Some thoughts on running an award winning blog for 15 years…

15 years ago, near the start of June, I started Slugger. It was one of two or three blogs I started that year. One was an Irish language blog, another on theatre-in-the-round, but Slugger was the one that endured and found its focus and purpose first.

It started as a Letter to Slugger O’Toole the eponymous drunk from the song The Irish Rover on the grounds that trying to explain Northern Ireland was a bit like trying to talk to a drunk man.

You have to try to keep everything as short as possible, keep repeating yourself over and over and be prepared for the process of understanding to take a very long time. Well, 15 years later and we’re still talking to the same drunk man.

We dropped the letter idea when we had to be all grown up and less than a year later published a high-level report into the Future of Unionism as just plain old Slugger O’Toole. At that point, we became the listener as much as the talker.

And that’s when the conversation began.

In a previous life (long before the internet) I learned how powerful and generative participation could be. But I also learned that it required rules and structure: rules which had to be as binding upon the facilitator as on the voluntary participants.

As participation grew a long term Slugger companion Ian Parsley threw in the idea that ad hominem comments should be ruled out on the grounds they distract from substance. Play the ball not the man gave us a way of enforcing civility and allowed us to encourage political diversity.

In fact, the conviviality of space is a prerequisite for meaningful conversation. The similarities between running a conversational blog and running a pub struck me very early on. The odd thing is that some of those I’ve slung out have turned into highly valued friends. It’s also vital for creating virtuous circles through conversation.

One of my own favourite moments are when those conversations reveal otherwise hidden contexts. Once, I think it was Belfast Gonzo, we blogged a piece about discrimination against migrants in housing in south Belfast.

In about the fifth comment down, someone mentioned they worked in an estate agent where they’d been told the landlords were being threatened by loyalist paramilitaries. The story hit the South Belfast News, and then made it to the local broadcasters a couple of days later, and by Saturday it broke on the front page of the Guardian.

As my friend John Kellden likes to say, in a network (which is what  Slugger quickly became) the best place to store knowledge is in other people. That’s one reason I’ve always tried to blog with an understanding that I might just be the stupidest person in the room.

As such, it’s been important to try to cultivate curiosity and wherever possible instigate ongoing learning? Some of my early and more muscular interventions on threads which were going down an early convergent group think route, were about keeping the curiosity going. 

We’ve long been known as a principal water hole for Northern Ireland’s politicians, but our deep dive into the sacking of NI Water’s non-executive directors in 2010, brought us fame [and notoriety? – Ed] amongst senior civil servants.

Even if our more general readers paid little attention, it attracted commenters with inside knowledge of the workings of NI Water and concluded with the suspension of a PS for the first time in the history of NICS and two Sinn Fein politicians being successfully sued by one of the sacked NEDs.

We’ve had some Awards, and nearly had others. We’ve been longlisted for the Orwell Prize and shortlisted (twice) for Politics Online’s 10 websites who changed the world twice. Our first proper win was the New Statesman’s New Media Award for Community and Information.

We’ve had an Irish Blog Award or two for politics, and in about 2006 we featured in a Guardian article of one of six most influential political blogs in the UK. The one of which I’m proudest was a Peace Through Media Award: a small Olive Tree which I’ve still managed not to kill.

Odd you might say, that a blog which has had such a reputation for starting fires and causing trouble would get a peace prize. Certainly the work of fellow prize winners that year took a lot more courage than banging out blogs into the internet year after year.

But in tempering the groupthink which allows politicians and their activists to shrink back into the comfort of their tribal zones and the comforting words of companions or comrades who share their world view, Slugger has been NI’s original anti filter bubble.

This is why the heterogeneity of the blogging team is so important.  And why we keep putting out appeals for new women and unionist voices. As Indian defence minister Harjit Sajjan recently noted, “Diversity is an operational necessity. It’s more than language skills. It’s a way of thinking.”

Sajjan aside, politicians of course, often see their job as pushing in the opposite direction, to get people to converge around a single (and unremittingly) positive view of who they are and what their aims are.

It’s not and never been our job to oppose politicians and political parties (that’s for other political parties to do, not the media), but rather to increase scrutiny and diversity of voice around what our politicians do.

This is why the play the ball and not the man rule is key to Slugger’s ability to maintain and drive interest across the political divide. It’s not, I accept, always consistently reinforced, but that comes down in many cases to the fact that we run on a shoestring.

The market for Northern Ireland’s politics is just too small for any of us to generate an income even from a site as successful as Slugger. That many people believe otherwise is a complement to our many volunteer experts on the core editorial team, regular bloggers and  Soapboxers.

Slugger is a 15 year long act of generosity that has drawn so many good people towards it that fifteen years later, rather than being exhausted by the effort of keeping it going, it’s still generating new energy, new enthusiasms and new voices.

I’ve a lot of people to thank tonight. Some of whom you will never have heard of before, some who feature strongly in the blogging team. I’m particularly humbled by those of you who have given modestly but regularly when the call for donations goes out.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed, from that first team in the summer of 2003 (you know who you are) who fed what was already by then a 1000 readers a day as I went off to Donegal, to David, Alan and Brian who all keep the plates spinning at much higher readership volumes, to Brian Walker, who keeps London real for us.

A special word for one of the most valuable members of the team, Pete Baker. He and I have never met, but he is the longest serving member of the blogging team. His capacity to read the telling detail reliably has helped craft Slugger’s reputation as Senior Hurlers in the British and Irish political landscape.

I hope to see some of you tonight, but take this as a note of gratitude to all our readers across the globe. Here’s hoping you’ll be with us for the next fifteen…

All are welcome to come to our free Birthday Party tonight in the Duke of York, more details here…

If you like what we do any would like to give us a donation as a Birthday present just click the button below. We appreciate your support.