The luck of the Irish: How the Irish News is bucking the sales trend

Brandished on a poster draped down the side of the Irish News building in Belfast's city centre are the words "A change for the better".

The words epitomise the broadly nationalist morning paper's drive to move away from the coverage of violence that has been so much part of Northern Ireland's history and reinvent itself as an all embracing read.

There was a widespread belief that the peace process would render the paper irrelevant and indeed in the late Seventies and early Eighties, sales were in freefall. But in the last ABC period the paper was the only morning title to put on sales (up 0.4 per cent to 48,518) while in the previous two periods it was the only daily paper to add sales.

It still has some catching up to do with Northern Ireland's main paper, the largely unionist Belfast Telegraph whose sale, although in decline, stands at 87,728.

The move away from coverage of sectarian violence and the broadening of the Irish News's horizons was vital to such a change of fortunes in one of the most saturated newspaper markets in the UK.

Steady investment from its current owners the Fitzpatrick family, following its takeover from the McSparrans in the 80s, also contributed to the gradual turnaround and later came a change in the paper's mindset not least by editor of eight years, the longest-serving editor of a morning or evening Irish newspaper, Noel Doran.

For a long period The Irish News was widely considered a very traditional, community-focused paper. A black and white broadsheet, its focus was heavy politics, religion, family notices and greyhound racing – mockingly referred to as "death, dogs and dogma".

Investment has enabled Northern Ireland's only family-owned paper to increase its staff from a skeletal 20 in the early '80s to 50 – the same number as the unionists' 27,205-circulation News Letter.

The paper was redesigned in 1999 when Doran succeeded Tom Collins as editor, and in 2000 when it shifted to the Berliner format. One of the first regional papers to launch its own website, it was also the first in Ireland to introduce online video news bulletins after it set up INTV.

In 2005 it dropped the size to today's compact format and also returned to its own in-house print centre. It was able to expand its coverage in education, business, lifestyle and, most crucially Gaelic sports – a Gaelic football match in 2003 between Ulster teams Armagh and Tyrone secured its highest-ever sale of 67,000.

"We were only ever scratching at the surface with our sports coverage, but Gaelic football is very important to us now," says Doran.

"You might compare it to the importance of Premiership soccer in the north of England or rugby in Wales. It is unique to Ireland and is hugely successful in terms of spectator interest. We've covered it strongly and comprehensively and it's helped development of the paper."

Doran concedes that there is a political dimension to its coverage because of the association of the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) and Gaelic sports with the nationalist tradition.

"There were huge numbers of people going to the games. Some of the papers would have felt a bit edgy and restricted about covering the games," he says. "The broadcasters didn't cover it, but they do now."

Although political conflict is no longer top of the agenda for The Irish News, its sports coverage indicates that it has no plans to become a cross-community paper. Doran is under no illusion that his paper will attract much of the Protestant unionist population, which is already well served by the Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter.

A recent readership survey showed around 10 per cent of Irish News readers are from outside the Catholic nationalist community and Doran says it's "not very likely" that it will go beyond that.

"It would be wrong to suggest that The Irish News would have an ambition to become a complete cross-community paper. It probably wouldn't work," he says. "Northern Ireland is still a divided society; it's just the way it is. Even having ‘Irish' in our title would put off some people. We are sending out a certain message on our front page and particularly in our sports coverage.

"You have a particular issue over international soccer where there are two international teams: Northern Ireland, where they sing God Save the Queen at Windsor Park; and the Republic of Ireland, which we would give more coverage to."

Doran says the aim of the paper is to serve its readers while at the same time reaching out to people of other traditions, but that doesn't mean pretending it's something it is not. "Communities are still divided in where people live, work and study, although the News has a mixed workforce," he says. "And if journalists can work together then there is some hope there."

Doran has worked with the other Belfast papers including the News Letter promoting peace, resolving conflict over parades and even on charitable issues. But as well as building cross-community cooperation he has also had to fight off competition from within his own community, not to mention the existing London papers – in particular the Irish Daily Mirror.

During what Doran describes as a "fascinating period" probably the biggest threat to The Irish News was the launch of the staunchly republican Daily Ireland by Andersonstown News Group managing director Mairtin O Muilleoir. The paper was short-lived but it led to a 3.7 per cent fall in The Irish News's circulation in February 2005.

Doran says the Daily Ireland lasted just 19 months, closing in September 2006 due to a severe lack of funding and its lack of journalists who had "been round a few corners". The Irish News undoubtedly played a part – arguing successfully against any government funding to help the paper off the ground on the grounds that it would have been unfair and uncompetitive.

His own paper's use of public money in the '80s was used only to renovate the exterior of the newspaper office following a city centre bombing campaign.

The News has also faced competition since March 2005 from The Belfast Telegraph's new morning edition, and from the lifestyle-based Daily View, which only lasted five weeks in spring 2005. Doran's belief was the market was not ready for a fully lifestyle-driven publication. "They almost wanted to exclude political coverage but people still want hard news," he explains.

According to Doran it seems there is only room in the Northern Ireland market for one regional daily for the nationalist community "They were both looking for a gap in the market that probably isn't there," he says.

The same is also true for the unionist tradition, he suggests: "On the other side it's a matter of public record that the circulation figures for The News Letter and The Belfast Telegraph are not healthy and I've every sympathy for their challenges. The idea that things have moved on sufficiently to support two or more daily titles is a bit adventurous."

The Irish News currently makes a profit and Doran claims the advertising revenues are running ahead of the UK average for the regional newspaper industry. He doesn't anticipate any of the redundancies or cut-backs which are rife in the UK regional press and is hopeful that the restoration of devolution will enable business in Northern Ireland to continue to thrive.

"I would be pretty confident the economy would move forward and that would certainly help in terms of advertising, primarily commercial advertising but perhaps more government advertising," he says. "It's not the equivalent of the Celtic Tiger just yet but it should certainly be of assistance."

The paper is also pushing ahead with its multimedia strategy: In January it became the first Irish newspaper to launch an online video news service, just ahead of The Belfast Telegraph, which it called INTV. This has yet to attract advertisers as they hoped but Doran remains confident.

"When we launched our website in 1995 our readers were very interested in it but advertisers weren't as forthcoming," he says. "I suppose you could say it's the same with INTV. It's early days yet but it would be wrong to say it's been a surefire success in terms of revenue, it will have to justify itself ultimately.

"We'd love to develop it and provide more coverage of Gaelic games but there are contractual issues there. The GAA has signed over all its rights to Setanta Sports, right down to the schools and colleges and under-age matches. In the printed paper it's been crucial to our progress and it would be nice to get it online."

Despite the relative success of The Irish News Doran looks ahead with caution.

"We'd like to think there is potential for further improvements but you have to see what's going on elsewhere and it doesn't give you huge encouragement," he says.

"We think there is room for growth but it's very hard work – you've got to maximise all the opportunities and maintain the core values of the paper but there is no point in pretending you are something you are not.

"You've got to reach out as much as you can without changing the values that have saved the paper. If we could put on a couple of hundred sales here and there we'd be delighted with that, but the idea we would put on 2,000 isn't feasible, not in the short term. We don't see there's a huge number of untapped readers out there."

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