Journaling the Irish Tech Landscape – Interviewing John Kennedy

John Kennedy is Senior Reporter with Silicon Republic and is the winner of the 2005 Technology Journalist Net Visonary Award. For a change he was the one being asked questions.

Firstly congratulations on being nominated and winning. What’s it like to be nominated and then to win?

Well, I had been nominated for three years in a row, so at least twice I knew what it was like to be nominated and not win. This time round it was third time lucky and winning the award has given me enormous satisfaction. The other little known fact is that it was three years ago in the same month (November) that was started so I think the timing was just right. The website was started at least a full year after the technology downturn gained momentum and at least a full year before any green chutes of growth returned to the sector. At the time anything internet or related was generally given wide berth so it felt like a massive leap of fate. Three years in and I think winning the award is a major vote of confidence in the work we’ve done. Long may it continue.

Can you give a brief outline of your history in journalism? How did you get into tech journalism?

Just like 90pc of technology writers, I fell into it. I began in journalism by throwing the odd piece into my local paper – The Meath Chronicle – for free just to get enough bylines to be taken seriously by news editors whilst I was in college. I also supplemented by income by doing weekend shifts at Atlantic 252 as a spinner, basically working the sound desk and keeping the music and ads running from 12am to 7am . After graduating in 1993 I freelanced for papers like the Evening Herald and Irish Independent, including doing stints as a court reporter (200 words per minute shorthand, invaluable!). This was before email and the internet were commonplace so I had to submit stories by hand writing them into a notebook, finding a payphone, reversing the charges and dictating the story to a copytaker up in the big smoke.

No matter how busy I was I found it difficult to keep in funds so decided to look around for something more permanent. An opportunity came up at Computer Publications Group (now MediaTeam) and within a few weeks I was editing an electronics magazine called Advanced Manufacturing Technology (AMT) and a pharmaceutical industry magazine called Irish Chemical and Processing Journal. My role then evolved to include writing for Irish Computer and editing Communications Today magazine. After four years with CPG I was headhunted to join Business & Finance as their technology editor, where I spent a further four years, particularly honing in my news skills.

It was a fantastic time to cover technology because Iona had just floated and there was a fantastic buzz about the internet and mobile, which unfortunately morphed into the frenzy and the subsequent downturn. After Business & Finance I freelanced with titles like the Sunday Independent and Business Plus before being approached to join Silicon Republic (then known as News Connected).

There’s been a huge amount of talk about mainstream media or traditional media being wiped out with online journalism and citizen journalism. Rupert Murdoch surprisingly has sent out a few warnings that not embracing the online world is going to be death to traditional media and he’s launched into buying up and a few other online outlets and making his newspaper sites more interactive. What are your own thoughts on the future of journalism? What do you see happening with journalism in the next few years?

The human infatuation with sharing knowledge is fascinating and always evolving. In the space of a decade the internet and mobile communications and the fusing of these worlds has been revolutionary. Everything from email to chatrooms, bulletin boards and voice over IP is having an effect on our lives that is hard to appreciate because we’re still within this evolution. Journalism is one field that has felt this revolution keenly. The speed of information, access to data, it’s incredible. If anything I think the field of journalism is getting more exciting but also more complex.

Are professional journalists going to have to compete with examples of citizen journalism? I don’t think so because while everyone may have an opinion and share information you still need professionals to shape and mould information and give it credibility and balance. If anything because of the volumes of information people will be looking for standards of writing and reporting they can trust. Truth and confidence in those that disseminate accurate information will matter more and more. I think professional journalism and citizen journalism can happily co-exist provided it is obvious which is which.

Pictures taken by camera phone in the aftermath of the London bombings during the summer were splashed all over the front pages of the world’s newspapers illustrate this. The simple truth is that there will be more and more information to sift through and absorb – plus more and more streams such as sound, video as well as text – and I think in the years ahead journalists will have to be increasingly tech savvy and capable of making sense of it all ensuring they have provide fair, balanced and accurate information.

You’ve interviewed quite a few people over the years, who would be your ideal interviewee, tech or non-tech?

After twelve years there are so many people that I enjoyed interviewing, such as Michael O’Leary and Esther Dyson and I’ve attended round table meetings with John Chambers, Michael Dell and Steve Ballmer and lectures by Bill Gates. There are plenty of people I’ve yet to interview. On the technology side I’d love to have 10 minutes to chat with Steve Jobs of Apple and Intel’s current CEO Paul Otellini. On the non-tech side I’m nauseated by celebrity culture and the insularity that comes out of out of control materialism, but fascinated by life’s heroes and heroines; Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader jailed by the military junta would be top of my list. Her courage and tenacity is inspiring.

You monitor and watch the tech world in Ireland and abroad as part of your job, what do you see are the emerging trends in both the Irish tech industry and the global tech industry?

Emerging trends – I’d love to see podcasting gain greater acceptance, the democracy of the internet is inspiring because now anyone with the inclination can host their own radio show, it’s cool. Predictions: PC penetration in Ireland will not budge beyond 37pc unless people can be reminded of compelling reasons to have a computer in their homes (I can think of one – education!); mobile penetration, if not in 12 months, but definitely 18 months we could move beyond 100pc (in the UK I believe they’re at 107pc); broadband will grow but I’d be conservative about us getting to 300,000 by the end of 2006, let reach 600,000.

I would hope that the advent of the Xbox 360 might nudge up broadband demand but let’s wait and see. I would also hope that finally business people in the regions would be able to distinguish between ISDN and real broadband. Globally, hype about triple play and even quad play services over broadband (by cable and by wireless) will continue unabated and I expect to see the onset of set top boxes with built-in Wi-Fi radios. On the business side of technology I reckon web service-based distribution of software and services will become more viable because of increasing broadband adoption.

Staying on podcasting, they’re starting to emerge here in Ireland. You yourself have taken part in one the Ireland Digital podcasts, even RTE is starting to get into them do you think podcasts are going to come into play more and more. Are they a fad or will they become mainstream?

As I said earlier I’m a fan of what’s possible and I think their popularity can only grow. I can’t see them going mainstream in Ireland any time soon because of poor PC and broadband penetration. Hopefully that will change. But places like New York and San Francisco they will no doubt be very popular, but only among tech savvy people. I think they will continue to be community-driven in terms of genres and subjects they cover. But the democracy of what they enable – an amateur broadcaster with the right kit can put together radio-like programmes for like-minded people on any subject they wish. I think the area is also fraught with hidden dangers in terms of libel and licensing and these issues need to be explored.

2005 is almost drawing to a close, what for you have been the big tech stories of the year?

Without a doubt the PPARS debacle was the big one. Interesting merger and acquisition activity such as NTL being acquired by UGC and Eircom’s acquisition of Meteor were also particularly interesting. Smart’s win of the 3G license in recent weeks is possibly the smartest thing (no pun intended) they’ve done but could be stymied if Meteor sends in the barristers (kind of ironic, eh?).

Is there still a Celtic Tiger in the tech industry in Ireland? Do you think the industry in Ireland is invested in enough? Should the Government be investing more into indigenous Irish businesses?

I feel like retching every time I hear that Celtic Tiger phrase and I banish it from articles in print or online. I think the technology industry in Ireland is performing admirably as a whole but I am concerned about how small Irish indigenous software companies are doing and the lack of supports available to them to help them grow. There’s no joined-up thinking at Government level and while there’s evidence of a significant surge in entrepreneurial actvitiy, the very act of setting up a business in Ireland and getting it off the ground looks frustrating and lonely.

I sometimes marvel at the kind of supports available to Northern Ireland companies through Invest NI and the joined up thinking that fosters academic and industry collaboration in the North. Enterprise Ireland’s CEO Frank Ryan has, however, unveiled a strong strategy that could see indigenous firms turn a corner and become bigger, internationalized players. There is no reason why some day Ireland should not field firms to the scale of Nokia or Ericsson. That’s not going to happen unless the Government buys more from local companies, however.

How do you source material, are blogs coming into play more on hunting for information? John Collins and Karlin Lillington are two tech journalists that blog, do you see yourself blogging in the future? What’s your opinion of blogs?

A journalist never reveals his sources! I think the best way of gathering information is to make yourself amenable to listening to people. I’m always open to meeting new companies and hearing new things. The most important weapon in any journalist’s armoury is the willingness to listen and observe. On the blog front, as well as newspapers and magazines, because I write every day for a news website I feel it’s as good as having a blog. It’s updated every day and I put a lot of work into the stories I tell.

I like to let the stories speak for themselves; the job of a journalist is to be fair and balanced . . . impartial. In the last six months I’ve become more and more interested in reading other people’s blogs and marvel at the work they put into them. But, there’s also a tendency for people to start publishing blogs and not keeping them up to date and that’s not good. It defeats the purpose. If you’re going to do a blog, keep it up to date and interesting. I’d never say never to the idea of doing a blog in the future, but time is a factor.

You report on technology every day, are you a hoarder of gadgets yourself? Got mp3 players, digital cameras, smart phones?

I won an iPod in a raffle about a year ago but I think the battery’s about to go. I’m a big fan of what’s useful and ingenious so I’ve got a smart phone that synchs nicely with my Outlook for email, contacts and calendar information. I’m about to do a review of a clever GPS module that you plug into the USB port on your laptop which will be interesting … I’ll keep you posted.

So what next after the Net Visionary? What’s the next award you’ll be going after? Do you see yourself staying in the journalism for the long-term or would you see yourself moving into another area like PR which many journalists do.

I don’t think there are any other awards for technology journalism in Ireland so this one will have to do. I really love what I do and feel nothing but enthusiasm for technology and the business of technology in terms of the companies, the individuals and what they’re trying to achieve. If anything, it’s getting more interesting by the day. I had a conversation with Karlin Lillington at a party recently and it dawned on me mid-flow that I’ve been occupying a front row seat for what has probably been the biggest cultural revolution to hit the world since the introduction of the printing press. I really can’t see myself doing anything else.

You can read John Kennedy’s work on Silicon Republic.

3 Responses to “Journaling the Irish Tech Landscape – Interviewing John Kennedy”

  1. Dave says:

    Another great interview Damien!

    PS Any chance you’ll get one of those plugins that allows people to subscribe to comments?

  2. Dick OBrien says:

    Doesn’t he have one? I saw Dave’s comment because I’d subbed comments on this post.

  3. Damien says:

    Uhm yeah, as Dick said.