Slugger, Awards, 4IP and the future

A few weeks have gone by since the Slugger Awards, and I’ve had some time to collect my thoughts on what has been an extraordinary time for Slugger. Years ago a senior editor of a Belfast newspaper suggested to me that Slugger set the news agenda every morning. It was pretty much the scariest thing anyone has said to me in the last seven, nearly eight years. My feeling then, as now, that all we do is to do what we’ve always done and that is to follow our (now highly various) instincts as to what matters in the news or in the breaking news.

We have one big advantage over salaried journalists. None of us depend upon the blog’s output for our living. And as the nominal editor I take little part in suggesting to the blogging team what they should or should not blog about.

The autonomy of each blogger is our collective strength. As a result we have acquired a great deal of quality in depth and breadth. From the political, running from Conall McDevitt and Chris Donnelly to Fair Deal and more latterly Turgon, to the more mainstream journalistic, Brian Walker to Eamonn Mallie, with good material coming from a range of contributors based in other places, like Dublin, Edinburgh, Cardiff and London.

It is precisely this sort of quality and pluralism that brought us to 4IP’s attention, in order to bring us to the next level. What that level is, at this stage, we are not precisely clear. Though we have some ideas about the general direction of travel.

As a result of our engagement with 4IP we have set up a limited company, Slugger O’Toole Ltd. In the first place it is to enable us to draw and disburse funds on that specific project. But it is also a useful assertion of ownership: i.e., that the site belongs, as it always has, to me.

To help me manage things, I’ve also brought in Paul Evans who has done a huge amount of legwork in the last year and managed the immense detail required to help shape a business out of the chaotically constructed beast that’s been keeping Slugger afloat for the last seven years.

So, contrary to some fears, it is not a takeover by Channel 4 but a relationship that will help us grow and develop in ways that help us continue to do what we have always done, only better. The aim is solely to make Slugger sustainable, not to make huge profit, and certainly not to rip the poor benighted taxpayer off.

You’ll see the first fruits of that relationship in the New Year with a new site built on open source software on which the RSS feeds will actually work. We’ll also have tabbed browsing so that you can get to the subjects you’re really interested in more easily.

Northern Ireland will remain at the centre of the offering, but as our capacity grows, we’ll drop new tabs on other key focuses like the Republic, Scotland, and Europe.

Open source too is the key to the way we want to develop the site. The new commenting tools we are developing in collaboration with some of the larger political sites in the UK and will be made available to any one who wants to use them.

Collaboration too was at the heart of the Slugger Awards. For the second year we lent heavily (very heavily) on Quintin Oliver and his enthusiastic team at Stratagem. I’m conscious that I have not yet thanked them for their hard work and dedication.

We involved Stratagem partly because Quintin is an old friend from a working life previous to Slugger, and partly because he had long contemplated doing the same thing. We got together last year and simply said, “Damn it, let’s do it!”

We put in a lot of (costly) time into getting the whole thing organised. Anyone who has done events like this will realise that getting the individual awards launched, getting the ball rolling, finding the sponsors, closing the deals with them, organising the event, the dinner, writing designing and printing the programme, booking the two venues, getting the speakers, doing the filming, editing the films, doing the press work, accommodating TV stations that want to film it, managing the tickets, producing the night, getting the performers for the night and doing the production – it all took a long time.

Stratagem’s team did a brilliant job on this – often in their own time and creativity independent of what was asked of them. They did a really thorough and professional job and I’m conscious that I’ve not thanked them properly for it yet.

Of course, Stratagem are a lobby company. And since Slugger spends much of its year tightly scrutinising the actions of politicians, we are hardly that. Our primary value in the vast food chain is our independence, and anything that interferes with that independence will certainly do us harm.

Stratagem is a product of the last ten years of Northern Irish politics and a lot of their work has been advising all kinds of organisations that interact with the assembly. Democracies need people who act as knowledgeable intermediaries.

Apart from being associated with the organisation (a two-edged sword, as we’ve seen) I can’t see a substantial commercial reason for them doing it. Sometimes people put their businesses behind an idea because they like it, regardless of the risks.

In the New Year I’ll be laying out some detail, first with our bloggers and then more publicly just what I think Slugger’s ‘new deal’ means for us (and possibly for you), not least in terms of what kinds of work we will do and, perhaps more importantly, what we will not do.

But hey, not on Monday night at McHughs… that’s strictly dress down, meet and crack… Everyone is welcome… So long as, you know, you, er, play the ball and not the man… Let us know on Facebook, or just show on the night…