By Stephen McKinley
Every day, as many as 4,000 people switch on their computers and head straight for their daily fix of Northern Irish news from Newshound, a curious online publication that aggregates news about Northern Ireland from all over the internet, then allows users to sift through the top stories of the day, from straightforward news to opinion pieces.
The site is unusual but effective. It is pure early-Internet — text-based with few graphics, free to all, low budget, non-profit and a hobby that its founder, John Fay, has honed to a mere 90 minutes per day for updating.
And that’s 365 days per year. As Fay said: "I don’t go away on holiday without first planning how I will do the Newshound. My wife has been long suffering."
The daily update includes the recently added Irish history section, where Fay has been listing newspaper articles that address issues relevant to Irish history — or, as Fay puts it on Newshound’s history page, "Articles from daily newspapers relevant to the debate on Irish history."
The fact that Fay, a Manhattan College alumnus, so readily refers to Irish history in terms of a ‘"debate," something about which no one can agree, indicates something of his interest in Ireland. He has been fascinated by its contradictions and conflicts since his childhood growing up in Queens, and he has lived in Dublin permanently with his Irish-born wife, Caroline, since 1991.
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In particular, it was the headline-grabbing conflict in the North that Fay was gripped by when growing up — the conflicting opinions, the outrages, the constant, frustrating, bloody-minded sectarian stalemate. But it took Michelle Smith, Ireland’s erstwhile Olympic swimmer, to lead Fay to setting up Newshound. After that, a helping hand came from another unusual source, Britain’s right-wing Daily Telegraph newspaper, not known for its objective coverage of Irish news.
In Ireland, working as a management consultant, Fay found it increasingly difficult to get a broad range of opinions on Northern Irish and Irish news events.
"When newspapers began putting up websites, it was a boon to anyone who was engaged by politics and opinions like I was," he said.
When the controversy broke about multiple Olympics gold medal winner Michelle Smith’s post-Olympics drug-test failure, Fay was watching RTE and assumed that the American media and public were wholly against her.
Digging a little deeper, however, Fay found a different story, "a wide range of opinions about her," he said.
"That’s when it occurred to me that a site that gathered all opinions about one topic would be popular with those who were very interested in that topic," he said.
Having taught himself HTML, Fay went to register the web address www.newshound.com only to find that Knight Ridder already had that address (which it doesn’t use), so he settled on the quirkier www.nuzhound.com (although he calls his enterprise Newshound) that now gets about 4,000 hits per day, more when Northern Ireland is higher in the news.
When selecting news articles to use, Fay has laid down some clear criteria.
"It has to have a political angle," he says. "But it’s funny, I always think of someone in particular who would be interested in a particular article, maybe, say, my father, or a friend."
After Newshound started in 1996, it was mostly Fay’s family and friends who visited the site.
"For most of the first year, there were very few users, no more than 10 per day," he said.
Then, the Daily Telegraph in London started linking to Newshound from any articles the paper published online about Northern Ireland. The motivation was to allow readers to look at a wider perspective of news coverage on the North.
"The users started coming in larger numbers," Fay said, but while traffic has increased and the number of articles he posts daily has increased, the site has not changed from its original format.
"One development that happened early on was that Ed Moloney of the Sunday Tribune began sending his articles to me, because the Tribune was not online." On any given day, readers will find articles from the Irish Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Belfast Telegraph, as well as U.S. newspapers, such as the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Times, and many others.
"If it’s [an article] in a U.S. paper, it’s generally included," he says. "I start as far away as I can from Northern Ireland, and work toward it."
Recently, he added a book section that allows users to read about the latest publications on Irish affairs and Irish America. Through this, a small amount of revenue is generated, if a user buys a book online through Newshound. It is certainly not enough to cover his costs, Fay says.
"I can’t say that I don’t enjoy working on the site, and I never thought it would make me rich," he said, and he is still pondering possible ways to make the site at least pay for the cost of being online in Ireland — more costly to date than in the U.S.
In 1998, Newshound received $10,000 in sponsorship from the Irish American Partnership, but since then, Fay has continued to update the site daily as a labor of love. He carried out a survey in March 2001, in order to determine where users lived and what their demographics were, in order to better plan a future business model for the site.
He found that 60 percent of his users are in the U.S. and Canada, mostly "in the Baltimore to Boston strip." The largest group of Newshound users are in the 36-55 age bracket, and the three foremost groups of occupations among Newshound users are education, media, government, and politics.
Fay also gets a constant stream of opinions and questions from users by e-mail. As he makes plans to expand the site to include business news, and a section for broader Irish news articles that would be less focused on Northern Ireland, Fay spends time answering e-mails from users.
"I get a lot of queries from students in Scandinavia asking very basic questions, he said, and added, "I also get a lot of people asking me for my opinions on things in Northern Ireland." He paused, and added, "which I never give out."