As the Sunday Post approached its centenary year in 2014, its circulation was in trouble. It had an ageing readership and the newspaper was simply not registering with many Scots. Part of the answer, as Richard Prest tells Ray Snoddy, was to make the paper more relevant by investing in hard-hitting investigative journalism.
“We have done a hell of a lot of work changing perceptions about the Post.”
As a boy in Scotland, Richard Prest used to be sent to the local newsagent on Sundays to pick up the family’s regular paper, the Sunday Post.
The legendary newspaper with long-running Scottish icons such as the Our Wullie and The Broons comic strips was part of their lives and his parents were bursting with pride when their son became editor of “their” paper, the Sunday Post, two years ago.
But in the first week of his editorship, the scale of the challenge Prest faced became all too apparent when he went up to the reception desk to sign in at a conference.
The woman behind the desk noted who he was and commented: “Sunday Post. My Gran used to read that. Does it still print?”
When Prest looked at the receptionist, he realised she was 60 if she was a day.
“Investigations have been a big part of it. There are lots of untold stories out there.”
He had inherited the editor’s chair at the DC Thomson title founded in 1914 and published in Dundee, in succession to Donald Martin who had moved up to be editor-in-chief of privately owned DC Thomson newspapers.
The paper has history and heritage and as recently as 1969 had a place in the Guinness Book of Records with the highest per capita readership of any publication in the world – more than 2.9 million, or 80 per cent of the adult Scottish population.
By December 2016, circulation had fallen to 143,000.
The media pundit Roy Greenslade has recounted how when he first read it in the 1970s, he had been amazed that it had any audience at all.
“So, I was astonished to be told that its odd mix of quirky news, sentimental features and cartoon strips had made it the best-selling newspaper by far,” Greenslade noted.
Neil Blain, emeritus professor of communications at Sterling University in an article headlined: “The Sunday Post: how Scotland’s sleepiest newspaper silenced the detractors” explained that the Scots at the time well understood “what sort of nation the Post’s unreconstructed parochialism represented, inward, conservative, folksy, reassuring and complacent.”
All that has changed. The Sunday Post is still unashamedly Scottish and focuses on Scottish news, but has been transformed into a modern newspaper with crisp design, award-winning investigative journalism and the in10 supplement – a process of modernisation that began in 2011.
Richard Prest: “I am still a reporter at heart.”“It was a perception issue because when I took over the paper, it had already been transformed quite radically by Donald Martin and there had been a lot of good things and a lot of the heavy lifting had been done. But it hadn’t percolated. The message wasn’t out there,” says Prest, who started as a 17-year-old trainee reporter at the Evening Express in his native Aberdeen.
What did readers want?
One of the first actions by Prest, who as a child always got the Broons annual as a present from his grandparents, was to carry out research to see whether the mixture of heritage and warm-hearted features was still relevant or had society changed so much that they were projecting the wrong image for the paper.
The message came back loud and clear. Readers still loved Our Wullie and The Broons, a “bawdy” Scottish family who have lived at 10 Glebe Street since 1936.
They were seen as an essential part of the Scottish psyche and had to stay, although Prest decided to clean up the design of the paper.
The research also came up with a number of important pluses – the paper registered highly in terms of trust and impartiality and the readers said: give us the facts and the expert analysis, we are not stupid.
In very political times, Trump, Brexit and calls for Scottish independence – the Post came out for a ‘No’ vote in 2014 – the challenge was to find the right approach.
“Sometimes you think because they are ordinary working folk, they are not going to be interested in Trump etc. They are, but they want it without the spin,” says the Sunday Post editor.
The chunky 96-page paper still emphasises human interest features and stories that appeal to the best in people but there is also a strong roster of columnists who range from Judy Murray and Lorraine Kelly to “King” Kenny Dalglish, or as he is now more formally known, Sir Kenny Dalglish.
Finding the untold stories
At the heart of the transformation has been a greater move towards sustained, time-consuming, investigative journalism.
“Investigations have been a big part of it. There are lots of untold stories out there. I am still a reporter at heart. That’s why I came into the job,” says Prest who still shivers at memories of his football reporting days – turning up to cover the Highland League in January without realising he needed a coat.
His work ranged from covering the notorious Nat Fraser murder case in Aberdeen and tragic oil industry helicopter crashes before taking the editing route after he found he enjoyed a news desk stint, going on to edit the Dundee Evening Telegraph.
An investigation by Sunday Post reporter Gordon Blackstock that stands out, began in the most ordinary way.
“It started off at what was just a planning meeting and a list of potential investigations. I think it was third on the list, kids at an orphanage may have been buried in unmarked graves. We all stopped,” says Prest.
Blackstock got to know someone who had been at the Smyllum orphanage near Glasgow, run by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, who feared that many more children had been buried in unmarked graves than previously suspected.
Burial records and death certificates were collated and analysed with the help of the Association of Scottish Genealogists enabling the Post to dig out and print the names of more than 400 children who had been buried in unmarked graves over more than a century.
“We don’t do half stories. We would rather hold onto a story and wait and see what else comes in,” says Prest who notes that, unlike the children, the nuns had shiny headstones.
The previously anonymous children will finally get their memorial with their names on.
The painstaking story won multiple awards at the Scottish Press Awards – the Post was chosen as Newspaper of The Year – and was shortlisted for the British Regional Press awards and the Paul Foot Award.
It is not a one-off. Other Post investigations range from offshore ownership of Scottish assets, including reports that former Manchester United manager Sir Alec Ferguson had an investment in an offshore fund, to exposing illegal puppy farms and an exclusive on a woman claiming she had woken up in the hotel bed of a Scottish politician without knowing how she got there.
“You have got your package; so you have got your human interest which is still a real attraction for the Sunday Post, pride in Scotland, people doing the right things, remarkable transformation of their lives but at the same time, you need the investigative stuff, that is the bit we have enhanced,” says Prest, whose wife Carol is head of insight at DC Thomson.
But despite all the signs of an editorial renaissance and renewed respect from their peers, what about circulation and the nature of the readership?
“We don’t do half stories. We would rather hold onto a story and wait and see what else comes in.”
Circulation remains an all too familiar problem. Sales are now down to around 120,000 a week with the paper still appealing to more mature readers in the North of England and Northern Ireland as well as the Scottish core.
“The average age is 62 but sometimes there has been the perception in the past that its Mrs Miggins, aged 82,” the 44-year-old editor says.
Today, 62-year-olds are more likely to be planning hikes up Mount Kilimanjaro than sitting around in their slippers.
Prest says, despite the industry-wide challenges, the paper is healthy and profitable, with DC Thompson allowing him to edit and prepared to listen to the case for new investment when he can make one.
It also helps, he believes, that his owners are “the last really indigenous” significant Scottish newspaper publishers, with Johnson Press having a UK footprint.
Despite their superior marketing power, he does not fear competition from the London nationals who come to Scotland in tartan garb.
“We stand for ourselves in the marketplace. I challenge anyone to say who else has more Scottish news than us,” says Prest.
Financial difficulties, however, can still sometimes come from unexpected quarters. The Brexit-induced devaluation of the pound has obviously pushed up paper prices but the move against plastic creating demand for cardboard is having a similar effect.
The timing of football games to meet television schedules has reduced the number of Saturday kick-offs which is not good news for Sunday newspapers.
“An Old Firm (Rangers v Celtic) match at midday on a Sunday is useless for me,” says Prest a firm Aberdeen supporter.
The next stage of development at the Sunday Post will be to strengthen its digital offering, with one of the issues to be decided being how much to offer in the days running up to Sunday publication.
“I think at the moment, we will spread out the stories as they go on during the week with some stuff as it breaks as well. Obviously, there are things to put out in advance. It’s really exciting the next stage of my editorship,” says Prest.
The Sunday Post editor fears next year will inevitably be “a hell of a year” to try to compete with this year but says he is determined to concentrate on making sure that every single edition punches above its weight.
“We have done a hell of a lot of work changing perceptions about the Post but there is a lot more work to come,” says Richard Prest who is also in charge of an even more traditional DC Thomson publication, The Weekly News.
As for Professor Blain, he argues that while the future of the Sunday Post is far from certain: “it stands as an object lesson in how to reinvent yourself”. Maybe it can provide “some encouragement to countless other titles simultaneously battling to maintain readers and credibility.”
“An Old Firm (Rangers v Celtic) match at midday on a Sunday is useless for me.”