Monday 21 January 2019

'It's The Paper for you, boy'

As the Irish Examiner moves under the wing of the Irish Times, Frank Coughalan recalls his own days at 'The Paper' and the ­gregarious Crosbie ­family that owned it for five generations

Front page of the Irish Examiner announcing the takeover
Front page of the Irish Examiner announcing the takeover
Pioneer: Ted Crosbie

My father, a quiet man who didn't raise his voice but knew how to make his well-chosen words count, took one glance at my Leaving Cert results and in a short sentence laid out my life path.

"It's The Paper for you, boy," he said.

By 'The Paper', he meant the Cork Examiner, the Crosbie-owned title where he worked for nearly half a century, as his father had before him.

It was expected that one of his three sons would follow in the family tradition and it certainly wasn't going to be either of the bright two.

Front page of the Irish Examiner announcing the takeover
Front page of the Irish Examiner announcing the takeover

Instead, the mistake who daydreamed through school but could scribble a decent essay was the obvious pick.

I tell you this not because of what it says about me but what it reveals about the Examiner and the sort of institution it was back in the day.

That is a traditional, paternalistic, family firm where loyalty, history and familiarity were seen as the real hard currency.

An innovative past

But that's not to say it was sleepy or unambitious. It was also at this very time the most innovative title in the country, ahead of its rivals in Dublin in its grasp of new technology.

It boasted robust circulation and healthy profits, underpinned by a near monopoly on local and regional advertising.

Pioneer: Ted Crosbie
Pioneer: Ted Crosbie

That model is a distant memory now and an inheritance its brand new owners, The Irish Times, could only fantasise about.

When I was junior sub-editor in the late 1970s, circulation was nudging the 70,000 mark. Today, the Irish Examiner is paddling about in low tide at less than 30,000. A dramatic reversal of fortune, but a pattern familiar to all print titles in the age of click and scroll.

But the company's woes cannot simply be laid at the door of the digital revolution.

Having accumulated a wide range of local print titles and radio stations, it was seen by some to have overreached. To other observers its move in 2000 to expensively rebrand and shift its focus from Cork and Munster to the national stage irritated its loyal local base while going largely unappreciated and unnoticed on the east coast.

Owned by the Crosbie family for five generations, it went into receivership in March 2013 and was acquired by Landmark Media, itself owned by Tom Crosbie and his father Ted.

Three short years and a KPMG analysis later, the Irish Examiner now finds itself under the stewardship of The Irish Times. What exactly the Old Lady of D'Olier Street will make of the even older dame of Academy Street is anybody's guess.

A large footprint in Cork

But the new owners should factor in more than the balance sheet or the one-way circulation graph, because it is not just another disposable title finding this cruel new century to be far more challenging than the last. The Examiner has deep roots and it matters.

I worked in Academy Street for just six years, but the Cork Examiner had always been part of my growing up. It not only put Thompson's bread (and cakes) on the table, but it was my father's life. We were all part of that extended family. There were 800 other homes like ours around Cork. In a small city, that's a large footprint.

Barrister, nationalist and MP John Francis Maguire founded the newspaper in 1841, making it older than both the Irish Independent and The Irish Times. But it was the Crosbies who would build it into an institution as essential to city life as the Lee that twists through it or the distinctive spires of St Fin barre's Cathedral.

The Examiner was only a year old when 15-year-old Thomas Crosbie, from Ardfert in Co Kerry, joined. Thirty years later he acquired the title when Maguire died. So gifted was young Crosbie that The Times of London offered him the plum job of leader writer on a massive salary of 700 sovereigns a year. The offer was sniffily withdrawn when it was realised that he was a Roman Catholic.

London's loss was Cork's gain and a family dynasty that persevered up to a few weeks ago was born.

As the Free State grew into a republic, the newspaper unapologetically and steadfastly reflected the mood and mores of its socially-conservative reader base, a demographic that remained largely unchanged for decades.

But it was the fourth generation of Crosbies - Ted and his cousins George and Donal - who were pivotal in adapting and reshaping the old firm as a new, more confident Ireland began to emerge in the post-Lemass era.

Most significantly, Ted was the force eight behind replacing the newspaper's traditional hot metal presses with a state-of-the-art web offset production system in 1976, well head of the big Dublin titles.

When I subsequently moved to the Irish Press, I had to be retrained in antediluvian methods and practices that hadn't changed much since the heady days of Johannes Gutenberg. I was in the odd situation of being nostalgic for something that the capital hadn't even glimpsed yet.

But these three merchant princes weren't only the beating heart of their newspaper business. George, Donal and Ted were gregarious participants in the social and cultural life of the city, too and while they didn't use their publications to advertise their omnipresence, they weren't shy about it either.

Old Clongowean George was a scratch golfer and represented Ireland as an amateur, while his brother Donal was an accomplished jazzman as comfortable tinkling the ivories as inhaling the distinctive whiff of ink. Ted, when he wasn't rolling up his sleeves to make the temperamental printing press run on time, liked the salty world of sailing and the company of captains and commodores at the RCYC.

While generally keeping their distance from the everyday fray, the Examiner was too small for conspicuous aloofness. I remember going to see Donal, who was then editorial director, about some perceived career slight and being gently slapped down and sent on my way. I must have been all of 20.

If he wasn't shocked by my precociousness that afternoon, he was when he dropped into the newsroom after the Buttevant train crash in 1980 to see some of his reporters phoning their copy to British newspapers before they had typed a line for the paper that paid their wages.

It's not often you see newspapers from the proprietor's viewpoint, but I did that day.

Although they weren't to know it at the time, it was the fifth generation - Alan, Billy, Tom - who would have to observe the inevitable gradual decline of the group as new age realities began to bite. George's daughter Patricia would make a name for herself in a very different sphere; as a ballerina who would marry and later divorce Ray Davies of The Kinks.

In retrospect it is easy to see the newspaper's move from its ancestral home on Academy Street to rented offices on Lapps Quay and then up to northside Blackpool as being sadly symbolic of reduced circumstances.

But only four years ago, old seadog Ted claimed, in his mellifluous Cork purr, that the Examiner "has survived the Famine, World War I, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the Great Depression of 1930, de Valera's Economic War of the mid-30s and World War II and several recessions. Such resilience will manifest itself again".

He could be right. But this time it would be without a Crosbie at the tiller.

Frank Coughlan is a former Deputy Managing Editor at INM

Indo Review

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News