The Detail

The Detail received an honourable mention at the News World Summit's data journalism awards in Paris last week

At the News World Summit in Paris last week, attended the first ever data journalism awards. A number of UK projects had been shortlisted, with the Guardian taking away one of the six prizes on offer.

Two out of the three honourable mentions were for UK news outlets: the BBC and Northern Ireland online investigative platform The Detail.

The Detail was set up in March last year within independent production company Below the Radar – now owned by Ten Alps – which was established by Ruth O'Reilly and Trevor Birney, who had previously worked in current affairs at Ulster Television.

"We established Below the Radar off the back of that, to do current affairs, but inevitably we ended up focusing more on more conventional documentaries rather than investigative work," O'Reilly told

"In the course of that, we found ourselves engaged in the public service broadcasting debate. We made submissions to Ofcom and other agencies involved in that debate at the time and we probably as a consequence, inadvertently came to the attention of other people interested in quality journalism, particularly in Northern Ireland at that time, so a conversation opened up."

This included a conversation with the US-based foundation Atlantic Philanthropies, which led to the idea "for a web platform that was devoted to quality, investigative, in-depth journalism".

"Off the back of that we found the local screen agency in Northern Ireland was willing to step in as well, to leverage funding for a project like this, because an element of it involved moving image.

"That's how it came about and ended up being funded".

The Atlantic Philanthropies put forward £640,000 in funding for the first two years of The Detail, she added, while Northern Ireland Screen submitted £150,000.

  • The flexibility of being online-only

The online operation, which looked to outlets such as the US-based ProPublica for inspiration, is currently run by a team of four journalists and O'Reilly as editor.

She said the decision to run an online-only operation would make production "uncomplicated and accessible", as well as opening up multimedia opportunities.

"It had to be flexible, we weren't really sure what types of media we were going to find were going to work best.

"I think it's fundamentally its flexibility and affordability. Anything that allows you to funnel the money further or deeper into the actual journalism and into the personnel and I think a website allows you to do that."

The website is also dedicated to working with other news outlets as much as possible, she said, and does not intend on acting as a direct competitor, which she says is helped by its online production.

"We do aim to produce content that compliments what's already being provided by the mainstream out there. So as a consequence of that if we'd started to set ourselves up in a more conventional newspaper or magazine it would have directly put us in competition with somebody, whereas something like this, what we aim to do is work in partnership with most outlets."

  • Building partnerships with other media outlets

Currently around 60 or 70 per cent of The Detail's output is being published as part of a media partnership with a newspaper or broadcaster and the website makes it clear that its content is open to be used elsewhere with attribution and prior warning.

But O'Reilly said when the website first launched last year there appeared to be a level of suspicion on the part of some news outlets.

"To start with there was a certain amount of suspicion and I think there was genuine concern about another entrant onto the market, but I suspect that's largely died away now.

I do think that most of the established media do see us as an asset and certainly not a threat at this stageRuth O'Reilly
"I do think that most of the established media do see us as an asset and certainly not a threat at this stage. The take-up of our stories is the proof of the pudding at the end of the day."

She also said that content has proven to be a useful resource for journalists to also "tap into" later down the line as stories and topics develop.

"Even if they're not going to use it today they can refer to it. It's one of the things we have noticed, that maybe part of a story ends up as part of another story that surfaces in another month or so down the line.

"It does in some way seem to inform some of the work on a general news story, when the relevance of it can be seen."

  • Developing data journalism

A relatively new but growing part of The Detail's output is data journalism, which, led by Kathryn Torney, was first introduced to The Detail's output around five months ago.

Torney undertook data journalism training at the Centre for Investigative Journalism at London City University in October last year, and O'Reilly said she has "done a lot of work to plug in to that community to try and keep up to speed with how other people are doing it".

But there is a challenge when it comes to visualising the data, she said, and that is tracking down software, such as mapping tools, which "understand" the way figures are often broken down into constituencies or council boundaries.

"It's one of the challenges we're looking at, but it's good because at least it means we're on new ground and the work we've done already has been very widely taken up."

You can just end up blinding people with figures in a written piece, whereas if it's visualised and something people can interact with, it tells the storyRuth O'Reilly
So one of the next things for The Detail to look into, as it works to try and grow this part of the business, is the technology to enable more variation when it comes to visualisation.

"It's a critical part of it, it's all about the storytelling at this stage. The whole point of data journalism is making those figures, that data, accessible to a wider public, for them to make sense of their world.

"You can just end up blinding people with figures in a written piece, whereas if it's visualised and something people can interact with, it tells the story."

The Detail focuses investigations across key issues with a focus on accountability, including healthcare, the police ombudsman and access to justice. It also has a "waiting" section linked to from the homepage highlighting information it is trying to get hold of or stories it is trying to develop, such as through Freedom of Information requests.

And just over a year in The Detail's work is already being recognised at industry awards. As well as the honourable mention in Paris last week, journalist Niall McCracken was named Newcomer of the Year at the 2012 CIPR Media Awards last month.

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