In 2014, 97 percent of people in Scotland registered to vote in the Scottish independence referendum.
The period leading up to the vote prompted a surge in political engagement which mobilised politicians and the public alike. Regardless of the result, it was celebrated as a great democratic success and the eyes of the world fell on Scotland.
Against that backdrop, with political interest maintaining an increased level since and speculation over a second referendum still dominant, media organisations should be flourishing, but the gulf between the heightened appetite for political news in Scotland and the crushing decline of the print media is stark.
The problem of funding journalism in the digital age is a global one, but recent dramatic events in Scotland have highlighted just how serious the problem has become in a country bursting with a constitutional story to tell, and the dire consequences for freedom of the press.
The media became the story in late January when Newsquest’s Herald & Times Group – which publishes The Herald, founded in 1783 and a stalwart on the Scottish media landscape – found itself in a panic over a legal threat from a football club.
Award-winning sportswriter Graham Spiers departed amid the fallout over an article he’d written about Glasgow Rangers FC – for which The Herald apologised to the club – and I was sacked from my role as a columnist soon after for expressing support for him on social media following further complaints from the club.
It became a UK-wide news story, and while much criticism was directed The Herald’s way, the incident raised far wider questions about the limitations of a free press trying to operate in a declining financial market against threats of legal action or possible advertising withdrawal when reporting on controversial issues involving big businesses, football clubs or otherwise.
Scotland's print press is reaching rock bottom.
The story became an insight into deeper turmoil in Scotland’s media, with one commentator on a BBC radio programme lamenting that the Herald was no longer “functioning as a newspaper”.
And it would be difficult given its current constraints: Having already endured three rounds of redundancies within the space of a year, the paper is preparing to lay off even more staff across its Glasgow titles.
Its only rival broadsheet newspaper in Scotland, The Scotsman, which is based in Edinburgh, isn’t faring much better. After the merging of several newsrooms last year amid cuts, staff are now threatening to go on strike over another round of redundancies on the way from publisher Johnston Press. Scotland’s print press is reaching rock-bottom.
But there is another side to Scotland’s media story. During the referendum campaign a number of grassroots “new media” websites emerged – Wings Over Scotland, Bella Caledonia and Newsnet Scotland to name a few – to present the positive case for Scottish independence amid falling public trust in the mainstream media’s coverage.
Between them, they have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to sustain them, directly from readers. None of them operates a paywall, all content is free, and funding primarily comes from one-off crowdfunders rather than subscription models.
CommonSpace – a news service set up post-referendum, which I edit – is the exception, with funding coming from monthly donations large enough to employ a full-time team of four staff.
While these outlets are online-only, they have had an unarguable impact on the media landscape, and tensions between the old and new media are often fraught. For many, the mainstream media is no longer a trustworthy source, they say.
The new media, however, is comparatively local, free from corporate control and survives without advertising revenue. It can boast an independence that the mainstream press no longer can.
However, CommonSpace aside, very little news reporting or generation takes place in the new media. It’s largely reactive: It responds to stories first published in the mainstream and takes on a role of myth-busting, debunking and critical analysis. In addition, the funding model is extremely vulnerable.
The new media alone, in its current state, is not enough to fill the editorial gap. While supporters have been financially generous, the ability to expand operations and audience from its current base is limited.
While most of the UK’s heavyweight political media is based in London, resources in Scotland are running dry. The recent crisis at The Herald, quickly followed by strike threats at The Scotsman, has added a sense of urgency.
And the despair around Scotland’s media extends beyond print: a deep distrust of the BBC and fears of a pro-union bias emerged among some sections of the Scottish public during the referendum, prompting protests outside BBC Scotland’s headquarters in Glasgow. The SNP is now calling for control of broadcast to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, thrusting a media predicament straight into the wrangling over Scotland’s very political future.
There is a stand-off in Scotland: The decline of the print media is contrasted by the surge in new media popularity, but neither side has the answer to long-term sustainability.
The repercussions for journalism are perilous. This is a significant point in Scotland’s political history, but while the need for high-quality, independent journalism has never been greater, its survival in Scotland is now firmly in uncharted territory.
Angela Haggerty is a journalist and editor of Scottish news website CommonSpace.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.