People-Powered Investigations: How the Bureau Local is Trying to Spark Change through Collaboration
by Jelena Prtoric
They are aiming to strengthen journalism through collaboration, open data, and community-led reporting, and set the news agenda from the ground up. Meet The Bureau Local, a UK-based newsroom that investigates for and with citizens — all while empowering local newsrooms.
In 2017, a team of UK-based journalists set out on a mission to replicate the methodology behind the Panama Papers project, but in one country only. In the world of investigative journalism, the Panama Papers is a reference work. The investigation that originated from a giant leak of more than 11.5 million financial and legal records provided by an anonymous whistleblower, spearheaded by the Suddeutsche Zeitung and ICIJ, exposed a system of offshore companies and law firms enabling large tax evasion, crime, and corruption.
The members of the Bureau Local, a team created by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a non-profit organization that “holds power to account through in-depth, fact-based reporting” wanted to find a way to collaborate with newsrooms and journalists from across the country in a similar way, by sharing datasets, resources and coordinated publications. “If the goal of journalism is to reveal the information and get it out to the public so that it can better people’s lives, the story should not exist in only one outlet,” explains Megan Lucero, head of the Bureau Local. They hoped that resource-sharing could foster better investigative and in-depth journalism in local newsrooms, struggling with declining revenues and limited resources.
From 2005 to the end of 2018, the UK lost 245 local news titles. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, local and regional newsrooms suffered further important cutbacks, according to the data gathered by The Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The Bureau Local team knew that local newsrooms were badly hit but was not aware of the extent of the financial hardship they were facing.
“Local newsrooms were struggling much harder than the organization had realized. They were quickly declining, they didn’t even have the capacity to participate in collaborative investigations, “Lucero points out. She recalls meeting reporters that were contractually obliged to write a certain amount of articles a day and had a click rate. “How is that conducive to doing investigative or public interest journalism?” she wonders.
Journalism with Citizens, rather than ‘Citizen Journalism’
The initial project idea quickly morphed. Rather than simply sharing data with local papers who would then try to make sense of the figures and information, the Bureau decided to further open the project to all the active members of the communities. “We want people who are active in the community and who will get the information out,” says Lucero. Today, their network involves local journalists, technologists — i.e. people working in open data institutes or clerks working in the public sector — community organizers, activists and academics. The network members are not involved in the story dissemination only — some of them do their bit of research, some contribute with their expertise, and some are involved in the very conception of the story.
When they started working on their series on homelessness, “Making them count,’’ about the lack of recording of the number of people who died homeless, the Bureau Local reached out to the community to ask about the stories they should be looking into next. “People prompted us to dig deeper into the root causes of homelessness, to look into the affordability of the housing market. This pushed us to investigate the housing sector and the housing crisis,” explains Lucero.
While digging into the issue of the housing crisis, the Bureau tried out the method of “story circles” to learn about the community’s experiences and needs. The method involved inviting a group of people to a welcoming space, sitting around a meal, and talking about a topic. “We went to an area that had one of the highest prices for housing against the housing benefits allowed — there were only a handful of places where people could afford to live if on housing benefits. We asked people about their experience of living in the city, about the challenges we should know of,” remembers Lucero. Today, the Bureau holds a weekly digital Story Clinic on Slack where members can share the stories they are working on, get help or ask for advice.
But the story circles are just one of the techniques the Bureau Local team has been experimenting with. When researching for the story on ‘Local Power’ — the spending of local governments — they decided to run Hack Days as the council budgets were coming out. “We explained to the participants that the councils were about to sign these things off, and that these would dictate how much money goes to social care and social services. We opened these datasets up, brought the citizens together and asked people what was the most interesting topic for them,” says Lucero. Their investigation ended up involving 16 network members, and 100 local stories were eventually published.
On other occasions, the Bureau will end up doing public callouts for story ideas to learn about the issues that need to be investigated or to gather data. For instance, the team is currently working on a series called “Is Work Working?”, focusing on insecure work and gig economy. The very idea for the series came from the network members who identified the labor market and the precarious work as one of their main concerns. The team reached out to a community of Deliveroo’s riders to help them crowdsource the data by uploading their invoices to reveal their hourly pay, fee cuts and other.
Lucero says that working in this way makes them think of themselves as a “conduit”, a simple messenger who has the time and a skillset to listen to the issues important to people, understand what matters to them the most, translate it into a systematic investigation, and craft a story out of these experiences. However, she refrains from labeling this process as citizen journalism”.
“Journalism is still an important craft, a skillset. You need to think about the protection of your sources, about the legality of accusations, you need to apply deep listening and craft your stories. Most people we work with don’t say — I want to be a journalist. They ask — what can I do to contribute? We say that people ‘commit acts of journalism’,” Lucero explains. This means that the citizens are included in the investigation process — they share their knowledge, access, or data, but do not simply ‘replicate’ or learn how to ‘do journalism’. Following the publication of an investigation, the Bureau also opens and shares all the resources used in the research. This includes the datasets, a tech code to interrogate or visualize the data, a folder of resources and additional documents, and a reporting recipe, a how-to guide for using the data and developing the story. This makes it easier for other journalists to take the story further, but also for the general audience — local organizations, counsellors, and citizens — to understand the topic and the investigation process better.
Although the Bureau’s collaborative approach to investigations has resulted in over 500 local, investigative stories and a network of over 1,500 collaborators across the UK, Lucero believes that they failed to address the core problem of journalism — sustainability. “We are a great add-on, a great resource for newsrooms that have the capacity to pursue investigations, but increasingly very few have it,” Lucero says. Many smaller newsrooms lack resources to even engage with the data and information the Bureau is sharing. “People tell us they can barely do daily and weekly public journalism, let alone investigations. The investigations are starting to become a luxury,” Lucero explains. She will soon assume a new role within the organization and will be looking into new financial models that could reshape the industry.
As one of the main issues, Lucero sees the fact that journalism is often run by journalists while being owned by businessmen and businesspeople. In the UK, just three companies (News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach) dominate 90% of the national newspaper market (up from 71% in 2015), according to a Media Reform Coalition report published in March 2021. Three billionaire families — the Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays — control an estimated 68% of national newspaper circulation. The Bauer, Hearst and Burda families own the three largest publishers in the magazine industry, controlling an estimated 31% of magazine circulation, according to a PressGazzette research from August 2020.
Who Owns the UK Media?
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“We need to diversify journalism in a lot of ways. This means also diversifying who owns it, who runs it and who is a part of it. We need people coming out of journalism challenged not just by its content, but also by the models of journalism,” Lucero argues.
One of the possible models Lucero is eager to explore is the one of a coalition between people and organizations working towards a common goal. “We could have, for example, an organization fighting for better policy so that we can get charitable status for the newsrooms, which would make the business side of journalism easier. Another organization might want to work on attracting investment. I am eager to explore how such a shared infrastructure could potentially contribute to the solution — or be one of the solutions,” Lucero says. “We can’t have investigative journalism if we don’t have journalism.”