25 years of The Irish Times on the web – not forgetting its role in Saipan

In 1994 we took our pioneering, if stumbling, first steps on to the ‘world wide web’

Ireland.com: the presidential candidate Mary McAleese answering questions for Irish Times readers in 1997, watched by technical co-ordinator George Walker and web journalist Conor Pope. Photograph: Frank Miller

Ireland.com: the presidential candidate Mary McAleese answering questions for Irish Times readers in 1997, watched by technical co-ordinator George Walker and web journalist Conor Pope. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

We never expected to play such a big role in the history of media, to wound the very business we worked in, or to have a bit part in the drama that saw Roy Keane sent home from Saipan.

I was one of those who got involved very soon after this newspaper took its first stumbling steps on to “the world wide web”, 25 years ago, and to say I didn’t have a clue what I was doing would be a wild understatement.

It was a dark, wet and bitterly cold winter’s day in Galway when, outside my Flood Street flat, I bumped into the director of the postgraduate journalism course I had recently finished. “I’ve just got off the phone with The Irish Times,” he said. “They’re looking for journalists for a website. Fancy a job interview?”

The only words I took in were “The Irish Times” and “job”.

I frantically learned buzzwords from a computer magazine so I could bluff my way through an interview for a job I completely misunderstood. I still can’t quite believe I pulled it off

The following morning I faxed my CV from the Connacht Tribune newsroom to a man at The Irish Times called Joe. He had asked me to email it, but I laughed and said we didn’t have anything as fancy as email in Galway.

Days later I was on a bus to Dublin, frantically learning buzzwords from a computer magazine called DotCom so that I could bluff my way through an interview for a job I completely misunderstood. I still can’t quite believe I pulled it off.

One of the first newspapers in the world to go online, The Irish Times began with an achingly slow text-based news service, offering a handful of stories to a handful of mostly overseas readers.

The website now, as irishtimes.com, includes the full newspaper, an electronic replica of the print edition, a digitised archive spanning 160 years, breaking news every day of the year, podcasts, live blogs, video streaming, picture galleries, social-media channels, a property platform, a multi-layered advertising service and more. It can all be accessed anywhere and any time on a mobile phone. ’Tis far from that The Irish Times on the web was reared.

In late October 1994 – tellingly, nobody involved can remember the exact date, and there is no archive to look back on – this newspaper joined just a handful of others on the internet.

Like all good start-ups it was born in a dive. Its first home was not, like Apple’s or Google’s, a garage but a tiny office above Bowe’s Pub, opposite The Irish Times’s old home on Fleet Street in Dublin. The building shook alarmingly when buses thundered past, spewing thick black exhaust fumes through leaking sash windows.

That office belonged to a man who should really have been coming to the end of his career rather than launching something that would define it. Seamus Conaty, a former Cavan county footballer, had spent much of his working life at the Times of London, but in the early 1990s – and his late 50s – he returned to Dublin to work with a tiny offshoot of The Irish Times called Itronics.

Conaty developed a legal and news database known as LexisNexis and dabbled in electronic news delivery using the French technology Minitel. The latter had promise but failed fast.

In the summer of 1994 he led a small delegation including Joe Breen, a senior production journalist, to the United States to see what American newspapers were up to. The answer was not a lot.

In the early 1990s, internet service providers such as America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe, which virtually controlled the web, had deals with some major newspapers. These arrangements forced the news outlets to cede control of their stories to get a place on the tech platforms. It was an ugly proposition.

The San Jose Mercury News was trying something different when The Irish Times arrived at its Silicon Valley office. Conaty and Breen were shown to a small room at the back of the newsroom, “where there was this guy hunched over a PC,” Breen recalls. “He was working on this thing called Mosaic and using an early version of HTML [the computer code used to create web pages]. Straight away we could see that it was possible to structure content in a different way.”

It was equal measures exhausting, exhilarating and excruciatingly dull. We worked long, late nights cutting and pasting text from the newspaper on to the website

Back in Dublin, Breen and Conaty contacted computer scientists at Trinity College,“and we had our website up and running in less than six weeks,” says Breen. “It was basically just a text dump”, but they sensed they were on to something. Few others did. “No one really took what I was doing seriously, and it was a big leap into the dark,” says Breen.

“Most of the people in the paper were absolutely indifferent at the beginning,” Conaty agrees. The editor at the time, Conor Brady, was an exception, and he gave the pair licence to explore the web further.

Conaty approached the Industrial Development Authority and got a development grant worth “around £1 million” to fund a two-year project. He says the money “had a transformative effect and allowed us make mistakes and to research and to travel”. The grant also allowed Conaty and Breen to employ a dedicated team to build their proposition.

First there was Robert O’Dea, who built the site from scratch after Conaty found him working in London and enticed him to come home. “He was a one-man show,” Breen says. “He basically built the website on his own in 1995. He was a really bright young fella and put his head down and worked really hard.”

Next came the online-only journalists, the first of their kind in Ireland. The gang of four were made up of Deirdre Veldon, Madeleine Lyons, William Hederman and this writer. We started work on February 12th, 1996, out of a single room in the Ballast Office building on Aston Quay.

It was equal measures exhausting, exhilarating and excruciatingly dull. We worked long, late nights cutting and pasting text from the newspaper’s print-based production system into our website’s content-management system. We tweaked headlines and summarised articles for an email “news digest” after Conaty secured a deal to send one to the Department of Foreign Affairs, making it the website’s first revenue stream.

We soon needed more staff and were joined by two recent graduates, Paddy Logue and Michael McAleer. All but one of us still works at the newspaper. Deirdre Veldon is the newspaper’s Deputy Editor, Madeleine Lyons is Property Editor, Paddy Logue is Digital Editor and Michael McAleer is Motoring Editor.

Ireland.com: Nick Chapman, then managing director of The Irish Times, with Deirdre Veldon, the website’s then editor, in 2000. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Ireland.com: Nick Chapman, then managing director of The Irish Times, with Deirdre Veldon, the website’s then editor, in 2000. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

That was unimaginable in those early days. There was an Upstairs Downstairs vibe, with most print journalists looking down their noses at the scruffy kids from “electronic”.

“Although we were one of the first newspapers outside of Silicon Valley to go online, journalists here were very nervous about it all and didn’t even want the people working on the website to be classified as journalists and didn’t want them in the [National Union of Journalists],” says Brady. “There were some people in the newsroom who very resentful of these young kids... very territorial.”

Conaty agrees. “Let’s just say there was a fair bit of sensitivity among the union, but there was also a general feeling that this was a fad that would last a couple of years and disappear.”

Because of this sensitivity – and because it was much cheaper – Conaty kept his web project physically separate from the newspaper. “If we had tried to start it in the main building it would never have gone anywhere. We couldn’t afford to be anything but a tech start-up. That was the mentality we had.”

Eventually the web journalists were allowed to join the Irish Times branch of the NUJ, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the senior print journalists Mary Maher and Michael Foley.

In 1997 Conaty was offered the ireland.com domain name (the domain name until then was irish-times.ie). Ireland.com had been registered by an American with an interest in traditional music, but he found he didn’t have the time to invest in his pet project. He contacted The Irish Times and offered to sell it for £10,000.

“There was a lot of toing and froing,” Conaty says. “And I used to wake up in the middle of the night terrified it would slip through my fingers; £10,000 for one of the most recognisable and powerful names in the world? It was an obvious bargain.”

While the nation back home slept peacefully, the Irish soccer camp in Saipan was convulsed by crisis. With what was almost certainly a printed transcript from our site in hand, Mick McCarthy called a squad meeting. The rest is history 

With the name secured, Conaty set about setting up an “online portal for all things Irish”. There were @ireland.com email addresses, a job database and much of the paper’s news content.The website was being designed to appeal to the Irish diaspora. This, it was thought, was where the money was. It wasn’t.

Emigrants loved the wonky web camera we put on the Ballast Office roof, though. It streamed grainy images of O’Connell Bridge to the world. Thousands of people visited the page each week. People in Dublin even made flags that they held up on the bridge to communicate in real time with friends and family far away.

In the summer of 2002 something happened that left us wondering if we had caused, or at least contributed to, a conflict that split the nation. Had it not been for ireland.com’s real-time content delivery, could a terrible war have been avoided – or at least downgraded?

In the run-up to the Fifa World Cup in Japan and Korea, an already-brittle Roy Keane did an interview for this newspaper with the former Irish Times journalist Tom Humphries (a once-prominent sports writer who has not written for the paper since 2011 and was let go in 2017 after pleading guilty to offences including the defilement of a child).

In that interview Keane famously complained about the hardness of the Saipan pitches and the absence of balls and goals and the standing-down of goalkeepers at the end of a training session. The interview went live at about 4am Irish time. It was 1pm in Saipan.

That the internet had made the world so much more connected meant Keane’s incendiary words were in the hands of his manager Mick McCarthy thousands of kilometres away minutes after they appeared on our website.

While the nation back home slept peacefully, the Irish soccer camp was convulsed by crisis. With what was almost certainly a printed transcript from our site in hand, McCarthy called a squad meeting for 7.30pm. The rest is history. Had McCarthy not seen the interview when he did, he would probably not have called the meeting.

Ireland.com: the presidential candidate Dana Rosemary Scallon answering questions on the Irish Times website with Conor Pope in 1997. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
Ireland.com: the presidential candidate Dana Rosemary Scallon answering questions on the Irish Times website with Conor Pope in 1997. Photograph: Paddy Whelan

There were, of course, other far more serious and more important news events covered by the website’s skeleton team of online journalists in those years.

There was the death of Diana, princess of Wales, news of which appeared on the site shortly after her death, in the early hours of a Sunday morning in August 1997. In 1998 the horror of the Omagh bombing unfolded in real time on the site over the course of a dark end-of-summer weekend.

News that an aircraft had crashed into the World Trade Center appeared minutes after a call to the Irish Times newsdesk from its North America editor, Conor O’Clery, who had seen it happen from his apartment.

“Plane crashes into World Trade Center” read the first breaking-news headline. Minutes later it was “planes”.

Emails that poured in from eyewitnesses were online within minutes, making it an early example of the power of “user-generated content”, now a standard element of online news.

Although he was the first digital journalist in Ireland and among the first online editors in the world, Breen downplays the idea that he was a pioneer. “I don’t think of it like that at all,” he says. “I just happened to be there. I was never particularly effective or efficient as a techie, but I did act as a bridge between the technology and the printed product.”

Conaty laughs at the notion, too, but Brady is less taciturn. “Seamus Conaty was a real hero, and both he and Joe and were the real visionaries of the piece.”

Because a few mavericks were allowed to try some new ideas, a domestic news organisation on the edge of Europe found ways to make itself relevant to a modern audience

The website has gone through many changes. It introduced a paywall in 2002, then made its content free to view again in 2008, reintroducing the irishtimes.com domain name at the same time.

In 2015 we developed a metered system, whereby readers are invited to subscribe after reading a certain number of articles per week. The website now has a core of paying readers, who subscribe to irishtimes.com as they do to Sky or Netflix.

Just as editors in 1994 were trying to navigate paths pointing in many directions, so too do today’s senior staff find themselves in uncharted waters. One of the people charged with mapping the future of The Irish Times now was among the gang of four plotting the website’s course from the Ballast Office in the mid-1990s.

When she was putting the paper online in the dead of night in 1996, did the newspaper’s now Deputy Editor, Deirdre Veldon, ever imagine how this story would unfold?

“When we started we had no idea what we were doing, but we felt like journalists at the vanguard of something; we just weren’t clear what. Over the years we saw new digital technologies come and go; we jumped on some but stayed focused on the journalism and tried to get better at giving people what they wanted, when and where they wanted it.

“Ultimately, because a few mavericks were allowed to try out some new ideas, a traditional domestic news organisation like The Irish Times, on the edge of Europe, found ways to make itself relevant to a modern audience.”

Can she imagine how the next chapter might be told by someone charged with writing something to mark the digital paper’s golden anniversary, in 2044?

“It’s a much easier sell nowadays, but we’re hoping we can keep experimenting and making mistakes, so we’ll have an Irish Times to write about in 25 years.”

You can subscribe to The Irish Times here

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