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March 28, 2018updated 29 Mar 2018 12:22pm

Bureau Local marks first year of ‘standing in the trenches’ with local journalists and telling data stories that matter

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Bureau Local is driven by the idea that “data journalism should not just be in the hands of a few national teams in London”, director Megan Lucero told Press Gazette as her team celebrated its first anniversary yesterday.

Lucero, who left her job as data editor at The Times to lead the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s local-focused project last year, believes that throughout journalism’s current state of “massive change and identity crisis” her job is simply about telling stories that matter.

Speaking of the importance of regional data journalism, Lucero (pictured, centre) said: “Why is that just in the hands of a few?

“That’s not to say there wasn’t data journalism going on [at local level], because loads of local reporting has always been and had elements of data journalism and there’s all these data units that already exist, but it was the idea of getting to jump into that space.

“It was really the idea that I wanted to be fighting on that same front. I feel like I’m sort of standing in the trenches with them whether it’s the Yorkshire Post or anywhere around the country, even one of the hyperlocals.

“I come from the belief that we do need to hold power to account and if it’s only done in London – and it isn’t – but if it starts to primarily only be done in London then we all have a problem. I think we all benefit from access to information.”

She said that when she was at The Times there was a desire to splash a big number on the front page and then move on to the next story – but “every single one of those rows of data was a different city or a different borough or local authority around the country, and each of those has a story”.

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The Bureau Local’s mission is to work with local journalists around the country to help them dig into data and tell stories that might otherwise get missed due to dwindling time and resources in their own newsrooms.

So far these include an investigation into funding for domestic violence refuges and another into council finances, which revealed four county councils showed signs of financial crisis and half of councils in England planned to cut children’s services.

The Bureau Local delves into data, processes and shares it with relevant local reporters around the country. It also provides reporting “recipes” which explain how to scrutinise the data step-by-step.

The five-strong team hopes to complement coverage done by the BBC shared data unit, Trinity Mirror data unit and Archant Investigations Unit – not replace it.

The 12-strong Trinity Mirror team, led by David Ottewell in Manchester, Bristol and Cardiff, provides data-based exclusives to the publisher’s regional newspapers around the country, while Archant’s Emma Youle won the Private Eye Paul Foot Award 2017 for her hidden homeless investigation.

“It’s about being part of that ecosystem,” Lucero said. “Undoubtedly though, news in general is going through a crisis and local news is as well.

“The number of local papers having to shut and local reporters losing their jobs – it is very clear that there is a huge shift. The business model has flattened and we need to find a new way to work in it. The reason we have started [the Bureau Local] is from that concern.

“There are areas that don’t have a local news outlet, there are areas that are doing amazing things and there are areas that are just scraping by – but there is an appetite for it and there’s a hunger for it and there’s definitely a passion for it.

“There are people that are trying to fight to do it despite all the odds against them.”

Lucero said she believes journalists are the “last line of defence” for holding those in power to account and that the public should be educated on the potential consequences of local newspapers disappearing altogether.

Despite being sceptical at first, Lucero said collaboration between journalists had proved surprisingly easy – especially when hyperlocal title the Bristol Cable and BBC Bristol both wanted to get involved in a story.

She said her “worst fear” was having to choose between the two news organisations, but said they ended up working closely together.

“People said journalists don’t collaborate, this is a cut throat industry, it’s an industry under a lot of strain, you’re not going to find people who are willing to work together and share,” said Lucero.

“But actually we found it to be a really easy process to collaborate, even from the beginning. People recognised that by collaborating they can benefit, so they still get an exclusive but they also get to be part of something.”

She added: “The reason people were so open to it is it allows their local reporting to be part of a wider conversation and a wider movement. Their reporting can be richer and so the national narrative can be richer.”

One of the biggest challenges for the Bureau Local team to overcome was the inaccessibility of local authority data in the UK – even when public it can be spread across unsearchable PDFs or in many hidden documents and appendices which makes it difficult to compare over time.

Lucero said the team initially wanted to be more innovative with technology, but realised they first simply had to make data more accessible.

“It doesn’t seem intuitive, but there’s something quite journalistic in that –  processing a lot of information and making it understandable,” she said.

“I guess that’s what we do when we write a news story, but actually when you’re dealing with really complicated datasets – and people feel really queasy most of the time when they think of data – the biggest thing that we’ve been able to do is actually just make it understandable and make it digestible and make sure it’s democratised.

“We thought we would be doing a lot more innovation on a very different level, building tools or using bots or collecting data in new ways.

“We still intend to do a lot of that but it’s really important for us to do a lot of that groundwork and it’s helped us build really good relationships with people as well.”

The project has had a huge response in its first year. It now has 650 members – journalists but also other people with particular skillsets such as local government experts, lawyers and technologists who want to “commit an act of journalism”, said Lucero.

This has far surpassed her original target of 500 members after two years.

“We had no idea the scale of people who would be interested,” she said. But while it was a “great thing”, Lucero was asking herself how to manage such a vast network.

The team responded by creating a community organiser role who would engage more with the members and ensure their skills were being utilised. The position was financed with money from grant-funding network Open Society Foundations, founded by billionaire George Soros.

The cash boost has also enabled them to open applications for their own local reporting fund, which will support journalists or local people who believe they have a story that needs to be told but lack the time and resources.

This year, the team will work closely with the recipients of this fund, delve more into the north and north west regions where two of its staff members live, and continue looking into council finances. New projects are also in the pipeline.

The Bureau Local was originally funded by Google’s Digital News Initiative with a €662,000 grant over three years, but it took a year to get the project up and running. They are currently in the fundraising phase to ensure they can continue beyond next year.

The success of the Bureau Local’s first year was recognised at the British Journalism Awards 2017 where they won Innovation of the Year. The team also received the European Press Prize’s Innovation Award this month.

Lucero said: “It was amazing to be recognised and it’s a real testament to the community.

“We always say the Bureau Local isn’t this team of five, the Bureau Local is a team of 650, so it is a real testament to what collaborative journalism can do and the real force of nature of local journalism and how vital that is.”

Picture: Rob Stothard/TBIJ

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