There is always a sharp intake of breath on the rare occasions when media folk hear that a colleague has agreed to a fly-on-the-wall TV documentary. On your guard for the first couple of days until the crew becomes part of the furniture, and then they just have to wait until there is a slip which makes telly gold.

The chance to get a message across, to let the public see what really goes on behind the scenes, is a seductive offer and so it is with the first of BBC Scotland’s two-parter The Papers, in which this fine publication and its sisters opened their doors to the cameras, aired last night.

Even from the advance clips the message is clear. That to deliver a big daily newspaper with a 200-year tradition of excellence and enormous reader expectations was always a massive job, but with unprecedented assaults on its financial stability from the technology giants, it is a daily miracle.

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It is exactly the same story at my old stable, Scotsman Publications. When I edited the Edinburgh Evening News at the turn of the century I had a staff of 85, with 120 at The Scotsman and 60 at Scotland on Sunday, plus healthy freelance budgets. Now a complement of just 75 get all their titles over the door.

The advance of businesses like Craig’s List, Gumtree and Ebay attacked classified markets for jobs, motors and property, then Google and Facebook savaged the display advertising markets. The most serious effects have happened in the space of 15 years, leaving publishers with huge wage bills no choice but to slash costs and increase prices to compensate.

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While the printed papers themselves might be smaller, the reality is that the number of products and services themselves have expanded.  It is an exhausting environment, but the industry’s record of experiment, innovation and audience growth under extreme pressure is remarkable.

But for revenue there were only ever two real options: generate a big enough digital audience through free access to generate advertising revenue or start charging for digital access through paywalls. It has become clear that the audiences required to make money from free access are vast – Mail Online has only started to generate a profit, but it has taken huge amounts of money and an enormous staff to generate over 15m daily users to make that possible, resources beyond most publishers.

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And in a UK context, the other option of establishing paywall systems runs into the constant problem that the BBC does a fine job in providing a broad, free-to-access service which all but political extremists regard as excellent. Why pay for a Herald, Scotsman or Times subscription when the BBC is available at the dab of an app for free? Except of course it isn’t free. You pay through your licence fee, just as you pay for the NHS though your taxes, but it has given the BBC a virtual blank cheque compared to other news operators. The irony that it has taken a BBC documentary to take this message to a wider audience is not on the business.

But the BBC faces its own crisis, and while it is busy spending £30m a year launching a new linear, terrestrial BBC Scotland channel, new audiences are streaming services like Netflix and will never see the need to buy a licence. The BBC is increasingly just another hunter in a digital jungle.

Fast-moving overseas tech companies unburdened by legacy costs but who use and abuse audience data are the real enemy of properly researched, checked and curated news services, but feed off them without putting a penny back, apart from token projects to buy-off threatening legislation. Over 90% of people in the UK read a mainstream independent news publication at least once a month – The Herald alone now has two million monthly users and reaches thousand more people than in the 60s hey-day – so it’s not an audience problem they face but a revenue one.

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The Cairncross and Furman reports about the future of news and digital competition present solutions which are now sitting with the UK Government, but it will take political will to change the media and news landscape while minds are on other matters. It’s about time they were grasped before it’s too late.

John McLellan is Director of the Scottish Newspaper Society