146 years to the day Belfast Telegraph was launched, First Minister Foster heralds exciting new era
DUP leader unveils ceremonial plaque to officially open state-of-the-art dockside headquarters with words of praise for 'iconic' newspaper
First Minister Arlene Foster helped the Belfast Telegraph write its own headlines yesterday as she opened its modern new headquarters.
She spoke of how it was the paper she grew up reading in Fermanagh alongside her parents, who scoured its pages for news of Belfast's Sandy Row and Distillery Football Club.
The ceremony to herald a new era for the paper came exactly 146 years after the Belfast Evening Telegraph first hit the streets at a cost of a halfpenny.
The DUP leader was presented with a ceramic reproduction of its front page, which was mainly made up of advertisements for products as diverse as smoking mixtures and sewing machines.
The state-of-the art Clarendon Dock offices of Independent News & Media Ltd (INM), which owns the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life and a number of other publications, are just over a mile from the iconic Royal Avenue building that was previously home to this newspaper.
However, the new, modern building is a million miles away from the old one in terms of comfort, design and technological potential.
Even before the First Minister unveiled a plaque on the editorial floor in Belfast Telegraph House, she was making the news herself as TV broadcasters stopped her on the way into the offices to ask about the axing of 250 jobs by the Caterpillar company and about Brexit.
It was a thorny issue that would raise its head later during the official speeches inside the new building, but as Mrs Foster exchanged earlier pleasantries with the INM management team and newspaper editors, another controversial exit dominated the proceedings.
She started the conversation on the shock decision by Ulster Rugby to ditch their popular South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar because of the IRFU's succession policy.
Mrs Foster was clearly in the Remain camp this time around and wondered if a campaign might be started to keep Ruan at Ulster, especially as he did not want to leave the place where he had made a home for himself and his family.
Mrs Foster also talked up the progress that was being made in the bid to stage the Rugby World Cup in Ireland in 2023, and she expressed optimism that Belfast, including Casement Park, would be ready to play its part.
As she set off on her tour of the new offices, Mrs Foster passed a gallery of greats from Ulster's sporting past including George Best, AP McCoy, Mike Gibson, Gerry Armstrong and Mickey Harte.
The First Minister later revealed that her father had been a huge sports fan who was an avid reader of the Ireland's Saturday Night, or the Ulster, as it was affectionately known.
She said that her dad bought the paper religiously every Saturday night because he was a Distillery man and he liked to keep in touch.
"My mother was from Sandy Row in Belfast and she read the Tele every day from cover to cover to keep up with the news from home," Mrs Foster explained. "It was almost like a lifeline for her down in Fermanagh."
Mrs Foster said the opening of the new INM headquarters was a significant and important day for the Belfast Telegraph and the other publications in the group.
"Obviously, the offices are a massive contrast to the iconic and historic building that the newspaper has just left," she added.
"But I think it will be a marvellous place to work, a purpose-built media centre that fully integrates the print and digital operations of the INM group."
Mrs Foster acknowledged that the newspaper industry across the world was facing challenging times.
But she stressed: "The Belfast Telegraph as a title is iconic in terms of Northern Ireland and people always identify with it as a paper for Northern Ireland, and they will always relate to it in that way."
She said the new investment by INM was a "step forward" for the paper and the other titles the firm had acquired.
The First Minister said she read the Belfast Telegraph online, but added that she preferred to hold a physical copy of it and other newspapers in her hands.
On the second floor of Belfast Telegraph House, with its striking views of Titanic Belfast and the SSE Arena, Mrs Foster saw how the commercial side of the newspaper works.
As a former Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, it was no surprise that she was particularly interested in what Colin Maxwell had to say about the work of the recruitment website he manages.
But Mrs Foster was also very keen to hear how the births, deaths and marriages classified adverts were compiled, and she welcomed the fact that the Belfast Telegraph had started to devote more space in recent times to obituaries of people, famous and not so well-known, in Northern Ireland.
As she arrived back in the editorial department, Mrs Foster said she was pleased to see that staff had brought a journalistic legend with them in the form of a picture of the Telegraph's late Sports Editor Malcolm Brodie, who died in January 2013.
Journalists from all the papers and magazines within the INM group listened as the First Minister told them she was proud to be celebrating a momentous day for them.
"For generations, sitting down to read the Tele was probably as much a part of our daily routines as putting on the kettle," the DUP leader explained.
She said the award-winning journalism of the Telegraph had brought Northern Ireland the best and worst of news throughout two World Wars and the Troubles.
But the First Minister added a new chapter was starting for the paper and she said that journalists working on it even five years ago could never have foreseen the pace of change in news platforms in the digital age.
As she spoke, a bank of video screens behind her updated the latest stories and photographs from home and from the wider world.
Mrs Foster said she appreciated the way she could find news at the touch of a button on her phone, but added: "I think print media will still be around for some time to come because those who live in rural areas, in particular, like to access the news in printed newspapers."
The move away from Royal Avenue was, she said, tinged with sadness, but she went on: "There can be no doubt that following significant investment, this new integrated print and digital base puts the company at the forefront of innovation when it comes to the delivery of news.
"With the print and digital news operations of Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, belfasttelegraph.co.uk and Sunday World's Northern Ireland edition under one roof, along with the group's magazine division, this is a fantastic centre of excellence and a place where young aspiring journalists will want to work.
"I wish INM every success in their new premises and have no doubt that they will continue to be on the cutting edge of journalism for many years to come."
INM Ltd Managing Director Richard McClean said the delivery of breaking news, analysis and unrivalled content remained at the core of the group's business, although it was now across the platforms of print, digital and mobile.
He added: "This relocation, combined with recent restructuring of our commercial function, a redesigned newsroom in line with international best practice and significant investment in technology and training, further positions INM at the forefront of publishing excellence."
Mr McClean later told me that he accepted that the 150 staff at Clarendon Dock faced difficult challenges ahead, but he said he believed there would always be a Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life and Sunday World alongside the digital alternatives.
"People's appetites for news is increasing all the time and we think there is still a market out there," he explained.
"Producing newspapers has never been an easy thing to do, but we have never backed away from a challenge and we know that circulation is one of our biggest challenges.
"We have invested very heavily in our home delivery system and the infrastructure behind it, and that gives us a really strong base and we have found that circulation through home delivery is going up year on year on year."