Imagine a situation where the diverse resources of writers and researchers in towns and cities across the UK were brought together in a collaborative project with the ambition and model of the Panama Papers investigation.
Could the impact of such an endeavour, with its potential to shape the news agenda by uncovering stories of major national significance, then shift the entire balance of power in the British media, reducing the influence of the big London publishers by reinvigorating the local press?
It’s a big dream, but such a project is now underway: the Bureau Local. Based at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it has established an initial network of 250 reporters, technologists, lawyers and other interested participants. One of its priorities will be to shed new light on the reality of Brexit by exploring the vast amounts of publicly available data that the news media generally lacks the time, resources and expertise to properly examine.
“What we are hoping is that we break this really big high-profile story or stories and they ripple across the country and it is felt by the national [media],” says Megan Lucero, the director of the Bureau Local. “[Then] the power distribution has changed and the local newsrooms have this resource, they have got this exclusive and have banded together to tell it nationally.”
Lucero has such a sense of mission that she left a job as data journalism editor at the Times and the Sunday Times to take up this new role. In her former post she was involved in global stories, including the Sunday Times’s use of blood test data to expose the scandal of doping in athletics.
She believes that the availability of vast caches of untapped but searchable public information offers a great opportunity for local media, particularly if reporters and technology experts can work together. “There’s loads of public data out there that is public but sitting in PDFs or large file formats which are open but your average local journalist isn’t skilled enough to use,” she says.
There is no doubt that the UK regional media could use some help.
The London media bubble
The greatest American newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times – have become globally famous while proudly retaining recognition of their roots in their names. With that sense of place comes a certain authority.
In the UK, the model has been very different. With their uninhibited, all-encompassing titles – the Sun, the Guardian, the Mail – the UK papers have less obvious origins. This, along with the use of English worldwide, has helped the London-based press punch well above its weight internationally. But it could be said that this model has contributed to a sense of metropolitan media bias which is frequently cited by UK voters outside the capital. It could equally be argued that most of these papers do not accurately reflect London in 2017 or act as champions for the city.
An extreme example of these geographic tensions is the Sun’s pariah status in much of Merseyside, where its national distribution model is threatened by undiluted resentment of the paper’s coverage of the Hillsborough football tragedy of 1989, which falsely insinuated that the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans were partly due to the behaviour of their fellow supporters.
The latest ignorant comments by Sun columnist (and editor at the time of the 1989 coverage) Kelvin MacKenzie have reignited the issue. MacKenzie, who compared mixed race Liverpudlian footballer Ross Barkley to a “gorilla at the zoo” and made a sweeping attack on the people of Liverpool (who he has been baiting for nearly 30 years), has belatedly been suspended by the Sun. The sorry episode has at least given the Liverpool Echo, and other local media, further opportunity to defend the reputation of the city.
The Liverpool Echo is one of the top four best-selling regional papers in the UK, but its print sale, now at 43,836, has fallen by more than 16% in the last year alone. According to research by Press Gazette, there was a net reduction of 181 local papers in the UK between 2005 and 2015.
Regional publishers point to growing online traffic as evidence that the sector is not in terminal decline. But the shift to fast-paced digital publishing has changed the culture in local paper newsrooms in a way that is not conducive to painstaking investigations. “We talk to local reporters and it is starting to be written into their contracts, five stories a day, x-number of clicks per week – these insane pressures,” Lucero complains. “Having a number of clicks per week written in your contract isn’t conducive for journalism, let alone investigative journalism.”
Overcoming the clickbait culture
One of the four members of her core team, Gareth Davies, was four times winner of the UK’s Weekly Regional Reporter of the Year award for his investigative reporting. But he quit the Croydon Advertiser last year in frustration, claiming it favoured clickbait stories over quality journalism. In a recent blog, Davies wrote that the Bureau Local and the access it would provide to the “largely untapped resource” of data was “something genuinely new and exciting that focuses on the positives of local journalism”. He promised support to reporters who were prepared to “take the data, develop it using their local knowledge and contacts, and tell great stories”.
The Bureau Local has funding for two years, with 70% of the money coming from Google’s Digital News Initiative, and the rest from the TBIJ, which is a non-profit organisation supported by donors.
The TBIJ, which was founded in 2010 and is now based in offices within the National Union of Journalists building in London’s Gray’s Inn Road, works on long-running investigations into such subjects as drone warfare, the public health threat of antibiotic resistance and the US government’s use of private military contractors. When it breaks stories in these areas it often publishes them in collaboration with selected and well-known news outlets. The bureau’s managing editor is the former Mail on Sunday journalist Rachel Oldroyd and its investigations editor is Meirion Jones, the highly-experienced former BBC Newsnight and Panorama reporter who is best-known for his work on the thwarted BBC investigation into Jimmy Savile’s child abuse.
According to Lucero, the TBIJ identified “local media and data journalism as the ‘next frontier’, the next wave of public interest important work that needs to be done and is missing”.
The internet, she says, has contributed to the problems of the local newspaper business model by disruption but also offers it fresh opportunities; including the use of an ocean of data that provides local media with a new way to report on local communities and hold power to account. The availability of data relating to all prescriptions given by GPs is potentially a rich source of stories for journalists, she notes.
Lucero is initially looking for a pilot team of 15 to work on the first investigation, helping one another and sharing tips and contacts. Rival titles will not work on the same investigation and each reporter in a team will have to agree to a publishing embargo.
She explains why she was prepared to leave what many would regard as a prime position at the Times. “The way I see it is I left my job to go fight the fight. I’m settling down in the trenches with local reporters.” The goal at the Bureau Local will be to facilitate more “transparency, accountability and public interest reporting” and it will not be a top down exercise, she emphasises. “I don’t ever want this project to come across as patronising – that Londoners are going to go out and fix and help people, that’s not what this is.”
For this reason, and because Lucero knows that her team needs to move quickly to create the impactful stories that will make the project a success, the Bureau Local has chosen to work not with senior executives at big local publishing groups but with the reporters themselves. Some big local news groups have already appointed data specialists, and new digital publishers such as the Bristol Cable and Scotland’s The Ferret have also made inroads in this area of reporting.
The Bureau Local’s intention is not to train local newsrooms en masse in data journalism, but to identify and support those few reporters who are hungry to learn these skills, and to put them in a team that together has the power to disrupt the news agenda. Those reporters will need to be allowed time by their editors but the hope is that the project’s stories will mean that the value of this form of journalism is quickly recognised across the UK’s local media and invested in.
“We have got to get a lot done,” says Lucero. “My initial interest is only in the people who are really interested in us. At the end of the day I’m not really trying to convert or twist anybody’s arm that really doesn’t want to work in an open or collaborative way.”