Big recognition for a little newsroom in Fermanagh
Enniskillen-based newspaper the ‘Impartial Reporter’ has been around since 1825, and was in one family’s hands for 181 years. It was recently named the UK’s best weekly paper. What sets it apart?
The newsroom of the Impartial Reporter. Photograph: John McVitty
Editor Sarah Saunderson accepts the British Press Award from Richard Bacon
The name Impartial Reporter may have originated in 1825, but it could not be more relevant today. It is a standard to which most newspapers aspire. The Enniskillen-based title was recently named the best UK weekly newspaper at the British Press Awards, a prestigious honour for a small regional paper.
“There were 500 guests at the reception in the Hilton Hotel in London,” says editor Sarah Saunderson, who has worked at the paper since 1994, adding that “only about 50 of them were women.” She and her 23 colleagues are still amazed to have come top of their category, which had the most entrants of all.
Leaf through recent editions of the newspaper and you will find a striking mix. There’s a story about a parishioner at Magheracross Church whose knitted nativity figures became an unexpected Facebook hit for the parish website; an ongoing series called First World War History in 12 Objects; a story headlined “Man found lying on ground with trousers around ankles and trying to eat a burger”; a report about three sites in Co Fermanagh where fracking has taken place; and a front-page story, “Nurses attacked, punched and hair pulled by double amputee”, about a patient who assaulted three nurses who were trying to restrain him from using a fire extinguisher.
Breaking the G8 summit
The Reporter was the first media outlet to break the news that last year’s G8 summit was coming to Fermanagh. In June, it ran a G8 special, much of the edition written by Rodney Edwards, the paper’s only reporter to be given accreditation for the summit at Lough Erne Resort.
Edwards has been at the Reporter for five years. He recently hosted a number of live Twitter question-and-answer sessions between readers and invited guests. The most high-profile was with Gerry Adams, in March. “We did it at his constituency office in Drogheda,” says Edwards. The #AskAdams hashtag got the paper trending on Twitter, and more than 5,500 questions were sent in the allocated hour.
Among the questions put to Adams was: “Why would you defend all the killings by the IRA as legitimate? How do you wash all that blood off your hands?” He replied, “IRA cessation 20 years old. IRA has gone away. Look to the future, build the peace.”
Another was, “When did you finally realise many people in the south of Ireland don’t want a united Ireland?” And the reply: “A united Ireland makes sense. Why do we need others to govern us? Why not do that ourselves?”
He was also asked, “Will you be sending Peter Robinson a farewell card if he decides to resign?” He answered that “Peter resigning will not solve anything. Issues will not go away – they need tackled.”
Remembrance Sunday bombing
The newspaper offices are only two minutes from the town’s war memorial. On Remembrance Sunday 1987, staff found themselves in the middle of a terrible story that was soon being carried around the world after an IRA bomb went off, killing 12 people and injuring many more.
Brian Donaldson is now a deputy editor, and has been with the paper for 37 years. He first heard news of the bombing on his car radio. “I still get goosebumps when I think about it,” he says.
All reporters were immediately dispatched for work, and by Monday their office was “besieged by international media”. With their local roots and long- established trust from the community they served, the Reporter was able to get privileged access to families. “We were all given different families to look after,” says Donaldson. “We went to their homes, and we went to the funerals of those they had lost, and we kept in contact with them afterwards.
“The core of the paper is the community,” he says. “We have always gone deep into the community. When the Troubles ended, a lot of other papers found it very difficult to keep going, whereas we [had always] focused on other things too.”
The paper has campaigned on a number of issues, including mental health. It has profiled towns and villages across the county. Its readers are so engaged that the Reporter carries two pages of letters. Four years ago, Trevor Birney, a former journalist at the paper, set up the investigative journalism website The Detail, and the paper regularly uses data from the site to break stories.
Trimbles for 181 years
Until 2006, the paper had been owned by the Trimble family for an astonishing 181 years. It is now owned by the Romanes Media Group, a Scottish-based group.
When owner and editor William Trimble arrived in Enniskillen in 1825, public executions still took place in the town. He and his wife, Jane, moved into East Bridge Street in Enniskillen, which is still home to the paper’s offices to this day. His first editorial included the line: “We shall defend the Protestant when we consider him in the right, and the Roman Catholic may expect similar treatment.”
Trimble went on to have 26 children with two wives. After his death, one of his sons, William Copeland Trimble, took over, and ran the paper for almost 70 years. His son, William Egbert Trimble, took over in turn. Up to a few weeks before his death in 1967, aged 84, he was still filing stories.
His daughter, Joan, who was living in London, decided not to sell the paper. She commuted twice a month to Enniskillen, at a time when the Troubles were beginning to escalate. Her daughter, Joanna, took over in 1990, until the decision was made to sell in 2006.
“It was an apprehensive time,” says Donaldson. “We were almost part of the Trimble family. There had always been a fantastic family atmosphere. It was a nervous time for staff.”
Despite those apprehensions, the paper is thriving, and although the Trimble connection has been broken, there are other family connections. Sarah Saunderson’s grandfather Bertie Saunderson, once ran the printing presses. He could hardly have imagined that one day his granddaughter would become the award-winning newspaper’s first female editor.