Gareth Davies, four-time winner of Weekly Regional Reporter of the Year, explains how the Bureau Local will give regional reporters access to good stories and the support they need to write them.
It's a genuinely new and exciting project that focuses on the positives of local journalism while helping to address some of the serious challenges facing the industry.
This week saw the launch of the Bureau Local, a unique project set up by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which aims to support and encourage data-driven public interest reporting in local and regional newsrooms across the UK. I worked in one of those newsrooms for eight years and I wanted to write about why I got involved with the project and why other local reporters should too.
Local journalism is in trouble. Declining print circulation and advertising revenue has led newspapers to be closed and staff to be cut. Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Offices have been shut or moved miles off patch. Specialist staff, such as photographers and sub-editors, have been transferred to centralised hubs or axed entirely. In some areas readers have been asked to write their local paper themselves.
The reporters who remain in the industry have taken on extra responsibility and workload to meet ever-rising online audience targets; targets which have led to the proliferation of clickbait and generic, shareable content.
This target-driven culture has narrowed the types of stories covered by local journalists, creating websites dominated by crime and breaking news, threatening to leave specialist and complex topics under-reported. Councils, courts, inquests and tribunals are increasingly unrecorded, creating a democratic deficit in already marginalised towns and cities, a growing number of which no longer have daily, or even weekly, newspaper coverage.
Interest in local news has arguably never been higher — every regional newspaper website audited by ABC recorded strong growth in the second half of 2016 — but publishers have yet to find a way of developing digital audiences while protecting standards and jobs. These problems dominate news about local journalism, and I have raised them before, but there are others — the lack of diversity in newsrooms, the social exclusivity of the industry — that are yet to be covered.
There are talented and dedicated local journalists all over the country who, despite these pressures, continue to produce excellent journalism. But they tend to do so by themselves, often in their spare time after work or at weekends, and on their own initiative, increasingly without the support of more experienced colleagues or additional training, and in an environment where time is at an absolute premium.
I know because those are the conditions under which I did investigations. More needs to be done to highlight this work and more needs to be done to support it.
Most local newsrooms are staffed predominantly by young journalists with less than two years on the job. Some report to news editors who are barely more experienced than they are.
In my experience these young reporters have interesting and innovative ideas. But when they want to put those ideas into practice, or tackle complicated, investigative stories, who do they turn to for advice? Some will take it upon themselves to find the answers. Most will not have the time or the confidence, and promising ideas are put aside and forgotten.
The Bureau Local wants to create a community where reporters can ask questions, share ideas and work together on investigative and public interest journalism, not just with other journalists but experts from a wide-range of backgrounds who share something in common — they care about local journalism.
More than 100 people have already registered. This experimental idea represents a significant cultural shift for an industry where collaborative reporting does not exist. National newspapers like The Times and The Guardian have teamed up with journalists and media organisations across the world with great success but, at a local level, working with a reporter on another newspaper, even owned by the same company, rarely happens in UK.
Even within newsrooms, reporting as a team, sharing expertise and workload, is not actively encouraged. Reporters themselves are taught to plan and write as individuals, making them territorial and competitive. Many editors would argue they cannot afford to have more than one person working on the same story for a sustained period. Even when they can, it happens mostly while covering breaking news rather than for producing carefully planned investigative journalism.
I did all of my investigative work on my own. Would the end results been better had I worked with other people? Undoubtedly.
The potential benefits of working together are huge. Journalists get to cover bigger, more complex and rewarding stories. Publishers see their staff develop and write articles which engage more of their audiences. Readers benefit because reporters are better able to cover the issues that matter to them.
The Bureau Local is focusing on data because it is a largely untapped resource that can be used to tell stories at every level of society. It is a type of journalism where the main barriers — time and knowledge — can be relatively easy to address, especially when you work collaboratively. Exactly how the Bureau Local project will work will be shaped by the network but, at its most basic, our team will analyse big datasets at a national level while working with local reporters to use that data to tell stories for their communities.
As the only member of the Bureau Local team with local newsroom experience it is up to me to make sure journalists want to be involved in what we are doing. We have already heard from several dozen but I know there will be others who are interested but understandably cynical and those who do not have the time to read through an essay about the realities of the job they do. So this is the key reason why you as a local reporter should sign up to our network: You will have access to good stories and the support you need to write them.
We will not be a source of free copy. Bureau Local does not involve charges or fees, but it does want something in return. It wants journalists to take the data, develop it using their local knowledge and contacts, and tell great stories. There is nothing else in it for us besides a credit — no catch and no ulterior motive beyond building a community of people who are interested in producing great local journalism.
This is an opportunity to be a part of something genuinely new and exciting that focuses on the positives of local journalism — the impact it can have and the people who report on it. If that interests you, get involved.
[Comment awaiting moderation]