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A decade after the drive to independence was expected to usher in a golden age for the Scottish press, newspapers face a struggle to survive.
EDINBURGH, Scotland — When parliament opened here in 1999 with new powers thanks to the devolution of control away from London, it was expected to herald a golden age for Scottish journalism.
Back when Scots were ruled directly from Westminster, they already bought more newspapers per person than the rest of the British population. Circulation at the Herald, the largest broadsheet in Glasgow, regularly topped 100,000 issues, and tabloids such as the Daily Record sold many times more.
But today, just 12 months before people go to the polls in a historic vote on full independence, worries are mounting about the survival of the country’s newspaper industry.
The September 2014 referendum on whether or not Scotland should leave the United Kingdom after more than 300 years may be grabbing international headlines, but it’s doing nothing to counter a long slump in Scottish newspaper sales.
Instead, the press has found itself at the center of many bitter online debates about its perceived bias, particularly on the part of “yes” supporters who tend to accuse editors of failing to provide balanced coverage of the potential benefits of Scotland’s going it alone.
Stories about the possibility of London seizing the pandas at Edinburgh zoo and bombing Scottish airports in the event of a foreign threat have added to their sense of grievance.
“The unionist campaign has never knowingly undersold the scare stories around independence,’ writer Iain Macwhirter says. “And the media, in the eyes of the ‘yes’ campaign, has been happy to broadcast them.”
However, perceptions of bias are misplaced, says Julian Calvert, a lecturer in journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University.
“It’s very hard to find a newspaper that tries to look at both sides of the debate because [independence] is such a broad issue,” he says.
Unlike in similar political situations in Spain’s Catalonia and Quebec, Scotland has no avowedly pro-independence newspaper. The last such effort, the Scottish Standard, launched in 2005 and ended in dismal failure.
The weekly, middle-market tabloid aimed at nationalist-inclined readers — it featured a column from Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond, who has spearheaded the referendum — shut down after printing just seven issues. Circulation never climbed above 12,000.
Opinion polls suggest that around a third of Scots will vote “yes” next year, and a significant number remains undecided.
However, most experts believe the vote will fail.
Calvert believes the fact that no newspaper has come out in favor of independence owes more to bottom lines than editorial agendas.
“Most of the print media will take a commercial decision based on the most likely outcome,” he says. “They are probably sensing that there isn’t an enormous atmosphere for pro-independence stories.”
The mainstream Scottish press position on nationalism is less negative than its detractors claim, however. A number of newspapers, including the tabloid Scottish Sun and the broadsheet Sunday Herald, backed nationalist candidates during the last parliamentary elections in 2011.
“It is not quite true to say the press is opposed to the SNP,” Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker told an audience at a debate about independence and the media at the Edinburgh festival this week. “Our aim is to create a place where we can have a grown-up and responsible debate about the issues and independence.”
Regardless of the sides they support, newspapers are unlikely to be a deciding factor in next year’s referendum. “I don’t think the press will have a terribly influential role because people know what they are buying and they are re-enforcing their biases,” Calvert says.
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Nevertheless, when it comes to the debate about independence, the mainstream media still sets the agenda, says Andrew Tickell, who blogs about law and politics.
The blogosphere still remains “quite reactive,” he says. “Bloggers respond to what’s happening in the broader press.”
How long that’s true remains to be seen. As newspaper sales continue to fall, many publications are subsisting on shoestring budgets.
Author and freelance journalist David Torrance says the real issue for the Scottish press isn’t covering the referendum, but a global problem in the internet age.
“The elephant in the room is the structural issues facing the press,” he says. “Even now, newspapers and proprietors haven’t figured out how to make journalism pay.”