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Thursday 23 March 2017

Hold the Front page!

David Robbins recalls the very different world of newspapers in the 1960s that shaped the legendary editor Vinnie Doyle, who died this week

Dublin in the '50s,'60s and '70s had much in common with Chicago in the Roaring Twenties: crooked politicians, plenty of hooch and a cut-throat, no-holds-barred newspaper industry.

It was in this world that Vinnie Doyle, the former editor of the Evening Herald and the Irish Independent, who died this week aged 72, learned the newspaper business from the bottom up.

When he joined the Irish Press in 1958, there were three evening newspaper battling it out in Dublin, and the cry of "Press, Herald or Mail!" was heard on every street corner.

By the time he moved to the Evening Herald in 1976, the Evening Mail had closed down, leaving the two main titles to fight it out head-to-head for the next 20 years.

Back then, evening papers were the equivalent of the breaking-news website. They were what people turned to for that "what happened as it happened" style of news reporting.

The Evening Press offices were on Burgh Quay; the Herald's were on Abbey Street. On either side of the river, the two great printing presses spewed out four or five editions per day, updating stories with fresh detail as they went.

The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur's 1928 play about an unscrupulous editor (Walter Burns) and his bid to stop his star reporter (Hildy Johnson) from leaving the paper to get married, is a favourite of newspaper people everywhere and of any vintage.

Although it's set in the Chigaco of the 1920s, it caught something of the half- cynical, half-sentimental flavour of the times in Dublin in the heyday of evening newspaper journalism.

When Vinnie Doyle took over at the helm, the Herald was definitely number two in the market. Across the river, Sean Ward presided over a healthy circulation at the Evening Press.

The pair watched each other closely, and worked hard to beat the other to get important stories, or "scoop" their rivals. "We were close from Vinnie's days on the Irish Press," recalls Sean Ward. "When he took over the Herald, it had a circulation of maybe 120,000 against our 170,000. He transformed it, without alienating any of its existing readers.

"Of course, we kept an eye on what the other was doing. Each paper had a runner outside the offices of the other to bring over the latest edition. We brought out maybe six editions a day, and it was a mortal sin to send the final edition without the closing prices from the stock market.

"Along with Douglas Gageby, he was the outstanding editor of his generation. But," he adds, "he was a lot more fun than Gageby."

Back at the Herald, which he edited until 1981 before moving to the Irish Independent,Vinnie liked nothing better than to remake the paper to accommodate a big story. He was an imposing presence on the "back bench" (where the paper is planned and edited) and on the "stone" (where the pages were physically put together).

"Once, early on in his time at the Herald," recalls long-time colleague and friend Michael Wolsey, "a story broke late, just as they were putting the finishing touches to the paper.

"Vinnie, who later told me he'd often dreamt of this moment, ran into the caseroom, along the lines of linotype machines, up to where page one was being sent to print, and shouted: 'Hold the front page!'

"The printer who was working on the page spoke without turning his head. 'Would you ever f**k off'. As Vinnie said himself afterwards, he soon discovered the limits of an editor's power."

It is difficult to convey how different the business of producing newspapers was then. Armies of typesetters and compositors worked amid a clatter of machinery, the smell of ink and molten metal in their nostrils.

A page was a physical, rather than a digital, entity, even to the extent that each one was wheeled away on a trolley to the plate-making department.

When Vinnie arrived on the "stone" to look at page one of his paper, there was a frisson. People stiffened, worked quicker, bent low over their proofs.

In The Front Page, Walter Burns tries everything to get an exclusive interview with a death-row prisoner. Back in Dublin, the competitive instincts of newspapermen were equally sharp.

Irish Press journalists still recount with some bitterness how exclusive photos from the Herrema siege in Monasterevin in 1975 were intercepted at Heuston Station and ended up in Vinnie's paper the next day. All was fair in love and newspapers.

"I was very fond of Vinnie, and he was very good to me," says John Boland, who came to work with Vinnie after the collapse of the Irish Press group in 1995, "but he was the ultimate Walter Burns."

One of Vinnie Doyle's earliest jobs was as film critic for the Sunday Press. In the late 1950s, he was privileged to be reviewing at a time when Hollywood was going through a golden period.

The hard-bitten dames, the loners, the laconic heroes that featured in films of that time seemed to appeal to him. In that black-and-white world, newspapers came across as glamorous, even romantic.

Perhaps it was his exposure to the strange mixture of noirish thrillers and bright, sophisticated comedies that came out of the studio system of the 1950s that explains much of Vinnie's newspaper philosophy.

He wanted the news fast, pared-back and accurate, sure, but he wanted a bit of "glitz" as he put it himself, a bit of Hollywood in the paper as well.

Many of his contemporaries from that time describe Vinnie as "competitive". He wanted to get the story first, especially if he heard that someone else on another paper was after it.

"Oh, he tried to screw me all the time when I was editor of the Sunday World," says Joe Kennedy, a colleague of Vinnie's from the early days. "But we had great fun."

There was a sentimental side to Vinnie, too, adds Joe Kennedy. "He was great friends with a fellow journalist, Jack MacGabhann, and was sad when Jack decided to leave to work on a Canadian newspaper.

"We saw him off on the mail boat one freezing night. Vinnie took off his heavy Crombie coat -- his bookie's coat we used to call it -- and gave it to Jack so that he wouldn't freeze on the voyage. Years later, Jack phoned me at the office. I shouted over to Vinnie and said Jack was on the line and did he want to speak to him. 'Ask him where's my coat' said Vinnie. 'Tell him it died' was Jack's reply.

"The thing that struck me about Vinnie was that he had talent as a writer. He was a stylist. If newspapers hadn't knocked that out of him, I think he would have made a mark as a serious writer," he adds.

"But the thing that really made him happy was getting out a newspaper."

Irish Independent

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