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Irish newspaper's world scoop

Newsletter masthead
Masthead image courtesy Sinéad Gibney. Check out her blog, Tent of blue.

August 23, 1776 was a memorable day for the Belfast (Northern Ireland) daily, News Letter, when it achieved one of the greatest newspaper scoops of all time. It published the full text of the American Declaration of Independence before that famous document was delivered to King George III and the British Parliament.

At that time, the King's soldiers were engaged in bloody fighting against George Washington's "rebels" in New York. The US Congress had endorsed Jefferson's Declaration of Independence on "the glorious fourth" of July, and ordered that copies should be sent to all of the colonies.

A year earlier, these momentous events (as listed by The History Place) had occurred:

July 5, 1775 - The Continental Congress adopts the Olive Branch Petition which expresses hope for a reconciliation with Britain, appealing directly to the King for help in achieving this. In August, King George III refuses even to look at the petition and instead issues a proclamation declaring the Americans to be in a state of open rebellion.

July 6, 1775 - The Continental Congress issues a Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms detailing the colonists' reasons for fighting the British and states the Americans are "resolved to die free men rather than live as slaves."

Here's how News Letter proudly recounts the story of its "world exclusive" on its website's history page:

Today's sophisticated news gathering techniques, which link the editorial offices by computer with worldwide news and picture services, contrast starkly with the 18th Century when the printing of international news depended on the arrival of packet boats from foreign or British parts.

One such arrival provided the News Letter with what can be justifiably claimed as the first genuine "world exclusive". The boat carrying the first copy to leave America of the Declaration of Independence, and bound for London, hit stormy waters off the north coast of Ireland. The boat sought refuge in Londonderry port and arrangements were made for the declaration to be sent on horseback to Belfast, where it would be met by another ship for delivery to King George III.

Somehow, and in the best traditions of revelatory journalism, the News Letter editor of the day gained access to the priceless document and duly published it on the front page of the August 23, 1776 edition. Today there is a constant demand for copies of that famous and historical front page.

Founded in 1737, the News Letter is one of the world's oldest English-language newspapers. The London Gazette, first published in 1665, is the oldest, but for the first 300 years or so it was mostly published only two or three times a week. The Belfast News Letter claims to be the oldest English-language DAILY newspaper.

Here is what it says about its long history:

The News Letter, now in its fourth century of continuous publication, has come a long way since it first saw the light of day in 1737.

In those far-off days it was printed in what is now called Joy's Entry in Belfast, and was published by the original owner, Francis Joy, under the "sign of the Peacock" in Bridge Street.

Peacock symbolThe peacock symbol has been synonymous with the newspaper ever since and appears in a more modern format on today's masthead.

Initially a weekly paper, it became daily in 1855 and although some other newspapers originated before 1737, the News Letter is distinguished by its continuity of publication and retention of the original title.

On a recent visit to Northern Ireland, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth described the longevity of the newspaper as "an achievement in which the people of Northern Ireland can take great pride".

There is no doubting our special place in newspaper history, and in the daily life of the Province.

Now located at a modern publishing centre, modern production systems include computerised typesetting, electronic page make-up, satellite transmission services and full colour printing capability.

These significant advances have been successfully utilised for business, agricultural, entertainment and lifestyle supplements alongside sister titles like the Belfast News, and leading agriculture newspaper Farming Life.

More recently, the News Letter has played a prominent role in the search for peace and a political settlement in Northern Ireland.

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Story first posted March 2006

Copyright © 2006

Eric Shackle

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