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Saturday 20 September 2014

The story of a newsman

Published 27/11/2010 | 05:00

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Vincent Jennings, who died this week aged 73, will be chiefly remembered for his role in the collapse of the Irish Press group of newspapers in 1995.

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He had a spectacular career as a journalist, and was appointed editor of the Sunday Press at the age of 31. He was the youngest ever editor of a national title.

He was a graduate of UCD, where he studied for a BA (history and English), an MA and a HDip. He joined the Press group as a copyboy and trainee journalist and was soon appointed as a sub-editor on the Evening Press.

When the founding editor of the Sunday Press, Matt Feehan, became ill, Jennings was appointed acting editor, and, in 1968, he became editor.

"At the time, the Sunday Press was a huge success; it had a circulation of 450,000 and was impregnable in the market," recalls one former colleague.

But circulation declined under the editorship of Jennings as the Press titles struggled to come to terms with the social and political changes in the 1970s and 1980s.

"He became editor just as the Troubles started. Then there were the GUBU years in Fianna Fail, plus new competition from the Sunday World and the UK titles," says another former senior executive at the Press. "He was faced with the dilemma of trying to recruit new urban readers while not alienating the old, rural ones."

When he was succeeded as editor by Michael Keane in 1986, circulation had fallen to 246,000.

Colleagues say he was "hard but fair". He recruited some noted writing talent to the Sunday Press, including Mary Holland, Sean O'Rourke and Geraldine Kennedy.

"I always held him in high regard," recalls RTE's Sean O'Rourke, who joined the paper as a sports reporter. "He gave me my first job straight out of college, and then gave me an even better break when he asked me to cover politics for the paper.

"My first long piece, as it happens, was about the Donegal by-election of 1980. He gave me free rein and I thought him a good man and a good editor."

Others recall that Jennings held himself apart from his colleagues.

"His interests were different from theirs," said a colleague. "He liked opera, classical music, gardening, painting. He never drank in pubs and never went to Mulligans (the famed Poolbeg St hostelry near the Press offices on Burgh Quay) as other editors did."

Some colleagues found him aloof and dismissive, and he was nicknamed the Demon Prince for his habit of appearing at his office door with a thunderous look on his face.

"He gave some people free rein, but watched others very closely. For some reason, he took a liking to me," said an ex-Sunday Press executive.

"He liked to give the paper some social cachet and was fond of publishing interviews with ambassadors, for instance."

Jennings was appointed managing director of the Press group in 1986 and later became chief executive.

He was centrally involved in the decision to form a partnership with American publisher Ralph Ingersoll II, which proved disastrous for the group.

The partnership turned into a bitter, legal dispute which ended in a courtroom victory for the Press.

Ultimately, however, the papers ceased publication and would never reappear.

Jennings's decision to sack business editor Colm Rapple over an article criticising the Press management published in the Irish Times was the catalyst for a series of strikes, sit-ins and protests that halted production of the newspapers.

Events moved swiftly from there, with an examiner, receiver and liquidator appointed to Irish Press Newspapers (the Press subsidiary responsible for publishing the papers) in quick succession.

Meanwhile, Press journalists continued to occupy the Press offices in Burgh Quay, receiving a succession of high-profile visitors and publishing the X-Press and Sunday X-Press newspapers as a final act of defiance and bravado.

In reality, the sacking of Rapple was an unfortunate twist in a long tale of sliding circulation, poor industrial relations and much-criticised management.

The Irish Press Group, still nominal owners of the three once thriving newspaper titles, then diversified into radio, publishing and other media interests and continues to operate today.

But much of the company's -- and Jennings's -- energies went into a suit against Warburg Pincus over their recommendation of Ingersoll as a suitable business partner for the Press Group.

In 2002, the Press won €6.8m in an out-of-court settlement.

Vincent Jennings was born in the north inner city. His family later moved to Clontarf, and young Vincent was sent as a boarder to Presentation College, Bray.

He became head boy and captain of the schools rugby team. He played against Tony (later Sir Anthony) O'Reilly in a schools match.

He was a director of the Catholic Communications Institute, a friend of the National Concert Hall and a regular attender at the Wexford Opera Festival. He was also a member of Fitzwilliam Tennis Club.

"If he was difficult to work with in later years, it was only because he knew that changes needed to be made at the Press urgently," said a former colleague, "He was capable of great acts of personal kindness behind the scenes. There was no better man to go to in a crisis."

He is survived by his wife Mary (née Lodge), a former Press journalist who came from a well-to-do business family in Tramore, Co Waterford and also by his son Ian and daughter Melissa. He was buried in Tramore yesterday.

DAVID ROBBINS

Irish Independent

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