Thanks Dad: back to the future for a positive Scottish media alternative

Flashback: it’s 60 years ago, and a keen young journalist, who’s getting used to the big city ways of Aberdeen after moving from Buckie, a small port on the north-east of Scotland, wins a national prize for a thesis on the UK fishing industry, submitted as part of his training.

It’s a detailed piece of work, based on the type of interviewing and statistical analysis he later becomes renowned for in a career covering sport, mainly football, including four World Cups, and Aberdeen FC reigning supreme under Alex Ferguson.

Throughout this working life, the journalist is part of a Scottish media that thrives. In the words of Roy Thomson, owning an ITV franchise is “a licence to print money” and the newspaper barons also revel in circulations that total millions.

Scots, famously, consume more papers per capita than any other country in the world and the revenue swilling around the system means lavish staffing, with equally lavish salaries and expenses for employees. And still lavish profits for the owners.

It’s the heyday of Scottish journalism, and the young sports writer is in his element. In the 1970s, he takes his son to many football matches, where the teenager is sent to run and phone copy from remote landlines to head office, and the vocation is handed down another generation.

Thanks Dad.

Flash forward: it’s 2016, and everything has changed. The sports writer has died (at the good age of 85) and the son finds himself — like so many others — too old/expensive for a legacy print industry which is in spiralling decline, collectively bemused by the digital revolution.

Titles are closing, remaining circulations are collapsing by around 10% every year, staff numbers are being slashed, and the only responses are widespread rationalisation, centralisation, and so-called synergies which — logically — can prolong the industry for only a finite time before it disappears into oblivion.

How to respond? Nostalgic memories? Bitterness? Resignation?

All those emotions would be valid if you believe that Scotland has fundamentally changed, and no longer needs the written media it once consumed so voraciously.

But if you think that Scots still treasure information, care about our community (at home and abroad), and value a shared national identity which has coped with political and financial earthquakes, maybe there’s another approach.

Which is where the son, with a bit of help from his Dad, starts afresh.

A solution in solutions journalism: it’s a well documented fact that the UK follows after many American trends — think music, TV, food. It’s also fairly obvious that, in a digital universe, the time lag has got shorter: if the gap was once five years, it’s now probably down to one, or less.

Across the Atlantic, some of the most successful and prestigious publications have already embraced solutions or constructive journalism — see “What’s Working” in HuffPo, “Fixes” in the New York Times, and “Take Action” in the Christian Science Monitor.

All start from a belief that much of the modern digital audience is regularly switched off by the mainstream media agenda of disaster, conflict, political knockabout, and celebrity clickbait. They vote with their cursors and shun articles that leave them bored, unfulfilled or even depressed.

But give them a chance to engage with an uplifting story, to be inspired by an ordinary person’s solution to a problem, and they’ll both read and share it. They do it all the time on Facebook, on such online platforms with massive audiences as Upworthy and Humans of New York.

Ironically, it sounds a bit like what helped power Scotland’s media back in the day, six decades ago.

Positively Scottish: so why we don’t harness the Scottish USP to an agenda of solutions journalism, and see if there’s an audience for that? Not instead of the main media players, who still cover hard news pretty well if a major story breaks, but as a daily option for people who want to read about how ordinary fellow citizens are dealing with change and adversity, and be inspired and enthused.

Since the print business model is all but doomed, it has to be online only, which also means it can easily reach readers in all parts of Scotland, and the vast Scottish diaspora who still cherish news of their homeland. (We reckon Positively Scottish will be one of the first sites in the world to marry solutions journalism with a national/regional USP.)

It should be free, for maximum access, and run as a not-for-profit, since good, useful journalism ought to be a social value, not just a commercial commodity.

It’ll start small, as an online magazine with a guarantee of at least one new story six days a week. Its growth will be linked to funding received — all new money will be re-invested in more stories.

Who’ll write the articles? Well, there’s no shortage of talented journalists out there, including the hundreds of youngsters who complete university degree training every year and whose only viable career path seems now to lie in PR.

We’ve no plans for an office: us old hacks know that you find real stories by meeting people in the community, not churning endless press releases at your keyboard.

And, crucially, who’ll pay for the project? Tricky, since it’s a new thing, and digital ads really don’t work, especially in an age of adblockers.

But surely organisations with a social mission would welcome an editorial partnership with a website which can demonstrate a niche but growing readership, committed to positive values?

Then there’s the possibility of philanthropic or grant aid for robust journalism with a community benefit, not to mention individual supporters who can afford to help maintain something that brings daily positivity.

But it needs start-up funding: Even before the dementia kicked in, Dad was too old school to understand digital. A basic mobile phone was deemed pointless by him, to his family’s frustration.

However, he would definitely have approved of something which offered real work opportunities to journalists, especially the younger generation who’ll miss out on the sort of workplace training readily on offer to him (and his son).

So it seems entirely proper that Positively Scottish launches thanks to a legacy created by part of my share of his will. That allows the site to be funded through its proof-of-concept phase, with a view to attracting external finance and eventually becoming self-sustaining.

More funding will mean more journalism, more readers, and more work opportunities.

Thanks Dad. has been set up through seed funding from the Alastair Gordon Macdonald legacy. The not-for-profit organisation’s founding directors include Calum Macdonald, aged 54 and a half, a former digital editor of the Herald & Times Group in Glasgow.

HTs to @joshstearns @molly d’aguilar and the team at the Geraldine Dodge Foundation in New Jersey and Jeff Jarvis @buzzmachine for some of the radical thoughts behind this project.

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