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A new chapter in Belfast Telegraph story something to shout about

Our ethos is the same today as it was 146 years ago

By Ed Curran

Published 02/09/2016

A newsboy selling the old broadsheet
A newsboy selling the old broadsheet
The Belfast Telegraph’s former premises on Royal Avenue
The Belfast Telegraph’s new site at Clarendon Dock

As First Minister Arlene Foster officially opened the new offices of this newspaper yesterday it marked exactly 146 years from the date when the first Belfast Evening Telegraph was published by William and George Baird.

The leading article of that day in the four-page newspaper set out the paper's objectives. Today we might call it an Editorial Charter and it still stands the test of time.

It said: "We have resolved that the people of Belfast and every town in Ulster will have facilities for obtaining prompt information upon the general events of the day... we shall take care that nothing shall appear which can offend the sharp edge of morality.

"By the diversified selections which will be found in our columns, the current intelligence of the day will be ascertained and in the paragraphs of light literature which we will insert, every reader will find a source of pleasure and instruction.

"We have engaged a competent literary staff and the reports and proceedings of meetings will be found to be faithful and impartial".

William Baird was a man ahead of his time. He recognised the need to be first with the news and his first edition hit the streets at 2.15pm and the ninth edition at 8.00pm. The first issue ran to four pages of coverage on the Franco-Prussian war and the presses haven't stopped rolling since, although modern technology and the advent of the internet has dictated a hugely different production process than the Baird brothers could ever have envisaged.

In 1894, the Belfast Telegraph Group launched Ulster Saturday Night, a sports evening newspaper, which was set up in response to readers' complaints that the Telegraph's Saturday editions included too much sport. Focusing on the reporting of Irish Football League, it was delivered late on Saturday evenings, with coverage and reviews of the day's afternoon matches. The title changed its name to Ireland's Saturday Night in 1896, to enable a Dublin edition with an emphasis on Gaelic games to be delivered to the city each weekend by special train.

The paper was also known as 'The Pink', as it was originally printed on pink paper until 1917 to distinguish it from the main paper. .

The old evening edition structure of the paper meant that in its heyday, the 'Tele' (as it is affectionately known to many of its readers) printed no less than six different editions each day, including multiple editions for different parts of Ulster, including Donegal.

The Belfast Telegraph was broadsheet until February 2005, when the Saturday morning edition was introduced and all Saturday editions were converted to compact format, offering a broadsheet-quality newspaper printed in a slightly taller form than tabloid newspapers, designed to be easier to read. The following month, a weekday morning compact edition was launched and the paper currently publishes two editions daily - the Final and the North West Telegraph, which is distributed in Derry-Londonderry.

Today the Belfast Telegraph is the leading daily paper in Northern Ireland, the title instantly recognised throughout the community it serves - an iconic brand-name in the local marketplace.

Much more than a local evening newspaper, its content and editions reflect a 24-hour news-gathering operation available in print and online, with readership at home and around the world. The digital business continues to grow exponentially on advanced websites which are essential news and advertising platforms in Northern Ireland and far beyond.

To look back now to the late 19th century when the 'Tele' was born, is to recall a very different world from the instant communications of the 21st century. Belfast in the Victorian era was one of Europe's fastest-growing cities. Textile mills, engineering works and world-famous shipyards were attracting tens of thousands of employees. The industrial revolution was in full cry.

As Belfast expanded, so too did the Telegraph's readership. It attracted readers as a trusted paper of record, printed on the most up-to-date presses. Even in the 1880s those presses were the most modern of their times, capable of printing 40,000 copies an hour.

It is often said newspapers provide the first draft of history. The archives of the Belfast Telegraph bear full testimony to that view. It reported on the momentous times of two world wars. Its reporters covered the launch of the Titanic, and its pages chronicled the great tragedy of its sinking.

More recently, the Telegraph played a central media role in its coverage of the violent political and sectarian conflict which beset Northern Ireland for more than 30 years. Through those difficult years the paper and its journalists won many awards.

The brickwork of the headquarters in Royal Avenue still bears the shrapnel marks of a wartime German bomb which exploded beside the building in 1941 during a night time blitz on Belfast. Next to the marks, on the old front porch, were inscribed the worlds: "Despite severe damage, the Belfast Telegraph was published without interruption". In 1976, a terrorist bomb killed one employee, injured many others and severely damaged the building, but failed to stop the paper from publishing the next day.

Times have changed in Northern Ireland, very much for the better. An historic peace agreement signed between leaders of the community in 1998 has led to a new positive vibrancy in the past two decades, with the emphasis on rebuilding and investment.

The Belfast Telegraph and its sister Sunday paper, Sunday Life are now a division of Independent News and Media, the leading newspaper publishing company in Ireland. Under the aegis of INM, the titles in Northern Ireland have developed a ground-breaking digital business. The award-winning website, belfasttelegraph.co.uk attracts more than four million unique users each month.

The website incorporates the very latest video and podcast technology in the presentation of news content and advertising platforms. INM has specialist websites for property, employment vacancies and classifieds. Propertynews.co.uk is Northern Ireland's leading website for home sales. Nijobfinder.co.uk, combined with the Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life jobs advertising platforms, is also the local market leader.

The readership reach of all these platforms online, added to the print circulation, means that the Belfast Telegraph attracts a greater audience today than at any time in its long history and continues to be the number one in Northern Ireland.

Now another new chapter is opening for the company as it has moved to new headquarters in Clarendon Dock which reflect the changing face of Belfast in the 21st century, much as the paper's original offices which it occupied in Royal Avenue exactly 130 years ago, mirrored life then in the late 19th century.

"Our company has always been at the heart of the sporting, cultural and business life,' says INM's managing director in Northern Ireland, Richard McClean. "With a reputation built on almost 150 years of service to the community, we are proud of our past and trust and respect we feel our newspapers have established. We try to put as much back in Northern Ireland as possible. For example, we host the 'Sports Personality of the Year' awards, as well as the prestigious 'Belfast Telegraph Business Awards'. The Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life have won many national awards for editorial excellence, as has our website, which has led the way for innovation in terms of presentation, content and making maximum use of digital technology."

INM's Northern Ireland business is also focused on its state-of-art colour printed presses. The plant at Newry has four presses on which it prints millions of copies of INM and national newspaper titles.

While there are challenges facing the newspaper industry the Belfast Telegraph remains well placed to meet them and fulfil its important role as outlined by Leslie Buckley, chairman of INM, at yesterday's ceremony.

He said: "In INM we are very conscious of the crucial role of the media in small countries such as Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is a hard concept to sell to citizens, Governments and politicians but for a moment consider a Northern Ireland without the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News and News Letter or Republic of Ireland without the Irish Independent, Irish Times and Examiner.

"Google or Facebook cannot fill the gap, as they depend on media owners like INM for curated well-written content. Who would fill that void? Could we retain our unique cultures and identities? Who would shine the light on Governments, public and private institutions and businesses?"

Who indeed? Well, the Belfast Telegraph will.

  • Ed Curran is a former editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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