Bureau Local members say they want to learn. So here’s our investigative journalism toolkit.

Can we build greater trust in news? Why not start by helping people learn more about how journalism works and how to investigate issues themselves?

The Bureau Local is a relatively new outfit, having only launched a year and a half ago, and has quickly become a 800+ network of journalists, technologists and engaged citizens who work together to solve the problems they face getting hold of, and reporting on, local information.

The network has worked together to report on issues such as cuts to domestic violence provision, racial profiling at immigration checks, homelessness and local council spending.

With such rapid growth and a range of knowledge and skills, we knew the Bureau Local needed to dig deep and better understand who our members are, why they are part of our UK-wide collaborative newsroom and how we can all work together.

So, we surveyed our members and gleaned major insights. Our main finding was that there are three very active ways that our community wants to be involved. We found that our members want to a) ‘contribute’ - give their time or experience to local investigative journalism, b) ‘network’ - access a community of peers or potential collaborators and/or c) ‘learn’ - gain new skills or knowledge.

The first two are a huge part of what we do already - although we are currently developing ways to improve this. The third is something we don’t have huge capacity for but see a clear need to address.

When we offered respondents a choice of future services that we could offer them, the top choice was “connect members with sources of knowledge and skills development” another popular choice was to access “learning and guides for building an independent, collaborative, investigative newsroom.”

There is an appetite to learn. So, in the Bureau Local spirit, we took this on collaboratively with our network and took some steps to feed our network’s hunger.

  • We are experimenting with regular ‘open newsroom’ sessions where people can collaborate, problem solve and learn new things on a regular basis. The results have been cheering. We’ve seen members come together to figure out how to extract information on locations from postcodes and partial addresses, and to identify the challenges to court reporting. Together, our collective network managed to create a pool of ideas and resources that none of us could have come up with alone. You can see those tips and tricks documented here.
  • We are partnering with the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) and Coventry University in the new year to merge our collaborative reporting days with CIJ’s Access to Tools training so that attendees can get training and then directly apply that learning to one of our live investigations. In the past we’ve also partnered with the Ferret and the National Union of Journalists to deliver courses on new models for journalism.
  • We’ve also created an open resources database that everyone can use. Whether you are just getting started or have been reporting for some time, it is filled with links to collaborative and investigative newsroom tools for whatever stage you are at. Use it or add to it here.

Lastly, as an end of year gift, we decided to curate the top tools and training opportunities for people who are coming to investigative journalism without a great deal of experience and/or resources and want to know where to start. So without further ado, here is our Introduction to Investigative Journalism Toolkit:

1. Freedom of Information

Sadly there is a distinct lack of good online training in Freedom of Information (FOI) law and how to make effective requests for records. Campaign for Freedom of Information do offer occasional paid courses, as does The Ferret in Scotland and the National Union of Journalists if you are a member. In the meantime, this guidance from FOI specialist FOI Man offers a decent starting point. It’s also worth asking more experienced journalists you know to look over any requests you draft until you’re sure on how to get the wording right.

2. Learn Data Journalism

Data journalism is on the rise as more and more information comes into the public domain, or can be obtained through FOI, but if you’re not on a dedicated journalism course, how do you pick up the skills? Thankfully, the European Journalism Centre has a site where you can study different facets of data journalism from the comfort of your home. To start with, try “Doing Journalism with Data: First Steps, Skills and Tools”, featuring regular Bureau Local collaborator Paul Bradshaw.

3. Verification, Verification, Verification

It doesn’t matter how great your stories are – if they include mistakes, your work will be undermined. Learn how to verify your material with these handy online tutorials from First Draft.

4. Research Companies Effectively

There are some great tools in the UK for digging into companies and what they are up to. Companies House is always a good place to look, but also worth a go is OpenCorporates, who have published a great guide to using their resources.

5. Research People Effectively

You want to do background on an individual? Use the brilliant suite of open source intelligence tools from Intel Techniques here, but use them ethically and responsibly.

6. Create Infographics and Data Visualisations

Piktochart is a pretty great entry-level, low budget tool that you can try out for free. Meanwhile, Flourish is a UK-based counterpart that is a bit more challenging to use but creates stunning graphics and is free for journalists and newsrooms.

7. Scrape and Automate

If you want to learn how to scrape simple data on the web, you don’t need to code - you can master the basics quickly just by using Excel and an ebook like Scraping for Journalists, which costs around £15. There are also a plethora of useful tools that you can use to automate tasks, including information gathering. Probably the best for journalists, and also free, is If This Then That – here is a series of tips on how it can be used.

8. Are Solutions the Solution?

“Solutions journalism” has become a bit of a buzz phrase, but sometimes investigative journalism stories delivers the bad news without offering much hope. The US-based Solutions Journalism Network offers a free Learning Lab that gives training in how to identify stories that look at groundbreaking work being done to tackle social and political problems.

9. Get Funded!

If you want to grow your journalism experience and career, there are lots of funding opportunities out there. Journo Resources does a great job of keeping an up-to-date list here.

Please share this toolkit with anyone you think might benefit from it, or email us with suggestions for additions.

10. Join the Bureau Local!

Is there anything else that you’d like to learn in order to report your local news? If so let us know, and we’ll help. And if you haven’t yet joined our network, please do – it will give you the chance to get involved in our collaborative investigations, make connections across the country, and problem solve together.

Header image: Bureau office by Rob Stothard/TBIJ