Interview with Michael Donnelly

A Dutch translation is published in Whisky Passion number 3 – 2019. 

2019-05-15 17_17_20-46_13 ILeach 2019.pdf - Adobe Acrobat Reader DCEvery fortnight editor Michael Donnelly and his team issue another Ileach, the Independent Newspaper of Islay and Jura. For years I have been interested in the many whisky related articles. We talk about news gathering, changing content and the position of the whisky industry on Islay .

Ileach editor Michael Donnelly
Ileach editor Michael Donnelly

Michael, when you stepped in a few months ago as editor did you change much in the ‘policy’ of the Ileach? What’s your personal background as a newspaperman ?

There was no conscious changes to the Ileach ‘policy’ and philosophy, as I am aware the paper has been around since 1973 and is widely valued by the local community and subscribers from around the world. I suppose being the editor journalist you do have your own ‘angle’ on the stories. I have tried to put my own ‘personality’ into the editorials, which is to use positive inclusive language and also humour as much as I can and when appropriate. I have also tried to create a ‘flow’ in the stories. I’m trying to do that, but it’s not always possible to link the stories and themes as there so many different stories. But having said that, my background is in ‘internal’ communications and human resources, leading large teams of people across the world, so I suppose subconsciously, I do try and have a diverse mix of stories with an inclusive style.

Ileach office Bowmore
Ileach office Bowmore

The Ileach started in 46 years ago as you said. Is there any recollection of how the newspaper was made in those days?

From the early days you can see it has been produced by ‘type writers’ used to ‘type’ the stories and articles and there is evidence from the adverts actually placed for new Ileach staff with jobs including printing and stapling, putting the whole paper together, literally, by hand.

Has the Ileach been the only newspaper on Islay and Jura?

Jura Jottings Online

The Ileach has been the only paper on islay since it’s inception and has always covered both islands. There is also a newspaper on Jura, the ‘Jura Jottings’ but this is only available on Jura.

Has the content changed a lot over the years?

Looking back over old copies to delve into content for our ‘Blast from the Past’ feature, where I select stories on the anniversary dates from ten, twenty, thirty or even forty years ago, you can see the annual and seasonal activities that take place and have continued to take place. The duck race, plough race and beach rugby are several of the local annual activities that have become part of Islay life and of course there are monthly, weekly and seasonal activities that are advertised today as they were years ago. The increasing number and variety of music, whisky and books and this year our first food festivals are all in there, but most importantly, the stories and content are about the people who live, work and visit the island. Today, we may include a story and a picture from the school, and you are conscious that you could be writing about someone whose father, or grandmother featured in editions past, and that’s when you make the real  connection with the island’s heritage and lineage.

Blast from the Past
Blast from the Past

How many hard copy and pdf subscribers does the Ileach have and how many copies are distributed on the islands?

We have a regular distribution on the islands of around 1500 which for a population of 3000 is quite impressive I believe. Plus we send hard copy issues to around 250 people around the wider country and a further 250 pdf versions which generally go around the world.

Is it possible to measure the impact of the Ileach for the people of Islay and Jura?

That’s a difficult question really, but I would say that the ability to retain readership levels (in fact it’s pleasing to see they are rising) is a mark of the impact. People can get their news these days on social media and on the islands that gives real live connectivity to the wider world, but the ‘regular habit’ of picking up your Ileach with your groceries from the village shop is something we strive to hold onto and to build.

How many reporters contribute to the Ileach every fortnight? Have they all got their own expertise?

The Editor is also THE reporter on the team, so it’s put together by yours truly, but this is helped by the occasional article submitted by a local contributor such as a book review or music concert review and of course there’s our letters page from anyone who wants to write to the editor – so please do!

When it comes to whisky related articles. Do distilleries contact the Ileach or the other way around? 

It generally works both ways and depends on the stories. Since I’ve been here for just three months we’ve had the opening of the new Ardnahoe distillery (only the second new distillery in 124 years !)  the expansion plans of Port Ellen, Caol Ila and Bruichladdich announced and an application into local planning for another new distillery near Port Ellen. So there’s been no shortage of material.  Oh, and the Feis Ile is at the end of May !

A short story example of this was when we found out through the grapevine that the BBC had been filing at one of the distilleries for a new ‘reality’ game show, not even edited produced or aired yet, and the staff who were a part of the filming had been sworn to secrecy. So when I contacted them, they wanted of course to find out our source (which I never divulged!) and then swore me to secrecy but gave false names of those who had taken part and we have not used the programme’s name. So everyone is compliant, and everyone on the island knows all about it from the Ileach. Win win.

Does every distillery have its own contact person?

Yes, most of them have communications leads and contact folk, but also because the island is a close community, there are also informal routes to go to for information officially and unofficially! And sometimes it comes to us before we need to ask!

As whisky is the main attraction of the island is there a sense of urgency when it comes to printing this news before other news?

Whisky is certainly important to the island, it employs many Ilich (plural for Ileach, which is the singular) directly and indirectly, and is a big tourist draw; but also the beauty of the island, nature, birds, wildlife and of course the music, culture and heritage; so it’s a small island but has many facets and so the editor’s role is about striking the right balance of the content of whisky and more. Believe it or not there are some who live here who don’t want to hear about whisky in the Ileach all of the time as they either work at a distillery, are neighbours of one and see it very day. But that’s not to say they don’t want to read about it, as they may find out about something a competitor, so it does require a delicate balance of editorial content.

Lord Robertson opent Ardnahoe Distillery op 12 april 2019
Lord Robertson opens Ardnahoe Distillery on 12 April 2019

You talked about Lord Robertson’s speech being published in the next issue. Are these sort of things exclusively for the Ileach ? I mean in this day and age other newspapers certainly want to get hold of a scoop like this.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, as a proud Ileach himself, is very generous with sharing his thoughts and speeches with, and in support of, the local newspaper. He is very happy that we publish his commentary in the Ileach on important matters. Most recently of course, this has been whisky lovers and entrepreneurs choosing Islay for a major investment on his ‘home’ turf (Ardnahoe); and also, the beautifully written  “appreciation of Bruno Schroeder’, major benefactor to Islay, when he sadly passed away just week ago.

Lord Robertson has also kindly commented that he is a strong supporter of the paper, it’s heritage and standing on Islay and Jura and his wish to see it continue to be a part of the Islay fabric for many years to come.