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Shane Ross: He cared about readers, not just figures

A few weeks after I was made business editor of the Sunday Independent I went out to lunch with editor Aengus Fanning and a senior management type.

On the agenda was the progress of this newspaper's attempt to compete with the dull business supplements then emerging from our competitors. As so often happened with Aengus, there was a sense of friction when anyone tried to snipe at his staff or his products.

The management type was unenthusiastic about the tone of the pages, and distinctly sniffy about our descent into critical populism. He had been receiving flak from his business chums. They were meant to feel that this was their section. It should be authoritative and far more business-friendly.

Confident that the sort of heresy the business section was pursuing would appeal to him, I looked to Aengus for support.

Aengus was unpredictable as ever. He was vehement: "Do you know the one thing I do not want to see in my business section?" he demanded. Both of us looked puzzled, because with Aengus you never knew what was coming next .

"What?" asked the management type, expecting an ally in the editor for his assault on the dangerous populist streak that he found so offensive.

I wondered was Aengus about to fulminate about the scantily clad blonde we had used on the front page the previous Sunday or the footballer the week before.

No, he was now in full flight. "There is only one thing I never want to see in my business section. And that," he paused, "is figures. I hate figures. They bore the nation to death."

The management type was gobsmacked. It was obvious that he thought he was dining with an editor who had gone walkabout. He pleaded that a business section without figures was impossible. I was delighted. Aengus refused to yield an inch.

That was Aengus. He challenged everything. He was totally unintimidated by his bosses in Middle Abbey Street, often openly expressing contempt for their knowledge of how to sell newspapers.

The idea of a business section without figures was typical of the man. Of course, he was not deadly serious, but he believed business -- like life -- was about people, not numbers. It did not need to be boring. He never cared about the difference between GDP and GNP, nor did he feel the readers gave a toss.

Aengus never took his eye off the reader. He was obsessed by the readership figures. And his obsession was vindicated by nearly three decades of success, as the Sunday Independent topped the league tables year after year.

His unorthodox approach to everything guaranteed them their Sunday fix, happy in the knowledge that they were going to be entertained and informed in a far more arresting way than by any of his competitors.

He was not easy to live with, but he was wonderful to work with.

Sunday Independent