The Bureau Local – a collaborative investigative network for local data-driven, public-interest journalism – is one of the most innovative initiatives in UK media.
The Bureau Local was built on the belief that holding power to account, both locally and nationally, is crucial for a just and equitable society. And that local journalism is integral to this accountability.
In the wake of Brexit, communities across the UK were demanding to be heard. More power was being given to public bodies outside London while the collapsing commercial model for news meant that local papers faced cuts to their staff and resources. The capacity for investigative, data journalism where it is urgently needed was, and still is, extremely limited.
The project was launched by the non-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism in March 2017 and quickly found its stride. In just two years, the network has published over 350 exclusive local stories across the UK.
A small team of five now facilitates a network of nearly 1,000 members collaborating in person and online – which we are particularly proud of because our industry is not naturally disposed to collaboration. Members are journalists – covering hyperlocals, counties and regionals, print, online and broadcast. The rest span national journalists, technical and data specialists, local government, NGOs and ordinary citizens, each bringing different skills and expertise.
The Bureau Local team of five are all trained in data journalism but what makes this team unique is that they are much more than that. They are investigative journalists, they are data journalists, they are community journalists and they are collaborators and project managers. They are changing what it means to be a journalist and in the process trying to change the media industry. The team also includes the pioneering rold of Community Organiser.
In the past year the team has delivered is most impactful investigations to date. #makethemcount – an investigation into homeless deaths, revealed for the first time the scale of homeless deaths in the UK. Because the UK didn’t record homeless deaths, the team drove the Bureau Local community to crowdsource as many records as possible and found that in two winters alone, at least 800 people died homeless. The work prompted the Office for National Statistics to start producing the first-ever statistics on homeless deaths. The team also supported, produced and toured a live journalism event/performance to shed a light on the data unearthed on cuts to domestic violence refuges. Finally, the team delivered #soldfromunderyou – a series looking at how austerity has touched local communities and produced the first open dataset on community spaces sold off by councils.
What makes this project innovative?
The Bureau Local is innovative in its very nature. The team is not only doing journalism that is data-driven and entirely open and collaborative but also has an aim to support and help change the entire industry for the better. We see data as more than numbers on a spreadsheet. To us, it is a vital insight into communities and an ever-growing wealth of evidence to drive local and national accountability. We believe data should be accessible for everyone. So when we investigate an issue, we do the heavy lifting to harness data centrally and simplify the investigative process for journalists and the public. We use technology to access, analyse and find stories in data and then combine it with local knowledge, research and reporting to tell the stories of the people the data represents. We then open up our data, code and methodologies, and write reporting guides to make it easy for anyone to follow or expand on our investigations. This process allows us to provide evidence at scale. We focus on increasing the accessibility of local information and ensuring it reaches people and is clear and actionable. To do this, journalists and the public need information that is both available and accessible. We also advocate for greater transparency of data/info/evidence not made public so that communities can be informed and have the tools they need to act. Both of our leading investigations this past year changed access to information/data and sparked real change. We also innovate in how we collaborate. We recognise that journalism sits in a unique space in the information ecosystem and that we must go outside ourselves in order to better our industry. We believe that by building a community of journalists, techies, designers, concerned citizens and people with specialist knowledge that contribute to investigative reporting, all of us will benefit from new ‘acts of journalism’. We collaborate with journalists from all backgrounds, platforms and sizes but also work with people outside the news industry. We have already seen this play out in powerful ways in our network. Coders help journalists with tech tasks; designers build visualisations for newsrooms; members of the public crowdsource information; experts bring forward contacts and insider knowledge: all with the common goal of shining a light on the truth. Beyond a wide range of journalists -from national and local outlets, we have brought together semi-formal expert roundtables and informal gatherings, conversations and partnerships with experts, charities and other groups with specialist knowledge including: Crisis, Homeless Link, Shelter, Streets Kitchen, Women’s Aid, Solace, Safenet, Leeway, NextLink, People’s Audit, ODI, Women’s Budget Group, Democracy Club, Spend Network, LGA, Turing Institute, Tech for UK, My Society and universities in: Newcastle, Cardiff, Bournemouth, Coventry, Leeds, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, Preston and Nottingham. We also believe that in order to inform communities, we must work hard to reach them beyond the narrow and traditional pool of news readers. As people access information in new ways, we must change the way we tell stories and ensure our work is inclusive and accessible. We focus on reporting with, not just on, the communities we cover and mobilise them around our journalism. To do this we have experimented with new ways to tell stories and build trust. We have run community forums, meetups and live journalism events around the country - including our general election and council budget ‘collaborative reporting days’. We also took our domestic violence investigation on the road, with the theatre show Refuge Woman. This one-woman show was written and performed by a collaborator who had worked with us on the investigation. Her performance shed a light on her own lived experience. We took the show to eight locations across the UK: the cities and towns where local journalists worked with us on the collaborative investigation. Regional journalists and those working in the sector came on stage after each performance to discuss the issue in each local area. The work informed people in new ways, sparked debate and reached new audiences. A survivor of domestic violence told her story in her own words. But most importantly, our journalism at the Bureau Local changed for the better.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
Launched in March 2017, the Bureau Local set out to support, reinvigorate and innovate accountability reporting in the UK by building a collaborative, investigative network of local reporters. The network quickly grew to include those from other industries as there was a wider public appetite for participation. It is now 1,000-strong - and growing - and includes reporters from local, regional and national outlets, hyperlocal bloggers, technologists, community-minded citizens and specialist contributors. With our members, we have published over 350 exclusive local stories in just 2 years covering domestic violence provision, racial profiling at immigration checks, homeless deaths and local council spending pressures. Our ability to pull together local experiences and reveal the national picture has sparked action and inspired real change. We look at the existing power systems - both to investigate inequality but also to understand how and what needs investigation and mobilisation to enable change. This has led to outcomes of stimulating national debate, influencing local and national policy and holding power to account. Bureau Local ‘s Dying Homeless investigation produced the first ever annual figure for how many people had died homeless in the UK. The network worked together for months to log the tragic deaths of over 800 homeless people. The project produced 99 local stories and 76 national stories. The Secretary of State for Housing called the findings “utterly shocking”, MPs across the country spoke out in protest, and the Office of National Statistics was inspired to produce their own official count. Rather than simply bringing the Dying Homeless project to a close (now that the government would be recording these deaths), Bureau Local worked with the Museum of Homelessness to hand over the task of collating the stories of those that died, thus ensuring that the reporting community’s work would spark a lasting impact. In a series on council cuts, the Bureau Local network combed through council finances during hack days in five different cities across the UK and the team launched a hard-hitting investigation that revealed how council were cutting vital services due to budget cuts - as well as identifying councils at serious risk of financial meltdown. The team also exposed that councils that are investing billions into potentially risky property investments, sometimes many miles away. 70 contributors joined Bureau Local Slack channel to get stuck into the data the team had compiled. In the end, this resulted in scores of local and national stories and the government announced they would be investigating the practice. In the latest instalment - #SoldFromUnderYou - Bureau Local unveiled a large-scale collaborative investigation into the sell-off of public spaces by local authorities and revealed, for the first time, the scale to which the local government funding crisis is affecting public services, public spaces, and public servants. For the first time ever, people were given open data on what public spaces had been sold, to whom and for how much. The stories grabbed national attention. A tweet by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was shared more than 2,000 times. The story itself was read by 100,000 people and shared by leading columnists and experts. Our open-source map generated more than 130,000 page views. On top of this, Bureau Local has also broken new ground in how investigative journalism is done in the UK. By building an inclusive and participatory model of journalism, it has helped to plug the gaps in a heavily compromised local news sector. It has also reached more deeply into communities through innovative experiments such as the Refuge Woman theatrical tour, which brought activists, performers and local journalists together with communities to tell stories and deliver news analysis in a fresh and compelling way. An audience member at one of the shows - and former perpetrator of domestic violence said: “thank you for teaching me more than prison taught me". The Bureau Local has been described as “one of the most positive and effective interventions in local journalism in the UK for some time” and has won multiple awards, including the Nesta/Observer 50 New Radicals, the Innovation prize at both the British Journalism Awards (2017) and the European Press Prize (2018) - these awards have been for the idea and delivery but it is the team behind it that has made it possible. The project has also inspired the German not-for-profit news organisation Correct!v to replicate the model.
Source and methodology
There are five pillars to the Bureau Local 1. Transparency: make local information open and accessible 2. Inclusion: surface issues from the ground and ensure diversity 3. Collaboration: drive accountability through community - collaborate across industry and experience 4. Storytelling: from local to national, tell stories that matter with and in communities 5. Impact: connect the dots to reveal systemic issues at scale and drive change We approach every investigation with these pillars in a collaborative way. When we take on an investigation, we put a call out to our 1,000-strong network, but also reach out to topic experts, tech companies, and possible academic and organisational partners. We get everyone to agree to conditions of collaboration and trust, then share data, story leads, quotes from sources, information and tips. We open up our data, methodologies, code and our ‘reporting recipes’ and begin discussions with our collaborators. Sometimes we hold roundtables with experts to dig into an issue, other times we hold hackdays to bring people together when there is a vast amount of data or a short deadline to work to. In some cases we crowdsource data by creating our own surveys or databases while in others we put a call out for help - that may be to commission an illustrator or get help with wrangling a dataset. We always make everything available online, through open Google Docs and Sheets, and our Slack channels. We agree on an embargo date and encourage collaborators to publish together. Along the way we work together to get the best story locally and nationally. We also run events, community meetups and ‘behind the story’ sessions around the country. We have raised funds to support local reporting through our Local Story Fund so we can commission local reporters who need the extra support to dig into an issue. We also seek to include those affected by the issue (those with lived experience), those embedded in the issue (researchers, ngos, etc.) and those who can change the issue (activists and those in power). We join forces on investigations with the aim of strengthening our information ecosystem, holding power to account at both a local and national level and telling stories that matter to communities. We focus on mobilising people around our journalism and ensuring we report with, not just on, the communities we cover. We run online and offline community forums, meetups and live journalism events to bring our stories to wider audiences. With each investigation, we make relevant information and datasets/evidence accessible to everyone in the network and help members find out how issues play out in their area. As reporting takes place across the country, we then connect the dots to create a national picture. Our collective reporting method produces broader and deeper investigations than would be possible by any individual newsroom, allowing us to shine a light on systemic issues and hold those in power to account. The combined local and national focus increases the impact of the story through community mobilisation, increased visibility and action that sparks change.
Maeve McClenaghan, Gareth Davies, Charles Boutaud, Rachel Hamada, Eliza Anyangwe