Making 40 newspapers sing in Unison

 

My first real introduction to technology was during my time as associate director at Woodchester Credit Lyonnaise, where I set up two tele-centres.

I have been involved in multimedia in Ireland since 1996 when I founded Indigo, before setting up a new company, Salient Information Specialists, which was responsible for running Telecom Eireann's Information Age Town awareness campaign. Internet Ireland was also formed in 1996, initially as a niche Internet service provider (ISP), providing e-mail and Internet-related services such as website development and hosting sites. We concentrated first on small and medium-sized enterprises in the greater Dublin and Drogheda area.

Then in 1997 we set about putting in place the technological infrastructure to put 40 regional newspapers online. Last year Independent Newspapers bought a majority stake in Internet Ireland, which was marked by the launch of our new portal site, www.unison.ie.

With Unison we are aiming to create a national portal with strong regional links by bringing together more than 40 regional newspaper titles. The sites will be accessible through a conventional TV, using an affordable set-top box, which will enable mass use of the Internet and new media. In effect, we have transformed the media landscape in Ireland.

From my time on the information technology steering committee, I realise how hard it is for any government to force the pace of change with e-commerce. But definitely more needs to be done by the Office of the Regulator of Telecommunications in terms of ensuring greater access. We need a climate where there is free access to the web, by eliminating the cost of local calls. This is what is happening in Britain with service providers such as AltaVista and NTL, so it's going to have to happen here. But at the moment Eircom is still the dominant player in the Irish telecommunications industry, and I think it will take some time to free-up this situation.

Rural Ireland isn't as reluctant to move on-line as it was a few years ago. In the past, both cost and access to technology in rural areas were key limiting factors. Now we are in a position to provide Internet access bypassing the PC. I believe this will boost on-line usage in rural areas - especially as regional newspapers command a very loyal following.

Inevitably, this means that the character of the regional papers will change. Going on-line enables regional titles to offset competition from international sites like Amazon and Yahoo, which are already providing regional content on-line. It also enables those titles to provide a broader range of services, including e-commerce and database facilities and to move towards real-time on-line content, for local readers and for people further afield who want news from their old area. If anything, these changes will enhance the character of regional papers. Busy but interesting, that is what life around the office is like. The work involves planning and implementing the rollout of our ISP and e-commerce services; liasing with our partners in the regional and national press; briefing potential e-commerce partners and general "housekeeping" functions - correspondence, meetings, managing staff etc - in common with most businesses.

Last October we employed 12 staff. We now have more than 50 and expect to have upwards of 100 staff by year end. If I could wave a magic wand, what would I change? My lunch!

In conversation with Martin Barry