LAST week I tweeted my belief that a discussion is needed on why The National often does more harm than good to the cause of independence. This brought out some pretty strong reactions all round. Some were perfectly rational in agreeing or disagreeing with me, others proclaiming the kind of conspiracy-theory paranoia which has sadly coalesced into a tiny, loud fringe since 2014.

One example of the point I was making, raised by some who replied to my tweet, was the Enemies of the Scottish People front page. This play on the previous month’s Daily Mail Enemies of the People’ splash about Supreme Court judges was in exceptionally poor taste and was condemned across the political spectrum, including by then SNP MP and now special adviser to the First Minister Callum McCaig.

I know dedicated Yes campaigners who stopped buying the paper after that. It was cheap, nasty and sensationalist, everything they had hoped a publication born from the new politics of the referendum would not be. It riled up a hardcore of hardcore Yes supporters at the cost of pushing other readers away and it dragged The National and by extension the Yes movement into the debate about an irresponsible media inciting ugly politics. It gave opponents of independence and potential supporters reason to associate the Yes movement with the madness of the Brexiteers, because that’s exactly what it looked like.

This was probably the worst example but it followed a pattern of front pages which are less thought-provoking and more cringe-inducing. The sheer volume of splashes about the latest Tory or Labour transgression, many deserving but some blown out of proportion, give an impression less of an interesting newspaper and more of a relentlessly partisan fanzine which confirms the most negative personal biases of existing, hardcore Yes voters.

The steady stream of questionably photoshopped, negative splashes doesn’t work for either of what I presume are the paper’s competing objectives. They don’t change minds and draw new supporters to Yes, nor do they give the impression of a paper intent on serious, interesting journalism. Very often they’re a poor reflection of the high quality of journalism contained inside.

I discussed this some months ago with a close associate of the paper. My concern was that stories about the roasters in the Scottish Resistance and other zoomer fringe elements in the Yes movement hurt us all on a number of levels.

They hurt the paper’s credibility as a source of real news, raise the profile of said roasters and give our opponents reason to mock. After all, The National styles itself as the paper of the movement, if it thinks this nonsense is worth reporting the wider Yes movement must think so too.

The problem is, that’s not the case and many Yes voters have stopped buying the paper out of embarrassment, which is painfully ironic given that the rationale I was given for covering the fringe like this was that it would help sell enough papers to the few thousand who take them seriously and would keep The National viable. As Callum hinted at in his editorial on Saturday, that viability isn’t an attribute the paper currently has.

Ironically, I’ve had people tell me they stopped buying the paper when the realised it was a false flag by the unionist press, or that it wasn’t really pro-independence! That level of paranoia has grown without much challenge since 2014 and I can’t help but feel that The National has been too concerned with holding on to those customers to challenge it.

And even the most partisan publications need more than their own agenda. The National’s issue is that to many it seems like they can buy the day’s news or they can buy another instalment of one never ending story, that Westminster is crushing the life out of us, aided by unionists in Scotland and the independence cause is only getting stronger as a consequence, especially when it quite obviously seems like it’s going backwards.

Perceptions of the paper matter for the wider Yes movement. The National markets itself firmly as a part of our movement in a way that other papers, even those with strong editorial lines and political agendas do not.

The Sunday Herald certainly does not position itself in the same vein. That means public perception of The National affects public perception of the wider movement. We all know that, however unfairly, we’re judged to a higher standard than the other side so why give them another stick to hit us with?

For some, even writing this article is evidence that I’m not really in favour of independence. That kind of hardline zoomer thinking is currently strangling the Yes movement, pushing thousands away and attracting no-one. I want to win independence and I am in no doubt that a credible daily paper could be an invaluable tool to do that but The National needs to change to be that paper.

Sometimes they knock it out of the park, like the front page welcoming Syrian refugees and in the breadth of columnists, but those front pages are rare and newspapers can’t survive on good columnists. We absolutely need more of those inspiring, positive stories but we also need quality, challenging hard news. This paper must be the constant challenger, especially to the SNP and the Greens, to the Yes movement and Scottish society as a whole. Sometimes it must be the dose of reality that’s needed.

I’ve written for The National on several occasions since its launch and I hope to be doing so long after independence is won. I hope we can agree that to make it that far, something needs to change. Thank you to the National for not shying away from the conversation.


Callum Baird: Our newspaper can't be everything to all people in the Yes movement

WE discussed the Enemies of the Scottish People front page, as we always do each day, quite thoroughly before we decided to publish it. Cards on the table: we thought it was pretty obviously a joke and had no idea of the reaction it was going to provoke on social media. It was supposed to be a humorous send-up of the po-faced Daily Mail original.

It featured David Davis and Theresa May dressed up in ridiculous judges’ wigs. It even had an exclamation mark! We thought it was an obvious parody and not meant to be taken seriously. Clearly, given the furore it caused for one day in December, I’ll admit that was a misjudgement.

As a new newspaper in Scotland we were – and still are – faced with two big problems: one, not enough people have heard of us; two, we’re given the worst spots on the newsstands. Our strategy to deal with both was to create eye-catching “event” front pages which would be shared widely on social media. People would see the front page, and be inspired to go out and buy it the next day. We’ve done 800-odd now, we’ve taken more than a few risks and have made a couple of missteps along the way. But the truth is that, in general, many more people like our front pages than don’t, and there’s a strong correlation between how widely shared they are with how well that day’s edition sells. There’s no point in having a newspaper that’s right-on but doesn’t sell any copies. Because that’s a newspaper that doesn’t exist for very long.

(Interestingly, this is exactly the same strategy that The New European – a weekly title launched in the wake of Brexit for Remainers – has adopted. Their eye-catching, photoshopped front covers owe some debt to what we’ve been doing – but I’ve never heard anyone describe them as a “comic”. And it’s surely no coincidence that we’re the only two major new newspapers to have survived beyond a few weeks).

The National has splashed on positive stories about the Scottish Greens over the past couple of years. Our front page has featured land reform, climate change, TTIP, fracking, countless immigration stories, the Yemen crisis. Has any other Scottish newspaper been as forward-thinking and progressive? Of course, we’ve had plenty of jibes at the Tories and Labour along the way. But can anyone say, judging by what Scotland has had to put up with over the past three years, that they’ve been undeserved?

Anyway, the idea that that particular front page lost us readers isn’t borne out by either the number of copies we sold that day – neither up nor down – or in the weeks after. In fact, from around mid-December last year and after a lot of hard work, we began to slowly increase our circulation, perhaps in small part due to reaching out directly to our readers via our new Roadshow. The feedback I’ve received while out and around Scotland has been invaluable – I’ve now spoken to more than 1500 people in person, at events from Dumfries to Kirkwall.

We kept putting on sales all the way until early June, when we even started to sell more copies than we had done the year before (almost unheard of in a newspaper market which is shrinking by 10 per cent every year). Unfortunately, as I mentioned at the weekend, we’ve had a tough six weeks since then, and our gains have been wiped off. Since there’s been no major shift in editorial direction or decision-making, I think it’s not unreasonable to conclude that a fair chunk of our readership has simply been scunnered enough by the General Election result to take a step back from the debate, and us. Which is why now is the time that our friends and allies should rally round us.

I often get feedback saying we should be more like a tabloid to compete with the Daily Record. Many others want us to aspire to be a pro-indy version of The Times. Some readers say we’re too earnest, some think our attempts at humour leave us as the joke. Some say we’re an SNP fanzine, while others are angry that we give too much coverage to the Greens or socialists. The truth is that The National simply can’t be what everyone who supports independence wants it to be.

But although we’re happy to take on and publish criticism, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: The National has been and remains a huge success story. I was part of a panel talking to some of the world’s brightest journalism students at the Scottish Parliament a few weeks ago. They were amazed when I told them I was editor of a newspaper which had launched in 2014. They just didn’t believe such a thing was possible. And remember that at the time, too, the consensus in Scotland was that we wouldn’t last, perhaps not even till Christmas. We’re still here, so we’ve got to be doing something right.

I’d like to thank Ross for engaging with us on this. And to anybody else who might have had complaints about the paper or lost faith with us over the past three years, I’d just say this: get in touch and help me and the team shape our newspaper. There’s no point attacking us from afar: come get involved.

The National could be a hugely valuable vehicle for independence in the next campaign – but we need as many people as possible, from right across the movement, to get behind us. Because there’s one front page that I’m desperate to publish some day and I’m pretty sure it won’t attract any criticism. It’ll just say: Scotland voted Yes.