Austin Hunter wrote: ‘Nothing compares to being News Letter editor’

Austin Hunter at the News Letter. Pic Bernie Brown
Austin Hunter at the News Letter. Pic Bernie Brown

When he was appointed in 2004, Austin Hunter was the 17th News Letter editor (the first was George Gordon in 1795, prior to whom there had been no such post and the owners edited the paper). In 2012, on the 275th anniversary of the world’s oldest English language daily, Mr Hunter wrote this article recalling his time at helm:

I have been involved in different aspects of the media industry since 1970 and people often ask what was my most exciting job during that time.

The answer is an easy one.

I have been fortunate to have worked in newspapers, radio, television and public relations but nothing compares to being the editor of the News Letter. It is an amazing honour to have sat in the editor’s chair of the oldest English language newspaper in the world.

The News Letter is about people – its readers and staff – and the relationship between the two. If that relationship is maintained the title will continue to flourish, even in a new media environment.

I was fortunate to arrive at a time of expansion and one of the first pleasant jobs I had was to recruit eight new district reporters to cover events right across Northern Ireland, to augment the existing team in the Belfast newsroom and work for a strong news desk.

The News Letter had two wonderful assistant editors – Helen Greenaway and Rankin Armstrong (now editor) – who knew far more about newspapers than I could ever know and who threw their journalistic weight behind my plans for the paper.

We also increased internal communication with experienced and dedicated staff from the marketing and advertising departments.

Together – working as a team – we set about building up the paper’s circulation and positioned the News Letter very firmly as pro-British, pro- Union, pro-law and order and pro the rural community.

We redesigned the paper, giving a facelift to the famous peacock in the masthead, and gave extra space to farming and sport, including so-called minority sports and women’s sport.

News Letter readers love supplements and some of our most successful ventures included increasing the size of the coverage of the Twelfth, the Sham Fight, Remembrance Day, Royal events and motorcycling, a very popular sport with the readers.

We published extracts from a book on politician Jeffrey Donaldson and a book of photographs from Ian Paisley’s family.

We also published a special supplement to mark the centenary of the foundation of the Ulster Unionist Party and were amazed to find in our archives that the News Letter reporter who covered the event in the Ulster Hall 100 years earlier had recorded the names of everyone who attended. Being able to re-use that front page added a real touch of class to the supplement.

News Letter readers love their politics and the paper became the platform for debate within unionism. The biggest circulation during my time as editor came in the Saturday issue which reported all the results of the Westminster election in May 2005.

We had several memorable front pages and two of those involved sport. The death of George Best was a sad event but there was a big demand for copies of our souvenir issue on arguably the most talented footballer ever to have played the game.

The front page of David Healy celebrating the goal which beat England at Windsor Park will always bring back happy memories.

The idea for the front page of which I am most proud came not from me but from senior night sub editor Trevor Stewart.

The News Letter was very sceptical of the IRA decommissioning process and supported unionist politicians who wanted to see photographs of the destruction of arms.

Trevor came up with the idea of publishing several photographs of IRA atrocities – the Enniskillen, Claudy and Shankill bombings – on the front page with the headline The IRA gave us these pictures, Why can’t they give us this?, beside a photograph of an arms cache. It was a magnificent front page and I was a proud editor when I was interviewed about it on the BBC 2 programme Newsnight a few hours before the paper went on sale.

A lot of people worked very hard to rejuvenate the News Letter and they were rewarded with the best circulation increase for eight years.

Sadly my time as editor was cut short through ill health, but after recovery I was able to continue doing some freelance work for the paper that has been part of my life since I was a child.

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