Robin Morton

Robin Morton, Business Correspondent with the Belfast Telegraph and currently the paper’s acting Business Editor, talks about business journalism in the province, his interest in transport and the changes he has seen in the local media over the years.

How did you get started in journalism?

In common with many of my colleagues, my introduction to the media was a newspaper round, in my case in the Lisburn Road area of Belfast. Always an avid newspaper reader, I enrolled after Alevels at Inst in the pre-entry journalism course at the College of Business Studies in Belfast. After leaving college in 1971, I worked for 18 months in the Tyrone Constitution in Omagh and then for the same period in the Carrickfergus office of the East Antrim Times (part of the Telegraph group at that stage).

In June 1974 I made the move up to Royal Avenue and after covering general news, education and transport, I was the Telegraph’s deputy political correspondent during the 1980s. After a period in features, I moved to business, combining for 15 years the roles of business correspondent and leader writer.

Please describe the Belfast Telegraph’s business news operation.

At present I am acting Business Editor, and as such am responsible for the daily finance pages and for Business Telegraph, our Monday supplement. We have two pages of business in the morning compact paper, and a full page in our evening broadsheet edition. It is a fast-moving and rather hectic life, but all very stimulating. Our main focus is on the Northern Ireland business world and we cover the full gamut of the economic scene.

Of all the business/people you have met, who has impressed you most and why?

It is invidious to single anyone out, but I am always impressed by those who have the get-up and go to start their own business. I also admire those who put something back into the community and one example among so many is Dr Allen McClay of Almac, the Craigavon pharmaceutical firm.

In this context, an inspiring read is Conor O’Clery’s recent book on Chuck Feeney, the Irish-American philanthropist who was a key player in our peace process. I take my hat off, too, to all those busy executives who agree to take on leadership roles in the various business organisations and charities.

What changes have you seen in local business journalism over your career?

One major change is that the media is paying more heed to what is happening in the business world. Business Telegraph, for example, started as an eight-page monthly publication in the early 1980s. Now, of course, it is a weekly publication, often extending to 24 pages. Another transformation has been the growth of the public relations industry, which is now a key element in the news-gathering operation for all newspapers and business magazines.

As newspapers have cut costs, and reduced staff numbers, the PR sector has been expanding exponentially. Press releases provide source material for many stories, although sometimes the angle we take may not be the one that the PR company had in mind. Journalists still retain the ultimate sanction of deciding which stories and photographs are run. The acid tests remain news content and reader interest.

Does the small size of the province’s business community make it difficult for you to find new stories?

Not really, and such is the supply of stories that it is often a case of trying to fit a quart into a pint pot. The challenge is deciding which stories make the cut and which have to be spiked. The compactness of the business community means that it is easy to get to know the key players and to build up a relationship with them.

Are there any new challenges on the horizon for business journalism?

One problem is the trend for local companies to be taken over by large multiples. Not only does this mean that they pool their annual results with their parent company – much to John Simpson’s frustration when he is compiling our Top 100 – but it can be harder to get face to face with the real decision-makers. The takeover trend has also reduced the number of PLCs in Northern Ireland, now much lower than in other regions of Britain or the Republic.

Where does your interest in transport come from?

Since schooldays I have been interested in transport – firstly buses and then trains and more specifically steam trains. I served as secretary of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland at Whitehead for 13 years, and am still very involved. But my interest in transport extends to cycling and, weather permitting, I make the daily journey to and from work by bicycle – by far the quickest and most sustainable means of transport.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I play tennis at Belfast Boat Club, go hill walking with the Spartan Red Sox group and am congregational secretary at May Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast, so I find plenty to do in my free time. My wife Valerie and I enjoy breaks in Donegal, where we have a holiday home.

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