Editor-in chief Sunday Independent
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Telling stories with images instead of words is a new form of journalism for the Sunday Independent. It turned out to be a great way to show the massive changes in society.
What I’m most proud of, since becoming Sunday Independent editor on 29 March 2020, is that in telling the story of how Covid-19 dominated and changed almost every aspect of Irish life, we also gave our readers a clear signal that the newspaper itself was changing with the times.
For me, that process began on 5 April. Covid-19 was, of course, already a huge story. It had led the paper for the previous five weeks as concerns mounted about a virus that had already put the country into lockdown. But there was something different about my first front page as editor – it was dominated by a single image of a funeral director wearing a mask, looking directly into the camera. He was pictured by our photographer David Conachy standing in front of a desolate churchyard, at a funeral that nobody was allowed to attend. The headline, with a nod to the poet WB Yeats, read “A nation changed utterly”.
In many respects, that headline was a reflection of the Sunday Independent’s editorial content for the rest of 2020 – and now into 2021. Many of the things we took for granted were taken away from us and our journalists and photographers, Sunday after Sunday, documented that massive change.
Often we used photography – in a bold way on the front page and in extensive, wide-ranging Covid-19 sections inside the paper – to really tell the story. It was a visual approach that marked a significant departure for the Sunday Independent, which had stuck to the same tried-and-trusted but conservative presentation for many years. And it worked.
On 3 May, growing tensions between the government and the health experts who were acting as advisers were captured in a front-page photographic montage with the banner headline “Who’s in charge?”
Two weeks later, we were the first Irish newspaper to get a photographer inside some of the nursing homes that had been locked down, after a spate of deaths. The pictures made for another striking front page and a two-page spread inside. Three of our reporters also managed to speak to nursing home residents – the first time their voices had been heard since the lockdown. The media had been talking about these residents for months – it was important they got the chance to speak for themselves about a situation that was frightening to many of them.
Months later, during the country’s third lockdown, we were also the first newspaper to get a journalist and photographer into the ICU and Covid wards of a major Irish hospital at a time of enormous stress on the medical staff. Again, the results dominated the front page and inside pages. We were contacted subsequently by key personnel from the hospital who said the coverage was important in raising public awareness of just how bad things were in the country’s acute hospitals, due to people not respecting the rules of lockdown.
Any self-respecting Sunday newspaper sees it as its mission to produce agenda-setting journalism for the coming week, to get ahead of the story. It is another source of pride that we were often successful in bringing our readers the inside track on the three lockdowns – so far – and how their lives were likely to be affected, before the measures were announced.
We spoke to everyone from hospital cleaners to grieving families, from scientific experts to political decision-makers, and published the views of those advocating radical Covid strategies and those insisting that too high a price was being paid in the restriction on our movement.
There is no one scoop I would highlight: I’m mostly proud of how a small but highly motivated and hard-working team of journalists and photographers rose to the challenge of reporting on the biggest story of our lifetimes – week after week, and still going!