Ireland’s Sunday Independent has launched a new Northern Ireland edition with the promise it has “no agenda” except quality journalism.
The new paper, which published its first edition on Sunday, is targeting readers who have realised during the pandemic the value of paying for news but faces the challenge of persuading people it is not a “marketing trick”.
The paper’s maiden issue led on stories including Northern Irish councillors’ expenses, anti-vax threats to MPs’ security, and new police appeals relating to the 2019 murder of Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee.
It has two dedicated Northern Ireland reporters – Rodney Edwards, former deputy editor of The Impartial Reporter, who joined the Dublin-based paper last year and Ciaran O’Neill, former Derry News editor and BBC Spotlight producer who joined a few weeks ago.
The Sunday Independent’s Northern Ireland editor, Sam McBride, is writing for the paper on a part-time basis alongside holding the same role at the Belfast Telegraph. The new edition also benefits from staff and freelance writers for the sport, business and magazine sections.
McBride told Press Gazette the current set-up is “testing the market” and that further investment will follow if it proves a success.
Asked by Press Gazette the day after the launch how he thought the new edition had been received, McBride said: “Mixed. Anything new is going to get people who love it, people who hate it, people who aren’t quite sure.
“The worst possible thing when you’re launching something new is no one notices.”
McBride was confident that the paper had, at least, avoided that fate.
Although he did not share circulation figures he said: “I got feedback from somebody last night who went driving around Lisburn and couldn’t find a copy.”
Some of the less pleased reactions to the launch had come, McBride said, from commentators attempting to characterise the new contender as either Unionist or Republican.
“That delights me. One of the aims of the paper is to say, look: we’re not playing that game.”
He rejected suggestions that the paper falls one way or the other: “If the story stands up, we’ll run it — we’re not in anyone’s pocket.
“Here is a paper that’s going to open up readers in Northern Ireland to a better understanding of the island of Ireland.
“And the reverse is true; it’s going to be a two-way process. Our coverage in Northern Ireland is in many cases going to run in the south of Ireland.”
Announcing the new edition on Thursday, Sunday Independent editor Alan English wrote that the new paper would have “no agenda other than quality journalism” and that he expected the new title to entrench the Sindo’s position as the best-selling newspaper on the island of Ireland.
The Sunday Independent had an average weekly circulation of 165,334 according to the latest available ABC figures for July to December 2018.
The Irish Independent and Sunday Independent, which are not associated with their London-headquartered namesake The Independent, were acquired along with the rest of the Independent News & Media stable including the Belfast Telegraph by Belgian publishing house Mediahuis in April 2019 for €145.6m.
McBride told BBC Radio Ulster that the new proprietors are “really steeped in newspaper ink. These are newspaper people, they believe in newspapers.”
Asked about the decision to launch a new title amid challenging market conditions, McBride said the two dominant Sunday papers in Northern Ireland, the Sunday World and the Sunday Life, were tabloids, leaving a gap in the market for a quality Sunday offering.
For the first four weekends, the paper’s cover price is set at £1.
Previously the Sunday Independent published in Northern Ireland with some content specific for the country. On Sunday, McBride said, the paper printed three times its typical Northern Ireland circulation to accommodate the hoped-for interest.
Mediahuis Ireland chief executive Marc Vangeel told The Sunday Times in May that the business hoped to expand its presence on the island: “We will not buy everything at any price but if we can make our footprint bigger, we will do. We are ambitious but cautious.”
McBride was optimistic about the paper’s chances: even corporate entities steeped in newspaper ink, he told Press Gazette, “don’t make an investment just because they believe in newspapers.
“They’re also a successful commercial entity. They’re doing this, yes, because they believe in journalism, but also because commercially they believe it makes sense.”
He credits the pandemic for reopening consumers to paying for news. “If you want to read this type of material you have to pay for this, one way or another,” he said.
Asked what challenges he saw ahead for the new edition, McBride said: “It’s such a long time in Northern Ireland since there was anything like this that it will take a bit of convincing people that this isn’t a marketing trick, this isn’t spin, this is a genuine development.”
But, whereas sales at daily newspapers have been falling, McBride added that weekend papers had been holding steadier.
“We are time poor — we’ve got a lot of competing apps and aspects of the online world competing for our attention, and that makes it challenging for daily newspapers.”
To read a weekend newspaper, though, is “something of a rebellion against the world of social media during the week. It’s almost counter-cultural.”