Still taken from Irish Times videoCopyright: Still taken from Irish Times video
The challenge saw the news outlet invite members of the technology industry to pitch projects which could impact on the newsroom, before a final five were selected.
The winners, announced on Friday (28 September), were GetBulb, a data visualisations platform which enables news outlets to produce graphics both ready for print and in HTML5 for added interactivity.
The remaining four finalists include "MyiFli, a mobile advertising and content service; PicTurk, a platform for photography awards; KnockOn.ie, an amateur and club rugby community; and Storyflow, a widget to find and show related links in a graphical way on a news story".
While there was only one winner which receives the €50,000 prize - described as "a convertible loan note from venture capital firm DFJ Esprit" - all five projects are "now working in some way with The Irish Times Group to grow their businesses", according to a press release.
Speaking to Journalism.co.uk, Dr Johnny Ryan, chief innovation officer at Irish Times said "a big part" of his role "is connecting with the tech scene", which he added "is really booming in Dublin right now".
"[The] Irish Times is 153 years old. The very things that make it successful day-to-day, also make it a little bit inflexible and yet at the same time there's a whole lot of energy particularly around Dublin, in Ireland right now, a lot of conferences, a lot of startups, a lot of money actually.
"So we want to capitalise on that energy, on that activity," he added. "At the same time we know that those startups, and I know this from experience, have a really, really tough time getting their first reference clients, or even worse getting a big customer they can use as a channel to end-users.
"So we get several million uniques a month and for a startup, that is manna from heaven. So what we want to do is we want to be in a position where we can identify startups who we think are going to have a big impact on readership and maybe they'll have a big impact on revenue, and we'll be able to not just incubate them, we'll be able to validate them."
He added that this is "about generating long-term, mutually beneficial relationships between The Irish Times, which has the audience, and the startups, which have the flexibility to serve that audience better."
One of the key starting points was to establish a judging panel "that would be credible", he said.
"A newspaper can't necessarily just jump into the startup scene and assume it's going to be credible. The Irish Times has been covering startups in Dublin and Ireland for a long time but it was important to get together a panel that had a mix of our own people, but also well-regarded entrepreneurs and also venture capitals who'll be able to judge the companies effectively."
Once this, and the prize fund, was in place, it put a call out at the beginning of June for tech startups to apply to take part in the challenge.
"What we were looking for were people who could have an impact editorially, so new ways of looking at or producing content, people who might have some sort of mobile offering, commercial or editorial, people who are doing things in advertising."What we were looking for were people who could have an impact editorially, so new ways of looking at or producing content, people who might have some sort of mobile offering, commercial or editorial, people who are doing things in advertisingDr Johnny Ryan, The Irish Times
From the 81 companies which applied, a total of 15 were then invited to pitch their projects at the end of the month. From those 15, five were chosen as finalists.
The final five then worked with incubator LaunchPad, and each week mentors were brought in "to meet the startups and take them through issues as diverse as 'are their VAT affairs in order?', 'is their logo looking ok?'", Ryan explained.
Reflecting now on the eight-week challenge, Ryan said the news outlet found "eight weeks is actually not that long a time to iron out some of the issues that emerged".
"Even though, at the end of the eight weeks, all five are doing something with The Irish Times Group, in some cases it's maybe 80 per cent of what you might have hoped for, but they're all doing something."
This includes the production of Irish Times's first ebook, he said.
"We set [the challenge] up so we would help them and if there was a deal to be done, that deal would be done, but if they didn't like it they could go to a competitor with the benefit of having worked with us.
"And we set it up that way because I don't think you can go into this space and capitalise on that useful energy and expect to be able to take everything off the table."
According to a release, the projects also "received a small stipend provided by Enterprise Ireland, and benefited from focus group, legal and accounting services from Amarach Research, Arthur Cox, and KPMG".
"In addition, The Irish Times is providing each finalist with marketing to a value of €10,000. As part of the challenge GetBulb and the four finalists will all present to investors at the 2012 Web Summit."
The key lessons
And the experience of The Irish Times's digital challenge could offer a useful model for other news outlets keen to work closely with the technology industry, managing director of The Irish Times Group Liam Kavanagh added in a release.
"I think, knowing what we know now, that the incubator inside the media organisation model is something that others need to consider. And we would like to help them with that".I think, knowing what we know now, that the incubator inside the media organisation model is something that others need to consider. And we would like to help them with thatLiam Kavanagh, The Irish Times Group
Editor of The Irish Times Kevin O'Sullivan added: "The Irish Times digital challenge has shown that media organisations can, and I think should, work with early stage digital companies.
"We have a lot to offer each other. Other media organisations can, and I expect will, embrace this model. Newspapers talk about adapting to the new realities, but if they are going to fully change and engage their core audiences they must open up to the most disruptive external influences and endure all that this entails".
As for The Irish Times, there have been some key lessons learnt from its first experiment, such as having more of a focus, Ryan says in the release.
"That's a key lesson: select startups that can work on one common area of the organisation so that their impact is maximised".
He added that "incentivising staff to work with startups is key".
"We are going to build in measures that make it easier for our staff to buy-in and feel attached to the startups' projects".
"We are also going to be more ambitious. This initiative has shown that we can work with startups to launch projects in under eight weeks. That's a record."
The Irish Times produced a video each week of the challenge offering insight into the experiment. See the collection of videos here.