On the anniversary of his fifth year as editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Mike Gilson talks to Business Editor Margaret Canning about the challenges and rewards of leading an award-winning newspaper
Q. Northern Ireland is a crowded newspaper market, with three dailies competing with the national newspapers of the UK, daily Irish titles and the weeklies. Have you found it a competitive newspaper market to work in?
A. There is a lot of noise about newspaper competition and who sells what to whom but I never really pay any heed to it. I honestly don't spend a single minute thinking about other newspapers.
It's a really old, analogue debate that we are in competition with only newspapers. The internet and websites where you have news at your fingertips – that's a bigger competitor.
We have a huge audience for our news now. There is the iPad version, which has 5,000 users, and we are in the process of updating our iPhone app, we have our website, and the newspaper – and we are using each of those channels to deliver our news content.
In July our website had over 3m unique users, generating 19m page views. That's a record for a news organisation of our size, in a country our size. The stuff that's written by our journalists is probably seen by more people than would have seen the work of their predecessors. That's the truth of the market we're in today.
Q. You joined the Belfast Telegraph after editing The Scotsman, and you edited The News in Portsmouth for six years before that. Is journalism in Northern Ireland a lot different from other parts of the UK?
A. Northern Ireland is a fantastic place and a great place for journalism. The reason for that is because everything in Northern Ireland is still contested. There is still a vision for the future to be played for and that makes journalism here more exciting (as the stakes are much higher). And that's particularly because the form of government that we have here with powersharing and no opposition, makes journalism more important.
Journalism can still make a difference here.
Q. Has journalism in general changed a lot in the time you've been here?
A. All the continued success we have had – (CIPR Newspaper of the Year every occasion except one since 2010, and Daily/Sunday Newspaper of the Year in the Regional Press Awards in 2011) – has been against a backdrop of challenging circumstances. We are coming out of a recession, in a region that's been more badly affected than many, and we are also seeing structural change in our industry.
On the other hand, we have an incredible battle for people's time, and that's not a battle of newspaper versus newspaper as I've said. It's a battle and a competition with BuzzFeed, UTV, BBC but also Facebook and Twitter – all things that are trying to get people's time and attention. The old analogue debate of newspaper versus newspaper has never been more worthless as it is at this time.
We were in web TV a bit before I came here, and there's still some way to go with video – and we have been a little bit late on that. However, while I'm as early an adopter of digital as anyone, I'm not asking journalists to multi-task so much that they lose sight of the tasks of asking good questions on behalf of the reader.
The basics of the job, finding out stuff that someone doesn't want found out, will endure long after the hysteria of newspaper companies filling their channels with user generated content has died out. There's a place for user generated content of course but not at the expense of old fashioned journalism. My reporters still have to go through the usual checks before their stories go in. It costs money of course but trust is vital and will remain so.
Q. Have the difficult economic circumstances we're in made it harder for you as an editor?
A. Yes, it has been challenging, but it's the same for everybody. If you look across at the English newspapers, they're perhaps in a worse state, though we're all going through transformational change.
Q. Has it changed what the Telegraph stands for?
A. Not at all – it's still a newspaper that stands for trust, which has a cross-community readership and stands for forward-thinking, campaigning for improvements in our quality of life. But the economics of it all have been tough and the advertising markets comes and goes – and at the moment, the market is fragile.
We are only just seeing government cuts [which have happened across the water] coming across here. But let's be clear companies and the government advertise with us because it works. They are not charities. We give them response by attracting an audience that is unique for the media here, which is usually skewed to serve one section of the community or the other. Our audience is aspirational largely urban dwelling and comes by some distance the closest to actually reflecting the make up of the society we live in. That's a powerful position to be in.
Q. Has it helped that you've been able to bring an outsider's perspective?
A. First of all, I have got a great team around me who are Northern Irish and will always have their views. But I am able to ask the Englishman's questions of – why do we do that? Why does that happen? To challenge some of the orthodoxies that can sometimes take hold about how we are governed and how we live with each other. I was always taught that a journalist who makes out like they know more than the person they are talking to is never going to get a good story. That journalist is in the way.
I do like to set challenges to our thinking though. To keep us from getting stale. It's also important to have fun. Too many newspapers are joyless.
Q. How have you found Belfast as a city?
A. Belfast is great. I get out and about a lot and live music and theatre, in fact all arts, is my thing. When I'm out socially, I see people are just getting on with their lives, who have a thirst for life and thirst for progress, and these are some of the readers we tap into.
I came over here from Edinburgh, which has its festival, which is fantastic, but there we almost took it for granted, which is an attitude you don't get when it comes to seizing the moment here in Belfast.
Q. What do readers see in the Belfast Telegraph?
A. The Belfast Telegraph does look to be the standard bearer for the things that are important but might also need improved. We take on that role. We have to give a voice for those who have none or indeed sometimes, as in all small countries, are a little afraid to put their heads over the parapet in case they get chopped off!
We have the government we have, the systems we have – whether those change ultimately in time or not. Many of our readers are tired of the binary green versus orange debate and want to see us tackling the big issues of education, health and economy as well as the way we are governed and of course without forgetting that we do have that history which still powers much of what happens here. Hence, we are a sounding board for all the political parties, because they know that the readers we have got are really important to get to.
Q. Where does the future of newspapers lie?
A. If there's a newspaper in the world that isn't going through huge rethinking and restructuring, I really don't know of it. Those questions about the future of digital and paywalls are still largely unanswered.
But we have to address this question. If you invest in journalism you have to get something back for it. Without proper journalism online, you are left with people talking to each other in semi-ignorance.
Open a newspaper and you find out things that you didn't think you needed to now you are on an unknown journey in some senses. But largely when you go online, you are looking for things that you already think you are interested in. I need to read journalism I can trust, that tells me something I don't know, that doesn't merely confirm my own prejudices.
We have really talented people who can do that really well but of course the business of news gathering is expensive. We have to pay for it somehow. In America there are some signs of changes in readers thinking. In New York more and more people are prepared to pay in some form for New York Times journalism because they can see that without it they will be manifestly more poorly informed whatever the back bedroom digital bloggers say to the contrary.
Q. Will you be charging for your website soon?
A. We charge for our iPad app, which has 5,000 users, though there's a free trial for a month. The question of paid-for journalism online is never off the table but at the moment our emphasis is on building that big audience on a consistent basis.
It doesn't help when there's a big, publicly-funded broadcaster in your patch. I'm not a BBC basher but it is a big, monolithic beast and I don't think it's healthy for a big public sector broadcaster to dominate journalism in what is a relatively small place, but we are reaching out to see what we can do together.
Q. The tough times which exist in journalism are clear – but what makes you get up in the morning?
A. It's really important to get across, given all the things we are talking about and all the issues that we face, that I am really proud of the Belfast Telegraph's journalism – our journalists won five awards in the recent CIPR Northern Ireland Media Awards and have swept the board for many years.
We have come so far and work hard, question what we are doing every day. We are intolerant of low standards. We look to our audience. We are always looking forward and we never really look back. I'm aware that our competition is multi-faceted but we have a small but excellent team and we are actually doing pretty well. Our readership is 160,000 per day, and our online audience means that we are being read by a huge amount of people.
We should be proud of that and it's absolutely nothing to apologise for. Of course I still love the paper, the physical product in the hand, what we have done with it and how we keep to a consistent standard.
There are many days when it absolutely sparkles with intelligence, wit, good reporting and fantastic design. We want to be a critical friend of our society so we will not refrain from lifting rocks to find out what's underneath but will not refrain from giving praise where that's due.
We do have to keep focusing on what's going on in government, because it's as difficult as it's ever been. Journalists are outnumbered about one to 10 by government press officers. That is an unequal battle.
There are all the half-truths out there on social media and everyone's got an opinion. Our job is to focus on giving people the facts and then the opinion. Our confidence in what we are doing is high. The Belfast Telegraph is a superb brand which means a lot to people. We aim to make sure it continues to do so.
The multi-award winning Belfast Telegraph published its first edition 144 years ago on September 1, 1870, under the banner of the Belfast Evening Telegraph.
Brought to the streets of Northern Ireland by brothers William and George Baird, at a mere snip of just half a penny, its maiden print ran to just four pages and told of the horrors of the Franco-Prussian war as well as local news.
The brand new broadsheet was introduced by the brothers as a response to the “progressive intellectual improvement of the masses of the people” and retained its original broadsheet format until February 19, 2005.
A compact version of daily followed just a month later, seven years before the last ever evening edition rolled off the Belfast Telegraph’s printing presses on April 20, 2012.
The iconic pink of Ireland's Saturday Night sports evening newspaper meanwhile, was consigned to history in July 2008.
The Belfast Telegraph now plays a major role in an evolved media shaped by social change and is now available 24 hours a day via its digital edition — on an entirely different landscape than its ambitious origins.