Noel Doran: 'Once the troubles had ended, we broadened our horizons'
The editor of The Irish News tells Matthew Bell how his paper has bucked the sales trend
Sunday 01 March 2009
There is no champagne on ice and he has no plans for a party, but Noel Doran could be forgiven for raising a small glass next month to mark his 10th anniversary as editor of The Irish News.
According to the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), his paper has once again bucked the downward trend among regional titles by showing a sales increase in the second half of last year. At 0.1 per cent, the rise may seem small, but it is impressive given the uniquely tough climate in which all local papers are currently operating, with equivalent titles in Scotland such as The Scotsman and The Herald experiencing double-figure percentage losses and record circulation lows.
"In the context, it's good news," admits Doran, although he is reluctant to revel in any glory. "The paper is more than the work of any individual and the News is more than a newspaper – it is central to the community." Largely, this is the Catholic community of Northern Ireland, which makes up about 43 per cent of the population. In a heavily partisan press, The Irish News is the leading voice of moderate nationalism, squared against The Protestant Newsletter, and with the Belfast Telegraph somewhere in between. With an average daily circulation of 47, 819, the News is the second most-read paper in Northern Ireland after the Belfast Telegraph, owned by Independent News & Media.
The Irish News has undergone a considerable reinvention since Doran became editor, a year after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. "Once the troubles had ended, we had to broaden our horizons," he recalls. Doran responded by creating a business desk and recruiting health and education correspondents. Sport was also made a priority.
Latterly the News has been unusual in refusing to give in to the widely held assumption that newspapers must give away their content for free on the internet. "If you're in an area where there is online advertising, you can afford to do that," he says. "But in Northern Ireland it is very, very hard to find – online ad revenue simply does not exist here. So we charge a £65 annual subscription. We don't have a huge number of subscribers, but the revenue certainly helps. I'm happy we have a reasonable website, but we can't compare with any of the London nationals."
The News is also a curiosity in being entirely owned by one family, the Fitzpatricks, who bought it in the early 1980s. Despite this old-fashioned management structure, the paper has not been afraid to take risks, switching from a broadsheet to a midsized Berliner format in 2000, five years before The Guardian. The readers welcomed the move, and subsequent market research showed they were in favour of an even smaller format, prompting a second downsizing in 2005,.
"The Irish News has been very clever," says Paul Moore, a media commentator and lecturer at Queen's University Belfast. "It has evolved to combine its core product of hard news with enhanced lifestyle, sport and celebrity coverage in a coherent way. But what really sets the News apart is that it was the first paper in Ireland to realise the importance of airing views it didn't necessarily agree with. Anecdotally I would say that quite a few Protestants read the paper."
The News stretches back to the time of Charles Parnell, who led the campaign for home rule in the late 19th century. When his party split in 1891 over revelations of his extramarital affair, the paper was launched as the voice of opposition, in reaction to the Belfast Morning News' unwavering support of Parnell. When Parnell died later that year, that paper collapsed, leaving The Irish News as the chief voice of nationalism, which it has remained ever since.
There is no shortage of quality newspapers in Ireland, but the News has carefully defended its corner, most notably against the now-closed Daily Ireland, a nationalist tabloid launched in 2005. Reports at the time that the News adopted aggressive tactics to see off its rival were denied by Doran: "It just wasn't a good newspaper."
His formula is working, for now, but Doran is not complacent. He is already concerned about the next set of ABCs, which will reflect the response to last month's price hike from 60p to 70p. "We thought of going up by only 5p but thought that would actually annoy the readers more." A recent diary item suggested he might be ready to move on. "There's no substance to it," he says, adding perhaps more enigmatically: "There are no circumstances I can think of under which I would want to leave." For the Fitzpatrick family, that must be cause for celebration.
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