Today Cork, tomorrow the world

It took courage to 'un-Cork' the Examiner, a sleepy local paper, and turn it into a powerful voice in Irish politics.

A small revolution in newspaper publishing has seen Ireland's newest national daily born from a regional title once legendary for its parochialism. The idea of "un-Corking" the broadsheet Cork Examiner was first considered 60 years ago by its owners, the Crosbie family, one of the city's so-called "merchant princes". But it took a new editor, Brian Looney, appointed from outside, to summon the courage.

"On my first day, the chief executive [Alan Crosbie] asked me: 'Well, Brian, what are you going to do?' I told him: 'I'm moving the deaths off page two and and I'm going to take the Cork out of the title.' He said 'Ye bollix! You never said that at the interview.' I said: 'You wouldn't have given me the job if I had.' "

For a once-sleepy paper whose obsessive Cork focus and local market dominance meant it was known simply as "de paper" across the sprawling county, it was a radical shift. The decisive move was finally made six weeks ago.

Looney says. "We could have either become totally introverted and so Cork-centred it would be unbelievable, or gone for growth. That was the only option. Otherwise we wouldn't sell in the rest of the country."

The paper's provincialism had bemused outsiders. A Dublin editor joked: "For years there wasn't an earthquake anywhere in the world where the Examiner couldn't find a Cork Christian Brother (priest) to give the local angle."

Staff freely admit that their unrelenting efforts to make Cork the centre of the world masked a regional inferiority complex, now happily on the wane. (In quiet bank holiday issues they would dust off pet prejudices, signposted by such headlines as "Should the Dail be moved to Cork?")

A pounds 3m upgrade included pounds 500,000 for electronic page make-up systems, but the biggest hurdle was refocusing journalists' outlook. Seeking a national flavour, Looney relentlessly badgered them away from "the obsession that every story had to be a Cork geography lesson ... to get them to snap out of that insular thinking."

Now named simply titled the Examiner, it will stay politically non-aligned. "When it comes to elections, we've a policy of 'equal misery to all', Looney jokes. "We wouldn't be averse to putting the boot into any of the parties; we have to keep putting manners on our politicians." That said, the paper's columnists can "have their head", he says.

Its independence has historical precedents. Production was disrupted by both the Black and Tans, the British auxiliaries, and the IRA. At the height of the 1922 civil war, IRA men charged up the stairs at the paper's offices off Patrick Street, evicted the staff and sledgehammered the Linotype machines. Such attacks led to Free State troops escorting trolleys of metal typeset pages to and from a temporary print shop in an old factory. Not surprisingly, some Examiner leader writers lacerated De Valera's anti- Treaty republicans long after that conflict ended.

The paper was founded in 1841 by a Daniel O'Connell supporter, John Maguire MP. Operational control later passed to Kerry-born Thomas Crosbie, an ancestor of the present owners and a veritable newspaper magician. The London Times offered 700 guineas in gold to lure him away, but then withdrew the offer on discovering that he was a Catholic.

The present editor believes that success will come by making the Examiner the preferred choice of non-Dublin readers left paperless by the slow demise of the Irish Press, which finally closed in May 1995. Two-thirds of Ireland's population live outside greater Dublin.

"Take busy market towns like Carrick-on-Suir, or Gort in Galway," he says. "The Indo (Irish Independent) is the only paper available there. The Irish Times would be bought by the bank manager, maybe. But Times doesn't make a blip outside Dublin."

With newsagent outlets already doubled to 3,000, the short-term target is a 10 per cent increase in its 53,000 sales by April 1997. Some, recalling that Irish Press sales were once three times that, believe that stronger long-term growth is possible, though local distribution problems remain.

Brian Looney is adamant that such a rural target audience will not mean pandering to backwoods intolerance. "We are not a voice for conservative Ireland. We would give Nora Bennis (founder of a new right-wing Catholic party) fair space to air her views, but equally we'd give plenty of opportunity to those with a contrary argument."

He cites recent Examiner coverage of a Waterford councillor's call for guns to be used to "run out" travellers (gypsies), which lit the fuse on a national controversy. It emerged that a security firm, hired to drive travellers out of Bantry, Cork, was similarly employed by councils elsewhere. Many callers complained that the paper was going soft on travellers. "But on these issues we have to be guided by what is the decent thing to do," says the editor.

Looney worked on Dublin nationals before six years editing the lively weekly called the Kerryman, which won a British award for its clean layout. He has preached the same gospel at the Examiner. "We live in a very visual world. It is important a paper should be easy to find your way around."

The result is a busy and varied read. Concise Irish news, squeezing up to 20 items on to a single page, was last week supplemented by well-illustrated coverage of the Lebanese conflict on two foreign pages; extensive business and sport, with both gaelic games and more English soccer than competitors; plus health and fashion features leading into more traditional fare: ads for blonde Aquitaine bulls and property pages of solid country houses.

With colour printing since 1976, the paper now uses it on eight pages excluding supplements, and to a quality that has won it contracts to print Irish editions of British titles.

The relaunched Examiner's national radio ads highlighted its scribes' brevity and sent up more pompous Dublin titles' verbosity and "opinionated ranting". After years of Dublin ridicule, the boot is finally on the other foot.

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