The reported decision to close the Hawick News premises at the end of 2015 and run the paper from Selkirk - eleven miles away - will leave the largest town in the Scottish Borders (population 14,000) without a newspaper office for the first time in almost 200 years. For many involved in the ‘trade’ the move by Johnston Press is beyond belief.
But a closer examination of developments over a relatively short time span of around fifteen years shows the alarming contraction in the number of newspaper offices across the region. The steady cull of skilled and experienced journalists since local titles became part of the vast Johnston empire should also be a matter of considerable regret and concern with the depleted staff struggling to cope with their ever-increasing workloads.
The largest newspaper business in the Borders with four weekly papers in its stable does not even have a single staff photographer based in a region with a population of well over 100,000 people. Yet the highly acclaimed pictures by staff ‘snappers’ was, until relatively recently, one of the trademarks which set the Southern Reporter above the rest of the Borders press pack.
Johnston Press has already closed offices in Galashiels, Kelso, Jedburgh and Duns since it paid almost £8 million for the Tweeddale Press Group in 1999. That deal was preceded by the acquisition of the Hawick News by Northern Press – later swallowed up too by Johnston – in 1998 for £875,000.
The relentless march of technological progress since the turn of the Twenty-first century is undoubtedly a major factor in the downward spiral of circulation figures and quality of content since the long-established titles ceased to be in family ownership. But surely much more could have been done to stem the incessant decline.
Management at Johnston Press certainly realised the technological advances being made at the time of those takeovers would have an impact on their print titles.
In March 2000, chief executive Tim Bowdler told shareholders in the company’s annual report and accounts: “Whilst we remain totally convinced that local newspapers have a bright future, we also expect new media to become an essential and significant contributor to our overall publishing business”.
But the endless decades of close ties between Borders communities and their local newspaper offices were soon to be swept away. Those valued LOCAL connections may have been severed forever.
Many previously loyal readers appear to have stopped taking their weekly dose of printed news, preferring instead to read about events and happenings in their town via the internet or on social media. And little seems to have been done to prevent them from drifting off into cyberspace.
Between the years 2000 and 2012 the official circulation figures for the Southern Reporter plummeted from 16,851 to 13,069, including a nine per cent fall in the space of twelve months. Over the same period sales of the Berwickshire News dropped from 5,359 to 4,264 while the Hawick News circulation nosedived from 7,134 to 4,751.
Unfortunately Johnston Press has ceased to be a member of ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) which means sales figures for their weekly papers are no longer publicly available. However, the chances are the decline has continued.
When told of the Hawick News office closure one highly respected and experienced former journalist commented: “I suspect the only reason lots of folk still buy the ‘News’ is because of the presence of the office in the town. This sounds like a perfect opening for some enterprising individual to start a wee paper with the words ‘written, edited and printed in Hawick’ beneath the masthead. It could also get back to basics by covering flower show results and that kind of thing.”
He added: “Johnston Press seems to have paid over the odds for those titles, and now they’ve sold off all the tangible assets like the offices and printing plants. As far as I can see the only thing they have left are the titles, the vastly reduced circulation and the advertising revenue, all of which have almost certainly fallen in value under their so-called stewardship.”
And another ex-reporter who spent more than 40 years in the newspaper industry remarked: “I was amazed to hear that the Hawick News is to close its office in Hawick and will be run by remote control from Selkirk. It seems a ludicrous decision to me. I can see the day coming when it will be merged with the Southern Reporter and there will be one paper for the Borders which would not be ‘local’ at all.”
Many of the decisions taken by Johnston management in recent times, including the move to shut the Hawick News office, means Tim Bowdler's 2000 assurance that his company's local papers had a bright future now has a distinctly hollow ring.