Scottish Newspaper Society: Opportunities in the digital age

grant-sns-1Yesterday I took part in the inaugural Scottish Newspaper Society conference. It was an honour to be asked to speak at such a prestigious event, sharing the lectern with Lord Black, Alex Salmond and Ellis Watson among other distinguished speakers.

I was asked to talk about opportunities for Scottish newspapers in the digital age. My short speech got some great feedback on the day, so I’ve posted it here in case anyone who missed it may be interested.

A foreword: The BBC takes a slight bashing in my presentation below, really from the head rather than the heart. For balance, you may wish to also read my love letter to the BBC which I delivered at the Guardian Book Festival last year.

Scottish Newspaper Society: Opportunities in the digital age

My name is Grant Gibson. I’m Digital Innovation Manager at the Herald & Times Group. I run the design, technical and subscription functions for the group’s news sites, and for our new commercial platforms including Scotland’s Homes.

Our flagship news site, Herald Scotland, was the first regional news site in the UK to introduce subscription back in 2011.

We now have close to 10,000 subscribers with digital access. The vast majority of those – around 7,000 – are pure digital subscribers with no connection to the printed product.

The surprising thing – for me at least – is that we’ve achieved this despite our competitors’ sites being universally free to access. It’s like going into a newsagent and being presented with a sea of free sheets and one paid-for title. Yet online, we’ve found people are willing to pay for our quality journalism.

Despite being alone in charging for access, we’ve enjoyed huge growth in audiences. In the first half of 2013, ABC announced Herald Scotland was the fastest growing regional news site in the UK, with year-on-year growth of 66%.

And we repeated that growth in the second half of the year too.

Much of that improvement has been driven by our unique online content and by our strict moderation of the comment threads, all of which has been funded from subscription revenue.


Running a hard paywall – like The FT, Netflix or The Sun – is arguably fairly straightforward. You put up a subscription form, ask people to pay, and block their access if they don’t.

Running a metered paywall – as we do on Herald Scotland – where millions of anonymous internet users must be limited to just a handful of articles per month – is surprisingly difficult.

Or at least difficult to do well.

It’s a cat-and-mouse game between the developers in my team and the copyright infringers who are always looking for ways to print, scan, copy and share our content via other channels.

But it’s a game we’re winning: a single technical change can close a loophole used by thousands of readers, adding as much as 10% to our subscriber totals for a couple of days work.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the BBC.

Back in the 1980s, if the BBC had proposed spending television licence fee money to distribute a free newspaper – in every town and city in the country – they’d have been told to get on their bike.

Yet that’s exactly what they’ve done by stealth in the digital age, creating a text-based news service that competes head-to-head with every national and regional newspaper in the UK, and spending £180 million per year of television licence money to do so.

And that, of course, doesn’t include the hundreds of millions that the BBC spends on news gathering for TV and radio which it then re-purposes for the web.

There’s nothing we can do about that… for now. But we can achieve a lot within our own sphere of influence.

With HeraldScotland we’ve shown that metered paywalls work:

  • They deliver additional revenue streams
  • They don’t hurt overall audience levels –in our case the audience has doubled
  • Advertisers like them – we still have broad reach, but we also have a loyal core audience that we can profile in detail
  • The technology is mature – simple sign up forms, automatic repeat-billing and seamless integration of paywall, commenting systems and apps mean that there’s no technical barriers to building a paywall
  • And the more organisations that start to value their content again – and put a price on it –the more we’ll all benefit.
  • Readers will be forced to make a stark choice: pay for the journalism they want to read, or settle for the state-funded alternative.

To other news organisations I have a simple message: Dive in, the water’s lovely.

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Photo credit: All photos (c) Jeff Holmes