Scottish newspaper ABCs: Just how low can they go?

The Scotsman

What is the lowest circulation point an indigenous Scottish national newspaper can fall to before it becomes economically unsustainable to keep printing?  The answer may soon be revealed after the latest round of ABCs revealed troubling numbers for Scotland’s big super-regionals.

The headline figure, as highlighted by Press Gazette, was the startling fall of the National, which has seen a near 30% drop in circulation year on year in the second half of the year, with an average daily print sale of 8496.

It is a startling fall, given the paper peaked with sales of around 50,000 in the immediate wake of its late 2014 launch. That number had slipped to 36,000 by January 2015 as the audience supposedly settled down, but since then has been on an almost constant decline, culminating in the latest figures which suggest the paper has lost more than 76% of its print readership in just two years.

Yet it seems unlikely that Newsquest will pull the plug on the National – at least for the foreseeable future.  With a small staff almost entirely composed of relatively cheap freelancers the overheads of the paper, which claims a further 1900 digital subscribers, aren’t on the scale of other titles.

Scottish regional newspaper ABCs: July-Dec 2016

Title Circulation Percentage
Press and Journal 51880 -8.1
Evening Express 24744 -10.6
Dundee Courier 32324 -8.6
Evening Telegraph 14971 -11.2
Scotsman 19449 -14.5
Scotland on Sunday 16209 -15
Edinbugh Evening News 18362 -15.8
Herald 28872 -10.2
Sunday Herald 21071 -2.5
Evening Times 23696 -14.6
The National 8496 -29.9
Greenock Telegraph 9555 -9.1%
Paisley Daily Express 4800 -6

The political capital of having the National in the stable as the discussion around a second independence referendum in Scotland heats up is likely to be a factor, too, with the optics of scrapping Scotland’s only daily pro-indy paper during such a debate one that Newsquest would presumably prefer to avoid.

The grand old dame of Scottish newspapers entered her centenary year this year with the shock news that the highly respected Ian Stewart was to step down as editor following a five year spell in charge of the titles.But while the National may be the most obvious attention grabbing figure from the ABC data, a more worrying trend comes from the capital where it could be, depending on your perspective, either the best or worst time to not be the Scotsman’s editor yet.

His replacement as editorial director of the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Edinburgh Evening News has yet to be named but whoever she or he ends up being, they will come into the job on the back of ABCs showing the daily circulation of the Scotsman had fallen another 14.5% to 19449.

Remove discounted sales from that number, and the average full price daily number of papers sold is just 11974.  Given that’s an average, it is not unreasonable to assume there are days when the circulation of the Scotsman is now in four figures – a far cry from the late 90s, when the paper’s daily circulation was close to 80000.

The Scotland on Sunday’s circulation decline is equally as wince-inducing, falling 15% year on year to just over 16,000 copies.  Its audience has fallen by around two-thirds in the space of five years, a figure all the more concerning given that a year ago, owners Johnston Press placed the title in the sub-core bracket – the newspaper equivalent of being on the at-risk register.

Perhaps more concerning is the ongoing decline of the Scotsman’s digital presence.  The ABC figures published yesterday show the site’s daily unique browsers number down to 97,200 – up 2% year on year but apparently down more than 6% from the first half of 2016.

Whoever takes over the big chair at the Scotsman faces a daunting task.  Scotland’s printed press remains in decline across the board, but across the Scotsman group this decline appears more marked than most – and curiously isn’t being supplanted by a significant boost in digital audiences. In a year when the paper marks its bicentenary, there are worrying signs from the group that there won’t be many more anniversaries to celebrate.