November 26, 2009

Slugger O'Toole was drunk as a rule but sober enough to keep typing: my latest investment in local political news

Slugger Awards Blogger Of The Year 

This week I announced my latest 4iP investment in the Northern Ireland-based political blog Slugger O’Toole, in the fund’s first co-investment with Northern Ireland Screen. The investment adds to a range of web products running along the theme of “keeping an eye on money and power”, providing a means of exploring localised political debate at scale.

Working with Belfast-based developer and instigator of beautiful things Andy McMillan (@GoodOnPaper), we're helping to revamp the Slugger site for existing readers, with a relaunch of the site planned for the New Year. The goal is to make what is currently a crowded, busy and perhaps intimidatingly quick-posting blog more accessible for newbies and more enjoyable for current readers and commenters.

The next step is to take the most influential political blog in Northern Ireland and turn it into a sustainable collaborative public service media platform, moving the means of pluralistic political debate forward elsewhere in the UK. We're also keen to explore how we amplify the voices of those commenting: the debates under each post are just as vital as the posts themselves.

Slugger is unique among political blogs for its combination of public service levels of trust with the blogosphere’s forensic and adversarial demands. According to a recent poll, 96% of the Northern Irish Assembly’s politicians read it regularly, and it's demonstrably reaching deep into local political issues. With many major political news stories being broken by its readers before the mainstream media gets hold of them, it is also Northern Ireland’s journalistic watering-hole of choice.

The Obama social media effect: in Northern Ireland for nearly a decade.

For politicians and the public, the value of good political blogs has never been clearer. The last twelve months have shown what the power of social media can do to inspire and engage the public in the decision-making processes that affect them, from digging though expenses claims to helping claim electoral victory for the Obama administration.

But proximity to what 'real' people think and the provision of a forum to amplify those voices is what Slugger O'Toole has been doing for the best part of seven years.

Why did I want to pursue an investment in Slugger O'Toole, though, and not any one of the other political blogs out there? Slugger's readership is large, and arguably more varied than any other political blog, especially given its geographic focus: to have both your national Assembly and a critical mass of your local councillors coming to you for genuine breaking stories on a regular basis is something that any national newspaper would be content with.

Their support was particularly demonstrable on Tuesday night, as nearly 300 politicians, journalists and readers from across Northern Ireland packed into Belfast's Black Box for the Slugger Awards. For goodness sake: even Bob Geldof joined us.

I'm particularly fond of Slugger’s ethic of “play the ball not the man”. 'People want to debate the issues, not the politicians', believes its founder Mick Fealty. Many of his political blogger compadres would and do disagree. But when we've excluded the political hacks and scandal junkies, the vast majority of us want change on specific issues and we want a place to debate them where our politicians see our view. Slugger provides that. In spades.

At a time when politicians and citizens are subject to more noise than signal in a growing web of unmoderated “citizen-produced democracy”, and national news repeatedly fails to account for local political issues, 4iP’s investment is a timely one.

In the next four weeks we will finalise a refreshed design for the site, with new functionality in the New Year which should help spread Slugger's ethic further into the mainstream, further into its already highly localised audiences. We will uncover yet more voices that need amplified for the eyes and ears of the political classes in Stormont, Westminster, Brussels and Strasbourg; we will see Slugger pushing these representatives to get more done for their people, rather than just talking about it.

Towards Spring we will see Slugger trying to replicate the same, honest "play the ball" political coverage in Scotland, and perhaps further afield. We're building some business cases around the work Slugger's authors are arguably the most capable people in the world at carrying out, having lived through Western Europe's worst civil war and come out the other side with an online forum for genuine political discussion between all sides. Slugger will help fill a significant media gap of coverage and comment on politics at local levels while having a growing impact nationally in Westminster.

This is not a 4iP 'investment' on the same level as some of our six figure sums, but with the impact Slugger-the-blog is already having, Slugger-the-platform is a win for "amplifying voices" from the word go. It is exactly where Channel 4 at its most cantankerous should be.

Picture Credit: John Baucher, with permission. Blogger Alan In Belfast picks up his Martin Rowson portrait after winning Slugger Awards Blogger Of The Year for his "election monitoring" of the darker side of the EU election processes.


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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is a teacher, speaker and investor, regarded as one of Europe’s foremost experts in digital media for public services.

His company, NoTosh Limited, invests in tech startups and film on behalf of public and private investors, works with those companies to build their creative businesses, and takes the lessons learnt from the way these people work back into schools and universities across the world.

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