

Much speculation rumbled at the turn of the year when the news magazine format was announced, with pundits calling it a last roll of the dice for the paper - and nearly a year on, it’s become clear that the move has spectacularly failed.

But perhaps there is one final more gamble for Newsquest to consider.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Sunday Scot launching - and promptly closing three months later. At the time of the anniversary, and in the wake of the News of the World’s closure, I suggested elsewhere that a Sunday newspaper may be the best place for a new launch in Scotland - something which combined print and digital in a new, innovative way to produce a newspaper genuinely in touch with a modern Scottish audience.

Next February the Sunday Herald turns 13. With little else to lose, perhaps now is the time to exploit those rebellious teenage years by genuinely trying to innovate and moving the entire operation online.

With a well-designed website and app version, and an investment of some of the resources saved by no longer publishing a print edition into strengthening the editorial resources at editor Richard Walker’s disposal, it would justify any glances towards paywalls Newsquest may be covetously making.

Newsquest’s Tim Blott told the Drum earlier this year: “What we’re talking about is content that is specifically Scottish and is sufficiently distinct so that people will say ‘I cannot get that content from any other publication or any other news organisation’.”

It’s a sound strategy. And there’s no denying the Sunday Herald, for all the audience has deserted it, has rarely disappointed in terms of delivering interesting content, even going right the way back to the days when Andrew Jaspan was in charge.

The key is to find a way that delivers that content appropriately - and the readership figures show the paper is not that method. So why not just go for it?

When it launched, the Sunday Herald was on the cutting edge of using online as a medium for news. It boasted a well-designed, comprehensive website that supported and supplemented the print edition - and which was a far cry from the clunking HeraldScotland service they have now.

It’s always boasted a more sophisticated design sensibility than the rest of the Scottish newspaper sector. With some clever planning and a dash of innovation, that sophistication would translate well into a user experience which could give a failing title a genuinely new lease of life.

The alternative, sadly, is clear - as the paper haemorrhages readers at a rate where a mercy killing looks almost too late.

“Sooner or later – probably sooner – a serious newspaper in Britain will ditch print, giving it up as a lost cause, and go for broke online”, claims Roy in his article. Given print is already, seemingly, a lost cause for the Sunday Herald, I’d say the time is right for them to go for broke.

In its current form, the Sunday Herald is a sad failure of a newspaper which should be either go digital or be put out of its misery. After all, what have they really got to lose?

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