Northern Ireland

Highs, lows and the changing face of journalism: Noel Doran on 30 years at The Irish News

As he bows out after 25 years at the helm of the biggest-selling regional daily newspaper in the UK and Ireland, the ‘editor of the century’ looks back

Irish News editor Noel Doran addresses guests at the Irish News Workplace & Employment Awards at Titanic Belfast: Picture: Declan Roughan
Noel Doran has spent 25 years as editor of The Irish News

NOEL Doran isn’t someone given to introspection or self-aggrandising so when the question of legacy is put to the man who has spent 25 years as editor of The Irish News, his response is swift.

“I leave legacy to the politicians,” he tells me. “All the awards and the plaudits over the years, it wouldn’t be something that concerns me too much.

“As long as the paper is in decent shape and as long as the staff have the ability and motivation and understanding of their role, you’d be happy with that.”

It’s fair to say he bows out with the paper in “decent shape”. The UK and Ireland’s biggest-selling regional daily newspaper, The Irish News remains at the core of society in the north and its influence, and sales, is far-reaching.

For 30 years – the first five as deputy editor – it’s been Doran’s domain, a hand-and-glove relationship which will continue into his semi-retirement as he takes on more of a consultancy role.

As today, his final day as a full-time employee approached, he’s been forced by people like me to look back on his years at the helm, a period which covered some of the most dramatic events in recent times and saw him rub shoulders with some of the most emblematic characters we have seen.

Discussing what drew him to the paper in the first place, he said: “I was a big admirer of The Irish News and when the opportunity came up to even apply for a job with the paper I had to go for it.

“It was the paper I grew up with. I admired how The Irish News was the voice of constitutional nationalism and so deeply rooted in wider society and its own community at a time when the constitutionalism wasn’t being reflected across the board.

“You could watch the BBC and UTV all day and you wouldn’t see much reference to Gaelic games or Irish language and culture or all the things people take for granted today whereas The Irish News reflected that automatically as well as the nationalist aspiration in those days.

“It’s completely different now because everything the BBC does now has to be balanced.

“I can remember coming into The Irish News and trying to get more resources to cover things like the GAA because it was a huge opportunity and we were then able to build it up over a period of time.”

Doran’s career started at the Antrim Guardian and, then, the Ballymena Observer where he first encountered the preponderant Rev Ian Paisley before spells in Belfast and Derry for the Belfast Telegraph, where John Hume and Martin McGuinness dominated the political and cultural landscape.

After a brief spell with Downtown Radio, he arrived into The Irish News in 1993 as deputy to Tom Collins before succeeding him in the editor’s chair on the eve of the new millennium.

“The Irish News newsroom I came into in 1993 was completely different to today,” he recalls. “We had a slightly unique editorial system where screens had come in but they weren’t linked up. So if a reporter filed a story, they had to then put it on a floppy disk and it had to be physically taken from one screen and keyed into the subs’ screen on the other side of the same room. So the idea that you push a button and the story pops up on a screen, here or on the other side of the world, no. Other side of the room? No, we hadn’t quite got there yet.

“A lot of newspapers had very much a basic approach at that time. The technology thing didn’t kick in, particularly in the regional newspapers where people still hankered after their typewriters. Things were starting to take shape at The Irish News but it took a while and, of course, we still printed on site then, in Donegall Street so you had the whole atmosphere of the press starting up which we could hear from the newsroom.

“The press was there until 2000 and the big advantage there was you set your own deadlines. The only issue was distribution to make the Dublin van for the south of Ireland circulation. In those days The Irish Times had the resources to charter a plane from Dublin to London where their directors felt it was an absolute priority to have a printed copy in the hands of the movers and shakers and opinion formers over there.

“So Dominic Fitzpatrick, our now CEO, did a brilliant job getting them to also take copies of The Irish News across on the same flight so The Irish News, for many years, was available in London that same morning and we did very well out of that.

“I suppose it emphasises how print was king and getting the printed paper to all parts was vital.”

He adds: “Those were different times. Society was on the cusp of changing, not that we knew it at the time. There were two different theories: one, that things were moving in the background here and hopefully they’re moving in the right direction, and the other theory was we’re all doomed because 1993 really was a bad year.

“You had the Shankill bomb, followed by Greysteel and various other catastrophes and people were talking about civil war so they were brutal times, no two ways about it.

“It was known that there were talks going on in the background and the coverage of it completely dominated the agenda but, also, you’re conscious that you have to look after your staff. This was inner-city Belfast in 1993; Donegall Street was the proverbial dark street so we had to be very careful and certainly nobody was allowed to leave by the front door at night.”

Being at the controls of the “voice of constitutional nationalism” may have phased a lesser person but Doran took it in his stride – an unflappable style which was to become synonymous with his editorship.

In 1999, his appointment marked somewhat of a change from the normal profile of an editor.

“I was 40 when I was made editor of The Irish News which was probably pretty young for those times, given most editors would likely have been in their 60s when they were appointed. But I was clear on what the role of The Irish News was at that time: the voice of constitutional nationalism, the aspiration to unity but also the determination to extend the hand of friendship to all sections of the community.

“When you’re younger you’re maybe not over-thinking it but when you look back you maybe think, ‘Jeez, did we really do all that?’

“Not everybody is going to agree with you and you can’t get everything right but looking back it probably makes more sense than it did at the time.

“The first thing we had to get into was policing because if there was going to be a new dispensation, policing had to be at the heart of it and the view of nationalists towards policing had to change because if nationalism didn’t accept the new policing service, then it wouldn’t have worked. And, specifically, the GAA and Rule 21.

“If you look at the south, if you took the GAA people out of the guards you wouldn’t have anyone left. If there was ever going to be a balanced new police service in the north, the GAA had to change its view, which was there for certain reasons. And The Irish News had to have a view on all of that.

“There was a fair bit of agonising over it internally but I sat down and went through things with the chairman, Jim Fitzpatrick, and agreed that we needed an intervention, which was to endorse the new policing board and that paved the way for the emergence of the PSNI with all the checks and balances and scrutiny.

“So we ran with a leader endorsing it and that leader in The Irish News was the top story on the BBC all day long, which I wasn’t expecting and probably took me back somewhat.

“When we endorsed the policing board, that was before it was endorsed by Sinn Féin but also the SDLP hadn’t endorsed it and the Catholic Church hadn’t endorsed it. And some people thought there was a choreographed move going on where we would put the leader out having consulted all round – but we simply decided to take a position and it clearly helped others to follow.

“There was also the issue of decommissioning which we were clear had to happen and the big development around that time was 9/11 because the world changed overnight and the Americans, in general, who had been quite benevolent towards republicans, changed under George W Bush and took a dim view of private armies and insisted on decommissioning.

“In that time – 2000/2001 – there was a lot going on and it could have gone in a number of directions. When there were guns out there on both sides the whole thing could have collapsed quite easily for another generation. But luckily structures did develop. Now, they kept getting suspended but they were still there and it was far better with the prospect that they would come back.”

In 30 years with The Irish News, Doran has been both a witness to, and a participant in, the changing face of journalism.

He’s gone from those days of floppy disks and cacophonous print presses firing into action to these digital-dominated times of mobile journalism and social media.

How The Irish News looks and feels is as important to its readers now as it was in 1999 when he became editor, or in 1891 when it was launched as an anti-Parnell publication. And while the future remains difficult to predict, he expects this paper to be at the core of the coming constitutional conversation.

“The paper’s role within society has to change,” Doran insisted. “And The Irish News has a crucial part to play in the constitutional debate within Ireland. It’s largely a blank page at the moment but it’s still at an early stage.

“I spoke at an Ireland’s Future event last year and addressed some of these points and talked about the role of the paper and our coverage, not just politics but health, education, the economy and environment has to be crucial. Health, as we move towards a proper discussion about a new Ireland, has to be central to it and there’s much more cooperation there.

“Education is changing as well and now they have the tolls and the proper motorways in the south so the idea of it being a backward state has changed in so many ways. All of that needs to be looked at in an all-Ireland context and papers have a clear duty to set out all the arguments and take up a position as well.

“You have to have a position but it has to be a responsible one because The Irish News since 1891 has been engaged in constitutional nationalism and always reflected aspiration in a democratic context and now things are getting moving.

“Everybody will have their views on social media; it’s a jungle. It’s a disgrace what happens on there. Twenty years ago, the only way to get your message across was through the papers and other media organisations and we were very measured and we were very cautious and very careful but, now, it’s pretty lawless.”

Jim Fitzpatrick with former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and editor Noel Doran at the Irish News Ulster All Stars in Armagh City Hotel in 2016. Picture by Declan Roughan
Noel Doran pictured with Jim Fitzpatrick and Martin McGuinness at The Irish News Ulster All Stars in Armagh City Hotel in 2016

Naturally, the decision to step away from everything he’s known for 30 years wasn’t an easy one.

He admits to deliberating long and hard before finally deciding that a quarter of a century as editor was enough of an innings. A slew of awards and acclaim, including being named editor of the century by voters on industry site HoldTheFrontPage in 2020, bear witness to that.

He said: “I had 25 years in my head and that felt like the right time to step down. I had it in the back of my head, ‘Do you really want to go beyond that?’. The paper will go on.

“You do wrestle with a decision like that but my wife retired last week so there’s logic to it and having a continued relationship with the paper is pleasing because you don’t want to just cut ties and walk away.

“The highlights? The highlight is having the engagement of your staff and the support of your readers. Fortunately the circulation rose and rose and rose. What do I put that down to? The quality of the journalism essentially and I think we took some bold decisions. You don’t get everything right but we kind of went for it.

“And we went from being a traditional broadsheet to eventually a compact paper and that all helped to modernise the whole image of The Irish News.

“I don’t have regrets, no. You would have regrets by lunchtime each day. It’s a series of judgement calls, if you get most of them right then you’ll be OK. You always get some wrong. Take it on the chin, address them and move on.”

As well as the good times, there has inevitably been sadness and The Irish News has certainly endured its fair share of that over the past year or two in particular.

Doran pauses as he contemplates the pain of the successive deaths of four beloved and long-standing colleagues.

He said: “First of all, our chairman Jim Fitzpatrick who was a huge influence and mentor. He embodied The Irish News and what it stood for and was the main figure for us.

“And then, last year, to lose Hugh Russell… it was a period of great difficulty. From his diagnosis to his death, it was less than two months, and with Dawn Egan it was barely two weeks. Even coming into the office, the first two people you saw were Dawn and Hugh. It’s been very difficult.

“And Lorraine McCarthy’s loss was another we all felt keenly. She was on the front desk and wasn’t to be messed with. If someone was being pretty difficult, she would say to them, ‘well I’m going to speak to the editor to see what he says’. Then she would tell me what I thought and I’d agree and she would go back to the person and that was that sorted out.

“In a small operation to lose one person would hit you hard but that’s four in such a short space of time. It’s been tough. They’re not just colleagues but also friends so you feel the pain of that, it’s only natural.

“In our industry you don’t get a lot of time and space to process these things but luckily there was the opportunity to grieve together around that stage which was crucial because people were reeling.”

Archbishop Eamon Martin makes a presentation to Irish News Editor Noel Doran during a visit to the offices in Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN (Mal McCann)

Doran’s thoughts can now turn to life outside the pressure cooker of being the editor, the person the buck stops with.

He will continue to have a regular association with The Irish News through a weekly column, as well as contributing leaders and playing a wider consultancy role. But while he decides how to wind down when he can, it’s pretty certain he will be found on the sidelines at various Gaelic grounds.

He said: “I don’t know if there will be a lot of free time. Writing leaders and a column is a big commitment but I’m keen to travel a bit and get to a few more football matches, although that’s pretty contingent on Down going on a bit of a run this year… it’s the hope that gets to you.

“I wouldn’t miss too many of the games at Pairc Esler but I’d like to get to a few more club games along the way too. Bredagh is where I live, what the kids were brought up with, so we take a bit to do with them – the Bredagh quiz team are Ulster champions, it should be said.

“Bredagh’s a big city club, with a huge membership and there’s a lot going on. My home club is Glasdrumman, a small place, total commitment, total involvement. A small number of people keep that club going through hell or high water.

“I’ll just be a face in the crowd but there’s a lot to be said for that.”

Tomorrow: Noel Doran on rubbing shoulders with the political big beasts of our times