Catering for all, says Fealty…

DID we really miss this one? Page three of yesterday’s Irish News carried a feature on Slugger… So if you want to know some of the background to the site, clickSlugger weblog caters for all says its creator
03/06/2005

By Suzanne McGonagle

Thousands of ‘bloggers’ share their thoughts on Northern Ireland politics and culture at the unique Slugger O’Toole website every day. Suzanne McGonagle speaks to its creator and finds out what all the fuss is about

OVERFLOWING with comments and contributors with names such as Belfast Gonzo, Bloomsday Girl and Dessertspoon, the Slugger O’Toole website has soared in popularity since its creation almost three years ago.

The remarkable journey of Mick Fealty’s site has seen it move from a simple “research piece” to an invaluable information point and forum for thousands of people interested in the politics and news of the north.

It was created on June 5 2002 as a personal area for Mr Fealty to pursue his interests in the politics of Northern Ireland, but within a short space of time it was reaching a global readership.

Slugger O’Toole is a special sort of website called a weblog – also known as a ‘blog’ – which allows visitors to voice their opinions and exchange messages.

The blog was conceived as a sort of newsletter to Slugger O’Toole, the legendary sailor who went down with the ship, The Irish Rover, between Cork and New York in 1806.

In the three years that it has been in operation, Slugger O’Toole has become a daily port of call for many people. And its creator, who lives in Dorset in England, recognises the success of the site, which he believes caters for people of all – and no – political persuasions.

Recognised as an award winning blogger, writer and political analyst, Mr Fealty last night said that he was delighted with the popularity of Slugger O’Toole, which was originally started up as a simple “personal pinboard”.

“I started it up as a research piece – to look at unionism from 360 degrees, but it quickly moved on from there,” he said.

“I wanted it to be a single slice of what life was really like, I never really thought about the audience at the beginning.

“After about three weeks, I eventually worked out how to read the logs I had received and realised that there were about 90 people on every day, even though I hadn’t told anybody about it.

“We are now getting 3,000 unique visitors every day. When there is a big story out, such as when the McCartney family went to Washington, there were 5,000 visitors on that day.”

Mr Fealty, who is a visiting research associate at the Institute of Governance at Queens University in Belfast, said he believes Slugger O’Toole had gained a “cross-community relationship”.

“I thought that most people who would come to the site would be Irish Americans, but more people liked the everyday life that we showed and more and more people in Northern Ireland began to read it,” he said.

“The site is a great place for pulling together readers – both nationalist and unionist – from Northern Ireland to England. It was there to denote the most significant political stories in Northern Ireland.

“It has gradually unfolded – it had a kind of emerging quality. It kind of started with an idea to see how the audience would interact,” he added.

“I realised it was a niche in the market.

“So far I have done fairly well, three years on and there are 3,000 visitors every day on average and on weekdays there are 3,500 visitors.”

However, one problem which faces anyone setting up a bulletin board such as Slugger O’Toole is controlling the quality.

Mr Fealty operates a soccer-style system of yellow and red cards intended to keep the debate above board.

“I have no revenue stream, I’m more interested in the quality of the dialogue. But I do have to make interventions at times to keep the quality going,” he said.

Mr Fealty is heavily committed to the blog.

“It’s a huge success, I have done it out of my own pocket and I aim to try to make a medium-term future for it,” he said.

“We have 10 or 11 other writers and I have been told that when an Oxford professor, who reads all the Irish newspapers, really wants to find out what is going on he goes to Slugger O’Toole.”

• The weblog can be found at www.sluggerotoole.com