Paper of Record: Where next for Scotland’s newspaper of the year?

Hopefully everyone at Central Quay has sobered up from last week’s understandable, and well deserved, celebrations following their Scottish Press Awards haul.

If not, the news yesterday that the paper’s circulation has officially fallen under the mythical 150,000 mark is sure to have cleared a few fuzzy heads along the Broomielaw.

The latest ABC figures make grim reading for the Media Scotland management.  It is just three years since the paper was selling north of 200,000 copies a day, but continuing double digit drops in circulation year-on-year have whittled away that audience, according to the most recently audited numbers, to just 149,892.

Tracking the paper’s ABCs year on year, the Record’s circulation has fallen 75% since the turn of the millennium.  While there have been the occasional shallower drops, the increasing severity of the print edition’s sales decline feels dangerously close to a terminal velocity.

On average, the Record’s circulation has fallen by an average 12.6% a year over the last four  years –at that rate of decline, the paper will fall to a five-figure circulation by April 2020.

Of course, that comes against the paper’s ongoing digital growth, with the Daily Record website claiming double digit growth in its online operation with an audience of 7.1m unique users and 32.9m page views in 2016.

But in the cut and thrust of newspaper sales, officially falling below the 150,000 mark still feels a significant milestone – not least with the Scottish Sun’s audience of around 200,000 sales a day.

150,000 has often been rumoured to be the cut-off at which Trinity Mirror’s patience would snap – not least among former Central Quay staff, where the pub chat and the informed speculation pegged it as the boiling point when the Record’s future would come under scrutiny.

However, that was a couple of years ago, and while that milestone may not have changed the market around it has, making any kind of intervention more unlikely.

Already much of the paper’s content is shared with the Mirror, with templating and output across non-Scots specific news and features content.   Successive internal redesigns have brought it closer in typography and layout to its Canary Wharf-based big brother over the last few years, as part of the centralised homogenisation of Trinity Mirror’s national, regional and digital output.

It’s hard to imagine Trinity Mirror taking too many drastic steps in the immediate term, but in the medium-to-long term, how much lower will sales be allowed to fall before the shareholders and the boardroom demand action to cut costs further.

The tone of the paper is notably different under Murray Foote than it was under Bruce Waddell – less openly antagonistic to the SNP and tightly slaved to Labour, although as evidenced by their recent front pages the Tories remain a permanent target.

The Vow may be the splash that raised the most eyebrows, but it is unlikely the die-hard nationalist audience was likely to buy the Record anyway despite the polarising nature of the debate that followed (although, going by the sales of The National, they’re not buying pro-independence papers either).

The Record still suffers from a reputational deficit among certain demographics – partly for political reasons, partly sporting ones – but the editorial direction of the print edition has continued to win industry praise for editor Murray Foote among his peers, as evidenced by back to back Newspaper of the Year awards from the Scottish Newspaper Society.

Content-wise, the Daily Record feels like it has gone back to its roots under Foote, scoring significant points for its campaigning work on issues such as ticket touting, organ donation and the recent, rightly acclaimed fight to get breast cancer drug Kadcyla available on the NHS.

That this has been done against a backdrop of job cuts, editorial mergers and restructuring which has seen the editorial staff numbers at Central Quay reduced by more than 120 since June 2011.

The most recent cuts came last October, when Media Scotland announced plans to merge the news, features and back bench operations of the Record and Sunday Mail in a cost-saving measure.  Key staff also left to go freelance, most notably from the features team. Morale is better than it has been, but staff on the editorial floor still warn of it being difficult, with more being demanded from less.

So what next for the Daily Record?  At the moment the paper works adequately as an ad revenue generator, both within its Scottish core and by giving Trinity Mirror’s nationals division a significant UK-wide footprint.  But the declining rate of circulation means that grace will only extend so far.

However, it is difficult to see what more, editorially at least, the current management team could do to arrest the circulation decline without radically changing the paper’s look and output – and that risks alienating the core audience the paper already has.  Going full Nationalist hasn’t rescued the circulations of Newsquest’s Scottish titles, after all.

An increased sharing of resources seems likely – and perhaps the Scottish Mirror, now little more than a couple of slip pages, being put out its misery may provide a very temporary salve.  But there remains virtually no fat left at Central Quay for management to shave off, so further job cuts – while predictable – will only damage the output.

All of which leaves the Record in a difficult position.  Editorially it remains a strong prospect, yet that content is failing to shift papers. The Record may once again be Scotland’s Newspaper of the Year, but it’s increasingly not the newspaper Scotland buys.  And at the current rate of decline, how long does it have being Scotland’s Newspaper at all?