Newsrooms nowadays can take many forms. Some have recently been reshuffled to enable more collaboration. Others operate entirely online through communication tools such as Slack, and some do not contain even a single reporter or editor with formal journalism training.
Journalism as a profession has become ‘fully academised’. A survey of 700 UK journalists found 98 per cent of those who had begun their career between 2013 and 2015 had a bachelor’s degree. While this sample may not necessarily have studied journalism, those who get hired in the larger newsrooms in the UK increasingly tend to have some formal education in journalism.
And then there are those who develop an interest in a subject area or a conviction about the role of media in society, and armed with the technology now available at almost everyone’s fingertips, decide to figure out a way through to the world of investigative journalism.
Some start on their own, diving into an obsession which will soon become their specialism and bring other like-minded people to them. Others find a team of people who are on the same page and start learning together, with the goal of producing the type of journalism they wish they could read but do not find in the traditional media.
In this chapter, we take a look at two organisations which do not conform to the traditional idea of a media outlet, founded by those who discovered underused technologies and under-served communities.
The citizen investigative journalists who run training in newsrooms
In 2011, Eliot Higgins worked in financial administration. In his spare time, he monitored the conflict in Libya and the Arab Spring, discussing information which came out of the area on various forums and liveblogs, debating what could be true and what could be misinformation.
He figured out he could try to verify the photos and videos he found online by using satellite imagery to identify the location where they were taken. A year later, he started a blog as a hobby to outline his practices and process, noticing there was no other media outlet doing the same at the time.
He ran the blog, called Brown Moses, for two years, and noticed the community around this type of work, using open source tools for investigations and verification, was growing. In 2014, Higgins opened Bellingcat, a site ‘by and for citizen investigative journalists’. He aimed to offer a platform to others who were doing similar work but had a smaller audience, as well as to create resources for those who were interested in learning how to use these tools.
The tools are available to everyone online, and include well known programmes such as Google Earth, Google Streetview or Yandex Maps. According to Higgins, the main characteristic needed to succeed in this field is to be obsessive about the subject.
“I would find obsessiveness is quite useful, because you have to search for a lot of stuff that’s irrelevant. But also at the same time you need to temper that using common sense about a lot of stuff, because I do see a lot of people who are a little bit crazy when they start doing this work.”
Bellingcat now has a few dozen contributors, some regular writers and some who have only written one or two pieces for the site. “They come from a range of backgrounds,” Higgins explained. “A few are journalists who are working freelance and just want to do more in depth pieces they know wouldn’t really be published in a mainstream publication. Others are people who have worked in conflict investigation and just have an interest in it as a hobby, like I did.”
Bellingcat also has a core investigations team, which grows or shrinks depending on circumstances, but largely developed in the aftermath of the downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine. The team published a series of posts verifying related images posted online, detailing their workflow and the thought process behind their conclusions. As a result of this work, Higgins was interviewed by both the Dutch and the Australian police as a witness in the inquiry which followed, prompting him to consolidate Bellingcat’s investigations team as its work was proving valuable.
Bellingcat articles are naturally often picked up by Russian language media, but its work has also been featured by media outlets in the UK, such as The Guardian which has covered the team’s reports on MH17.
The open source investigations community has been growing in the last few years, a growth mainly driven by Russian-language groups. The next step for Bellingcat is to start focusing more on training and strengthening ties with other media organisations.
Higgins adds: “Not just giving people a one-day workshop, but training them for several days and then working with those organisations we've trained to develop stories. Our value is we can teach other people to do it, but also offer our assistance with other organisations.
“And because now there’s more investigative journalism organisations run more like NGOs rather than for-profit companies, we work with those more and collaborate with them.”
With all things going according to plan in terms of funding, Bellingcat will have close to ten investigators as well as new projects in the near future. Its first 18 months were supported through a crowdfunding campaign, while funding for 2016 came from Google, covering a salary for Higgins, one other member of staff, and expenses for running the site.
In November 2016, Bellingcat was also awarded funding through Google’s Digital News Initiative to support The Archive for Conflict Investigation, a platform establishing a set of tools and methodologies for journalists.
Reaching people in media deserts with local print journalism
He says: “As a reader rather than a professional journalist initially, there was a frustration there were a lot of challenging ideas and journalism of high quality which just weren’t really permeating beyond quite narrow confines. There’s so much information and investigative journalism which doesn’t really have an impact in communities across the UK.”
The Bristol Cable functions as a media co-operative, where members can pay from as little as £1 per month to fund what the team hopes is a new style of local journalism, focused on independent investigations.
“In order to improve the quality of content, make it more engaging, make it more interesting, make it relevant to everyday people’s lives, there needs to be a direct connection between the reader and the producer and what better way than to create a democratic cooperative,” Aviram added.
“Essentially we thought this could be a model which would democratise media by having the reader or the user participating in content decisions as well as wider strategic decisions regarding our business operations, and would also be a way to fund the model as well.”
Aside from Aviram, who worked a freelance journalist for a short period of time, the founding team (Alec Saelens and Adam Cantwell) had no formal journalism training or experience before deciding to set up the Cable. They came up with a skeleton idea for the organisation in the summer of 2013, and sought support from journalists, filmmakers, lawyers and other people in the community to shape the idea.
The team raised £3,000 through crowdfunding to get the project off the ground. The money was spent on training for the core team at the Cable as well as around 300 people in the community who were interested in learning more about media law, writing, or using social media as a journalist.
“The sessions were useful to get the brand in front of potential members,” explained Aviram, “but also to offer the co-founders a chance to really get to grips with what they were trying to do.”
It took the Bristol Cable four months to publish its first edition, but now it publishes stories online every day with a free quarterly print edition.
The print edition enables the organisation to reach more people with its journalism, and Aviram believes simply promoting the Cable’s website through social media would not have been enough to cut through the noise that exists online.
Some 30,000 print copies of the Cable are distributed every quarter, through local pubs, cafes, places of worship, community centres and public areas.
“You can put a copy in someone’s hand who would never have otherwise engaged with you on social media because they have no connection with the circles in which you might be operating. So that has been a crucial way of getting the brand out, getting a diverse membership, sourcing stories as well.”
Print also enables the team to reach communities that exist in what Aviram calls 'media deserts'. “They can feed us really interesting stories which then get taken up and published in future editions and online.”
The stories the Cable publishes are sourced in three main ways: commissions from the organisation’s media coordinators; submissions from members of the public; and content production with an ‘educational twist’.
The latter approach means the Cable spends time with members of a particular community to both source stories and collaborate with them during the newsgathering and production phases. The organisation continues to host workshops on subjects from information security to feature writing, the basics of film production and photography.
“We will often sit with someone who has no prior experience in producing journalism and work with them to produce a piece of content. That could take a couple of days just online or it could be a person comes into our office over a period of a couple of months and researches and develops a piece. Because our journalism is slower, we have the space to be able to really nurture people’s development.”
The Cable’s media coordinators also spend time collaborating with local communities which would otherwise never produce their own journalism. The team has co-authored pieces with the Kurdish community in Bristol showing how regional developments in the Middle East are affecting them here in the United Kingdom.
The organisation has also worked with a Somali teenager to place freedom of information requests about deportation rates and investigate how they impacted on the Somali community, a story which was published both in English and in Somali. Aviram explained their approach stems from an effort to reimagine how local journalism works and even what type of content can be considered local journalism.
The Bristol Cable’s strategy for reaching out to people and converting them into members relies on the community’s understanding that legacy local media can no longer deliver the type of journalism needed to hold local authorities and corporations to account. The team ties the local situation in their area to national and international trends to get people to sign up.
The long term goal is for the Cable to become sustainable – 12 team members are now paid on a part- or full-time basis, but there is still some way to go. But Aviram believes their model can work in other parts of the country where local journalism has suffered from cost-cutting, and where other media deserts have formed.
In fact, he plans to create a package documenting their experience, highlighting what they have done well and what could have been done better. With some start-up capital and a local network of experts to support them, like-minded people in other areas could replicate and evolve their model.
“There's been so much innovation on a national and international level but barely on a local level. Most people find local journalism boring as hell and rightly so. There is a way in which we can reimagine what local journalism looks like and actually make it interesting.”
This piece is an extract from Last Words? How can journalism survive the decline of print?, to be published by Arima on 23 January at £19.95. Readers of Journalism.co.uk can pre-order at a special discount price of £15 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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