Mick Fealty

Having made his mark as a professional researcher, Slugger O’Toole editor Mick Fealty turned his attention to the fledgling new media world of blogging in 2002 and has not looked back since.

How did Slugger come about?

It was established primarily as a research resource for a paper I was planning to write on the future of unionism in Northern Ireland. I set it up in June 2002 simply as a means of logging what I considered to be important pieces of journalism, research and other forms of valuable intellectual capital.

Even as I set it up I knew that blog technology had the capacity to allow me to build an audience with what was, at times, more like a relatively neutral notebook on what others were saying, and which had the potential to draw in an intelligent audience. I was primarily focused on building a picture of what was going on and how it was seen from multiple angles, not simply from the single view of unionism.

I worked on the idea that if my choices where of sufficient high quality, I would draw in an audience of similarly high quality.

This commonly involved using multiple references from across the usual editorial frames.

Writers like Alex Kane and Brian Feeney, who would usually be consumed in separate print newspapers by completely distinct audiences, would be read consecutively (and often comparatively) on Slugger.

What is unique about Slugger?

Well, that’s not easy to answer. Under the adage “there is nothing new under the sun”, its uniqueness probably lies in its amalgam of features you can’t find elsewhere.

It is still relatively unusual to find a blog that hasn’t arisen out of the political convictions of its original blogger. As a professional researcher I deliberately set out for the blog to be a passive forum of information from across the political spectrum.

That original ‘mission’ if you like has profoundly influenced what has followed. Both in terms of the blogging team that has developed around the Slugger brand, and the heterogeneity of the members of the public who comment there.

As a result, the conversations there are often of a relatively high quality.

We’ve also been keen to take up new technologies as they emerge. On the top right corner of the main page there is always a single photograph drawn from the photo sharing website, Flickr.

What pressures do bloggers face?

In the first place, finding something that interests you and is likely to engage others. Then it is finding the time to blog it both acutely and accurately: bloggers don’t commonly have sub-editors to cover up their journalistic blemishes.

As your audience grows and the number of people who want to comment on your blog grows too, you run into the problem of what to do about the people who want to comment on your blog. You may (as I generally do) only choose to blog during work hours. But if your blog is open to comment 24/7 then your commenters may never sleep. Building a culture of positive engagement is not easy. It’s almost as though they were in the same room, but rarely at precisely the same moment.

In what ways does Slugger help to encourage political dialogue?

Right from the start Slugger has been interested in the power of conversation. When we began to publish the interviews from the qualitative research, we had to have a new site built from ground up in order to facilitate those who wanted to comment on them.

We live in an age in which individual expertise is becoming less important than collaboration. Connective technologies like blogging and various other social networking tools make working together easier over distance and time and potentially allow for more interaction.

How does blogging compare with traditional forms of the media such as print and broadcast?

It’s quicker. It’s sometimes smarter. Not because mainstream journalists are stupid, but conversation is the stock in trade of bloggers. On the smaller blogs, there is less of a demand to be first to a particular story. There is less of a competitive demand to set the tone of a debate. Bloggers often hone in on the detail which the mainstream media ignores and find gold.

Blogging in general, I think, has earned itself reputation for solipcism and self reference. That’s the reputation. But spend five minutes Googling the phrase “why I blog” and that offers a very different story. The evidence is quite revealing. At some point, most bloggers feel the need to explain why they spend so much time composing their thoughts for small audiences, and the common themes include a desire to raise issues that are under-discussed elsewhere, or to bring a sense of order to random thoughts. As EM Forster put it: “How do I know what I think until I read what I’ve written?”

Please describe your job as a research associate at Queen’s University. What does this involve?

It’s an honorary position, so it simply allows me to collaborate with some of the huge talent in the university and have access to library and other research facilities. During my time there I have run seminars on democratic online engagement. I’m also working on a paper which examines how connective tools online can help to build a deliberative tools to support democracy, in Northern Ireland and across the globe.

Can you tell us about some of the spin-offs from Slugger?

In last year we’ve been supporting a democratic advocacy tool which you can find online at:
www.councillor.info/northernireland

The aim is to provide a space for those public representatives who are closest to the electorate. With the smaller number of councillors that will be needed, the wider representation and the new powers they will exercise, Northern Ireland is in a unique position in that it could see the quality of local democracy improve significantly over the next few years. We’d like to be a driver for that improvement and promote the idea of conversational politics where politicians can eavesdrop on genuine conversations – things that actually matter to citizens, not what the more pointed lobbyists say they think.

On 7 October we’ll be hosting the first Slugger Awards at W5, during the Solace (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives) conference, the culmination of a successful collaboration with Stratagem NI and Channel 4. Nominations will be generated through Slugger’s high level audience, then mulled over by an audience panel of Slugger’s blogging team and representatives of the great and the good.

What are your main interests outside work?

With the time I get, I spend it walking my dogs. The wilder and more isolated the spot the better. Also spending precious time with my family. When I am not reading politics or boning up on economics, I read fiction. Mostly crime writers at the moment.

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