The Bureau of Investigative Journalism launched its Bureau Local team just under three months ago, with the aim of developing a collaborative network of people interested in pursuing local accountability reporting through data and investigative techniques.
When the snap election was announced, director Megan Lucero had just finished assembling a team and launching the website, so the bureau was given the perfect opportunity to test its mission.
"We thought that if there was one story affecting every community in the country, it was this one," Lucero told Journalism.co.uk.
"The election was six weeks away, journalists were facing huge restrictions in terms of accessing information in time and reporting on it, so we said 'let's just try to be the best resource that we can for this story'."
Four investigations, 50 local stories and 13 national stories came out of the bureau's six weeks of work prior to the election.
One of the investigations tackled 'dark election ads' on Facebook and it was produced through a partnership with a start-up called WhoTargetsMe. The story was also picked up by the Guardian, BuzzFeed, The New York Times and BBC Trending.
Other pieces looked at the limitations local reporters face in terms of accessing and scrutinising local political candidates, as well as the role of crowdfunding in local campaigns.
A national data set has so many rich local stories within it, which can be valuable to reporters and readers around the country.Megan Lucero, The Bureau Local
The bureau's final and most significant push before the election consisted of a hack day, held simultaneously in five cities around the UK. Its core team of four, which includes Lucero, two investigative reporters and a developer, worked alongside 65 people in Birmingham, Bournemouth, Cardiff, London and Glasgow, to investigate voter power.
To do this, they looked for stories of interest to their communities by digging into a data set Lucero and her team had built prior to the hack day, one that hadn't been previously available at a local level. It included data from the UK census, Labour Force Surveys, the British Election Study, as well as newer data sets around past votes and registration numbers.
Data can often be available but "not truly accessible to the average person", Lucero explained. For example, a rich data set with millions of rows of data might be impossible for a journalist to open in Excel, and being unable to query it programmatically would mean "the story is over".
"That is a huge limitation, especially at a local level. A lot of election data sets aren't really sliced by constituency level.
"We built [the election data set] to be able to look at estimating voter turnout, the impact of registrations and how various groups of people played a role in that."
The morning of the hack day, the bureau held a Skype call to brief everyone and an open Slack channel was also set up for participants to share findings and ideas.
The stories local journalists worked on varied from looking at the type of jobs and industries that could influence the election in Birmingham, to articles looking at new voters and different levels of education in certain communities.
"A national data set has so many rich local stories within it, which can be valuable to reporters and readers around the country.
"We're in this era when people read numbers and notice a disconnect, so how does that actually affect their individual lives and those of various communities?"
The resulting reporting was published in local outlets such as the Oxford Mail, the Daily Gazette in Colchester and the Croydon Advertiser, and they were also "pulled together" in a story that provided national picture of voter power by looking at estimates for newly registered voters and whether they had the potential to swing the vote in some areas of the country.
"We identified six key seats the Conservatives would have needed to hold that could potentially swing the vote.
"When we published that piece two days before the election, nobody thought the majority could be dented, but on election day, five of those six seats did swing.
"It was definitely a collaborative effort of different local knowledge and bringing together different minds."
The data used for all the bureau's projects becomes available to its members and collaborators under embargo, so they can start digging into it as soon as possible. Once stories or investigations have been published, the public is also given full access to it.
Local journalism is going through a really difficult time right now, so we see this as a reinvention of what it is to be a local journalistMegan Lucero, The Bureau Local
The next step for the bureau, which is funded through Google's Digital News Initiative, is to take the learnings from the election project and apply them to future stories. It also wants to continue to build its network, Lucero said, having already started to do so after its launch.
"We've built a really strong network of people who are interested in local accountability and collaborations.
"It's not just journalists – we've got lawyers, teachers, designers, coders, people who work in all kinds of areas, but who want to be part of telling important local stories.
"Local journalism is going through a really difficult time right now, so we see this as a reinvention of what it is to be a local journalist," said Lucero.
- Maeve McClenaghan, investigative journalist on the Bureau Local team, will be part of a panel on community and local journalism at newsrewired on 19 July. Find out more here.
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