A Panama Papers moment for Oxford?

Remember the Panama Papers? Who doesn’t? At the root of the story was the leaking of 11.5m files from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca. The documents showed how the rich exploit secretive offshore tax regimes. What made the story memorable was the international collaboration that allowed 370 journalists across almost 80 countries involving more than 100 media organisations, to make sense of this huge amount of complex information, pick out the angles most relevant to their own national audiences, and publish simultaneously across the world.

What if that could be done by local journalists?

The crisis in our health service, for instance, is a national story. But detailed decisions are taken locally, and that is where the impact is felt. For people of “Banburyshire”, it means facing the prospect of having to travel to Oxford, more than 40 minutes journey, if they need attention from an accident and emergency or maternity unit. For the thousands of people in Witney registered with the Deer Park Medical Surgery it means leaving the GP practice they chose, where they are known, and signing up to one of the increasingly overstretched alternative practices further from home.

For all of us, it is the waiting times, safety and quality of service at the local facilities we use that is of primary concern.

Yet making sense of the story – why is this happening? where are the big decisions being taken? what are the options? – requires national context.

What if a group of locally embedded journalists were to collaborate, analysing national datasets to tease out patterns of what is happening across the country, developing stories around how the national picture is playing out at a local level, then – like the Panama papers – publishing their own take on the story across the country on the same day?

Not just on health, but schools, housing, jobs, or flooding or fly tipping?

Great idea. But local journalists, as we know, have no time for this level of detailed investigative work. They are focused on breaking their own stories. They have no culture of collaboration. They mainly work in set-ups where they cannot control when, or even necessarily where, their story is published.

And yet, it really is a great idea.

The Bureau Local

That’s why our branch invited Megan Lucero to talk to a bunch of Oxford journalists about The Bureau Local, a new project she is spearheading, run by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, to try to develop a national capacity for collaborative local journalism.

It was a very constructive conversation. We didn’t conclude that this idea is necessarily feasible. We did conclude that we would love to see it succeed and want to be part of making it happen.

We copy below notes written up by Megan which sum up key points from the meeting. We strongly recommend local NUJ branches to have a read and think about whether you would like to make a call a meeting to explore whether you want to get involved, and if so how.

We believe in this initiative, because it values local news and local journalists, and could help add value to what we do and be part of finding new models to replace the old broken ones.

We met people from our branch who had never attended before, and we also opened up the meeting to non-members.

Megan is also looking for other NUJ branches who would like to get involved. Go on. Give it a go! And then let us all know how you get on.

For more information about The Bureau Local or to sign up to their network visit their website.

Notes from the Oxford NUJ branch meeting with Megan Lucero from Bureau Local

Who:

Five Oxford Mail reporters (politics, education, health, crime and general) freelance reporters, freelance editors, academics of journalism studying at Oxford and the Reuters Institute.

What excites them

‘I think this project will increase the capacity of local journalists. People are expected to do more with less, this will help.’

Someone added: ‘I need this. I can’t make sense of all the info out there and I don’t have the time to do it.’

‘I like the idea of working WITH an organisation or group. I don’t want someone to just hand me or feed me a line.’

‘I love the idea of being part of something bigger. Things that are happening here must be happening elsewhere. I want to be part of it. I want to bring other ideas to my beat. I want to work on big stories.’

‘Collaborating makes sense. Especially in light of the Panama Papers. And it would work. We have never broken an embargo because we know we would never get a story from them again. Same applies.’

‘I am happy to share my story ideas and tips with journalists ACROSS THE COUNTRY, less so with my rivals.’

What they were worried about

Rivals:

‘You wouldn’t be a journalist if you didn’t want to keep your story, your story’

One member said: but if the story appears in print, radio, telly and online, doesn’t it make it stronger?

Another: The BBC are heavily resourced but not as good as us in this region. Would seem unfair to hand to them when we are fighting to exist. I think the BBC is important but if we don’t get recognition for our work and people just watch it on the telly, readers won’t see the purpose of us.

There was a great deal of discussion around ‘rivals’. At the end of the day it came down to stealing, scooping and distrust. When we spoke about building up relationships and trust with individual journalists, they felt like that was a better distinction. ie no organisation is chosen over another, instead individual journalists who are willing to put in the time and proper collaboration and trust are brought in. We agreed that it could be a BBC reporter and it could work under the right story, region distributions and relationships.

How do you make sure the data is reliable? Many datasets have human error or influence, how will you control for or handle misinterpretation of data?

Turnover of journalists. The Oxford Mail group admitted that out of the 13 reporters in their org, only 2 are over 28. The turnover is about every 2 years.

The network creating or perpetuating an echo-chamber

Age of reporters part of that, as noted in the point above

Management/editors/bosses. Boss killing a story, lawyers killing a story, syndication or agencies flogging their stories out.

What they want out of the Bureau Local network

Something physical. Conference calls but also meetups.

‘No one trusts the voice at the other end of the phone. The moment I meet them , they share more and I often trust them more’.

‘I want to know the people I am working with. I would jump at the opportunity to meet these other hacks in person.’

‘I’d like to learn new skills as we work on investigations together’. Although others in the room were weary if other journos would have the same time and interest.

‘I’d like to learn, as a journalist, what I need to ask of a dataset. What is an intelligent interview of data?’ Training?

An increase in local journalists and/or local investigations. As investigative journos have halved, so has scrutiny of our public bodies.

A resource to help tackle the complexities of multiple datasets or an issue that needs to be investigated/explained with lots of info. ie travel journey time data with road congestion data with air pollution with health info.

A forum.

Here is what I am trying to tackle > someone comes back with data and info I can understand on my area > I would say what my contacts are saying > I would hope others would say the same and help point me in a direction. A forum seems best for that.

Stories

Life expectancy discrepancies between the rich and poor in Oxford

Flooding is one of the most important issues here. When a flood happens, people don’t go to nationals, they go to local papers for info.

The group noted orgs that they don’t know how to work with but think they are doing interesting work and would want the network to help facilitate. ie, Smart Cities, flood network, oxford researchers

Tech stuff

Twitter for sources – councillors seem to use that more (they think it is safer, lol)

Whatsapp for comms with other reporters

Email for most everything (although they said emails get lost often and thought the network shouldn’t communicate there)

All are familiar with Gmail and Drive but work email is Outlook

Everyone did say they would be up for (and would prefer) something new if it was easy to use.

‘I want to be part of this. So whatever you use, I will get on it’.

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