The track tragedy which was very close to home for journalists in one newsroom

William Dunlop

The death of motorcycle racing star William Dunlop has left communities across Northern Ireland stunned. For the newsroom at the News Letter, based in Belfast, it was a tragedy which felt very close to home, not least because he was a regular columnist for the title. Editorial director Graeme Huston reports…

The tragic death and heartbreaking funeral of one of Northern Ireland’s most high-profile motorcycle racing stars has resulted in a huge increase in audience for the News Letter.

As news of the tragedy spread on Saturday evening last week, the editorial team in JP NI began the process of organising tributes and coverage which would ultimately deliver the record figures — the equivalent of two week’s normal traffic online in less than 48 hours.

NI Sports editor Richard Mulligan was in the North West at the Irish Open and motor sport writer Kyle White — who knew racer William Dunlop, 32, and his family personally — was on holiday in the south of Ireland when the accident happened. Both were in touch quickly with each other to deliver the first story online.

The initial online coverage in place, editor Alistair Bushe chaired a news conference on Sunday morning to set up nine pages across news and sport on Monday morning, which included a striking back page (referenced by the BBC Radio Ulster News paper review).

William had been a regular columnist in the News Letter’s motorcycling supplement, Keep Er Lit, and Kyle spoke to him most Monday mornings to gather the information for that column.

Sadly the News Letter also worked hard on Thursday to cover the death of James Cowton, from Yorkshire but who rode with a Northern Ireland based racing team, after he was killed on the Isle of Man during the Southern 100 races.

All the coverage over the week saw sport, news and digital integrate well across all daily and weekly platforms due to the team-working that is inherent in NI’s Newsroom of the Future workflows.

Coverage by the sports team of William’s death ran as a shared spread in the sport section of the weeklies. The popularity of road-racing across Northern Ireland and the interest in the Dunlop family well warranted this.

The Coleraine Times and Ballymoney Times (his home town) dedicated the front page splash to a picture of William Dunlop and the poignant words “Gone too soon” along with four pages of coverage and tributes.

However the most massive reaction to the tragedy played out on social media where hundreds of fans, friends and even people with no interest in motorcycle racing expressed their sadness and shock.

Deputy Digital Editor Gemma Murray, created a gallery of images showing people laying flowers in his home town and Social Media Editor Andrew Quinn created gallery of 26 images from his racing career.

Andrew said: “This piece was published to the News Letter website and shared widely throughout the publishing unit. It saw just under 20,000 page views on Monday alone.

“The biggest reaction from News Letter online readers came on the day of William’s funeral where we published two separate galleries using photographs from the day.

“The first gallery was published on Wednesday afternoon whilst the second was promoted on social media during half time between England and Croatia in the World Cup.

“The two galleries have since gone on to record an unprecedented 1,000,000 page views for the News Letter in less than 48 hours.

“The News Letter’s coverage of the funeral was seen in countries all over the world and has been shared on motorcycle online forums and Facebook groups.”

Aside from galleries, the digital team also carried information for readers and fans with Gemma Murray’s piece about the time and location of the funeral also proving to be very well read.

The last word though goes to Kyle who covered the story about the death of his friend while on holiday for our whole portfolio of titles using his own phone and laptop, and with hardly any signal.

Kyle said: “It was the toughest few days I have experienced in 21 years as a journalist, but I was proud of the coverage in the News Letter and felt it served as a fitting tribute to William”.

Read more: The newsroom where motorcycling competes with football to lead the back page

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