Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe

Chris Sutcliffe: Can you explain the Bureau Local’s mission?

Megan Lucero: I’ve been in the industry in the UK for about 10 years now, you’ll probably hear that this accent is not native British. I’m originally from California, I came over here 10 years ago to study journalism. I was fascinated by the British press and wanted to become a foreign reporter. It’s funny now that I’m running something deeply embedded locally and fighting for the local survival of journalism, in a country that I was not born in. In some ways, I think I’ve landed as a foreign reporter in some elements.

I started working at the Times of London and essentially went from being a researcher to pitching a job at the paper. They needed to really reimagine the way that they were thinking about digital and apply a digital mindset in the way that they were working. I created a job called a Story Producer. It was back when they were trying to figure out tech and data, and they were still figuring things out.

I was doing podcasts on SoundCloud, I was learning how to code so that we could embed interactive into stories. I was helping them publish documents behind investigations and coaching their foreign correspondents on Twitter, thinking about how we can tweet from protests and things like that. It was this very wide-ranging role: ‘think about digital and how it needs to be integrated into this organisation’.

The progression at the time has meant that I then went on to become their first data journalist, and then their first data editor. I was reimagining how data needed to be integrated into the investigative process. Starting off from a place when I was first hired as a data journalist, it was, ‘can you fix the printer’, because that’s what data obviously was. One of my last big investigations was contributing to the blood doping of the Olympics and World Championships with the Sunday Times Insight Team.

The data unit that I had built was completely integrated into the journalistic process. That was the evolution during that time, but where I was getting to, at the end of that, was recognising how important it was to make journalism more open and more accessible and realising we were doing so much data work, but it was a true privilege for just the national paper to have it.

It felt like we were collecting loads of local data, but we weren’t really sharing that. It felt incredibly inefficient. It seems incredibly inefficient for every newsroom to have to do it on their own. Then I heard that the Bureau was seeking to address a few different challenges, recognising that local journalism was really in dire straits at the time.

The whole industry was really in flux, this was about four years ago now, watching a lot of local newsrooms struggle, the business model of journalism struggling. This is also the time of Panama Papers, so you might recall that that’s the big, collaborative, worldwide investigation, where they were sharing databases on tax avoidance and investigating things around the world.

The idea came at the Bureau, saying can we help, can we stand in solidarity with local reporters around the UK and help by sharing data and collaboration? The original idea for the Bureau Local from my editors was: can we make a Panama Papers of the UK? Can we create a coalition and a collaboration, but instead of doing it around the world, do it within a single country? Could you get people from the Yorkshire Post to the Liverpool Echo to work together on something that has a public interest impact? That was the challenge.

It was a huge challenge.

Yeah, I was very excited by that. The vastness of it was intriguing to me. You probably can sense a theme here, I definitely gravitate towards this giant, unknown space. I like that, that’s where I live. At the time, it was really about, ‘how can we be one solution to this, and can we contribute one solution to the local journalism crisis by applying collaboration and open data?’

That sounds like a big challenge. Once I got the job to head up the Bureau Local, my job was to design it, hire for it, make it happen, and it just became so much more than that. I think back on it now, and for me, there was a little bit of naivety about what that challenge would look like, but also to think that we thought we knew how it would turn out is a whole other thing.

With over nearly 400 local stories published subsequently, after a couple of years down the line, how’s that mission evolved then?

The mission is still there. I would argue this is true of all of these conversations that we’re having about innovation in journalism. The mission of journalism is to tell important stories and to get information out in a way that is useful to society. We have to keep reimagining the way that we do that.

I think the mission of Bureau Local is to support the information getting out locally, so that it can spark change, and to contribute to that through investigative journalism. The challenge really evolved to be – instead of just collaborating in a traditional sense of partnership – we really embrace the idea of collaboration.

We called for technologists, we called for members of the public, we called for experts. We talked about it as ‘our collaborations are people committing acts of journalism with us’. So it’s about contributing what you can to making sure that there is public interest information, holding power to account at a local level.

I think that’s what’s been an interesting appeal about the Bureau Local. It didn’t come in to simply be a top-down exercise. It wasn’t that we were gonna do investigations, and if you can just publish them, that’d be great. It was truly about saying, in order to fix this problem and this challenge that this industry has, we have to think about things differently.

We tell people in advance what we’re investigating. We had a story that just broke yesterday around Amazon’s dominance in the local job market during the pandemic, and the fact that workers in the warehouses are on zero-hour contracts. We landed the story because people were telling us, ‘I’m scared about what’s happening to precarious work, what is going to happen to all of us, and this needs to be investigated. It needs to be done in a way that we can contribute to it’.

That’s been the unique thing: how do you create collaborations in a way that is almost like product thinking or user thinking, to think about how can people contribute. The things we really think are vital to journalism are that you need to hear from people who are affected by the issue, people whose lives are directly touched by this. You need to hear from people who are deeply knowledgeable and are embedded in the issue. This might be researchers, activists, NGOs, whatever that might be. And you need people who can change the issue or raise the issue. Those could be people in power that are contributing to that.

One of our big investigations at the Bureau was called ‘Make Them Count’. It was looking at those who die homeless, and we found that there was no record being collected of how many people die homeless. We and our network decided that we would take this challenge on and we began crowdsourcing it with local GPs and doctors and charities and reporters.

We would start to begin to collect records of people dying homeless. That went on to spark the government to begin producing their own statistics. We did a lot of investigations on why those people were dying as well and tried to tell their stories.

From the Bureau Local’s perspective, what are its own plans? If each individual story is an experiment, what the goals over the next couple of years? Is it to scale up? Is it to increase the frequency of stories? Is it to, as you mentioned, keep collaborating with people who will tell you what the stories that matter to the public are?

I’m going to be focusing, from April, on an expansion of the Bureau Local, but not an expansion in what might people might think. We’re not trying to go global or something. It’s about how can we take the model of a shared infrastructure and apply that to the sustainability question.

One of the things we’ve been finding over the past four years is, despite everything we are trying to contribute to this industry, it’s still crumbling. We lose collaborators every week, every time a newspaper shuts down, or every time there’s cuts and a reporter can’t work with us. So while we think we’re contributing a really important project to the ecosystem, we are very, very conscious that our very community, our very network is really struggling.

The question is whether the approach and what we’re offering are the most useful things. I think there are more things we can offer. So over the next year, we’ll be exploring, can we collaborate and share things that are more than just stories, are more than just investigations and data. Can we share more resources that will help newsrooms survive and continue to do this kind of work? It’s a big question.

It’s a huge question, that’s what we talk about every week on this podcast. We’ve been doing it for five years, and there seems to be no easy way out of this morass where cuts are constant and while we do applaud everybody who is trying something new, there seems to be no roadmap. It’s so up in the air at the moment.

It probably won’t surprise you that my recommendation or my suggestion of how this can be solved is through collaboration. I don’t think there is a single organisation that’s going to solve this. I don’t think there should be. I think that we need to build a coalition of public interest organisations that are trying to collectively do that. That’s what we’ll be seeking to do the next year. I wasn’t joking when I said we put collaboration into everything that we do.

I think there’s this idea that has been ingrained in us for so long that you’ve got to crack everything, you’ve got to own everything, you’ve got to dominate – and that has not worked. It’s not working. We need to think differently. I think the best way, what we’ve learned from Bureau Local, is a really effective and efficient way of providing investigative and data resource around the country was to create a shared network. I think that there’s a way that we can create a shared network infrastructure to do more than that.

I don’t think the Bureau Local will solve it by itself. I think the aim is we’re trying to figure out what can we best contribute and find other partners and other organisations that can say, I’ll take up this bit, and I’ll take up that bit. The success of this whole ecosystem is vital to all of us.

Your background is in data journalism and over the past year, we’ve seen some amazing, high-profile examples of data journalism being used to keep the public informed about things like lockdowns and the progression of COVID. So how vital then is data journalism for telling stories in accessible ways? What are some of the challenges that are arising around creating those stories effectively?

As we said at the beginning, my history came from a time in which there was this real excitement for a while. Data journalism was all about data visualisation. It was about how can we get some busy and exciting visuals on the story. Over time, people realised that you could actually have computer-assisted reporting. You could actually embed it into how you do your journalism, so that your journalism digs deeper and has that greater kind of impact in a way that a human could do.

To me, that’s the most powerful and effective kind of data journalism, recognising that the world is data. We exist in a world of data, just in the same way that if you’re going to send a reporter to be a foreign correspondent, you need to train them in hostile environment training, you need to support that space. They need to know what the environment is that they’re being sent into.

In the same way, journalists need to navigate the world we live in. It is dominated by tech giants, by digitization, by data ownership. This is how the world actually works. If, as journalists, we don’t understand it and we’re not equipped to question it, investigate it, and hold it to account, then we’re not really doing the job of our time.

Is there anybody else, any other organisations, that you think are doing that really, really well, making sure that people are aware of the limitations of data, how people are using it, where they can find it and corroborate it themselves? Where should we be looking for examples of how news organisations can be as transparent about that as possible?

I think a lot of the data teams around the UK have been really picking this up. I think probably where the public feels it most right now is the Office for National Statistics, in the way they’ve been rolling out vaccine statistics. People are accessing statistics every day now, when they check the news about vaccine numbers, COVID numbers. They are an incredible organisation that is really moving towards making that more accessible to understand. They’ve had to step that up over the past year.

You start noticing these organisations explaining the complexities around that so much more, which I think is really important and really engaging and really quite exciting. I think, as I say, there’s so much of it happening that I think journalists have stopped making a big deal about it. Mainly, it’s just a good story.

I apologise for asking this next question towards the end of the interview, because it is huge. But what do you think are some of the biggest emerging opportunities for journalists at the moment? Is it the availability of tools like podcasting to tell stories? Is it the ability to communicate with our communities directly? What are some of those big opportunities we should be paying attention to?

It’s such a huge question and I find it really difficult in my mind to narrow that down. On a reporting level, we have to build trust again. We have to connect deeply again. We have to rebuild trust in that, and people are doing that in different ways. We just talked about hiding how you do it in the back of the story. There’s a lot of reasons to not do that, because people aren’t trusting journalism and where it comes from.

So there’s a lot of initiatives around documenting how they fact check something or talking to people about how they got the story, really showing the labour that goes into journalism and helping people understand what’s being done there and being really transparent that the practices are ethical and right.

Building trust has a lot to do with the relationships we have with our communities. This is about stepping away from the extractive side of journalism and really reimagining that. Stopping talking at people and thinking that journalism is this thing that you should understand and really being driven by what people want.

I know so many people that don’t engage with the news. I know they don’t trust it. We did this big report last year in the Bureau Local and there was a woman who said, ‘I would rather not be in the news than be in the news, because I know I would be misrepresented.’

This was talking about her community. She was of an ethnic background and she was saying, ‘I would rather no one ever know about what we’re going through than to be in the news, because seeing how poorly we’re misrepresented, seeing how we are pushed to the sidelines, or how we’re blamed for various things’. That was something that still sticks with me, it’s just so incredibly heartbreaking, that we’ve lost so many people along the way in that.

Obviously, the changing nature of information at the moment is that people are more dependent on social platforms for their information, whether that’s Facebook or others. I think that is the challenge of journalism, but I also think that intersects with what I’m also interested in, which is the challenge of our business. We have to reimagine how our industry functions and how it works.

I have this really hopeful idea of journalism. I have this real belief that it could be something so different than what we think of at the moment. Journalism could be the connector of a community, it could be the source of how information and how people function.

That’s what it used to be. Buying your local paper was your ticket to being a citizen. It showed you how to interact with which schools you were going to send your kids to, or what the local sports results were or what was happening in your town council. Whatever it was, you needed it. You needed this bit of information to find out the weather for the next day, as much as you needed the TV listing or whatever it was.

That was the business model behind it as well. The news part was never really paid for. The advertisers always want the eyeballs on that whole package. Obviously, the internet disaggregated that. Now you can get your weather elsewhere, you can get your sports listing elsewhere, everything is disaggregated. All you’re left with now is the news bit.

I think the challenge of our time is to think about what that could look like. Why can’t news organisations be the ones that are driving community cohesion? Why can’t they be the ones that are sitting inside our public libraries and reimagining them as spaces of information, working in coalition with local advice groups and the public library and the public civic organisations? Why can’t it be the place that everyone turns to?

We could be that. That could be what journalism looks like in the future, if we let it. There is a business model behind that, because there is a need. There’s a break at the moment between what we think people need and what they really do need, and what journalism actually is a function and serving of people and what we aren’t doing there yet. I think the limitations to that have been in investment and funding and taking it to that place.

There’s a commercial case to doing that, to either winning those audiences back or, in some cases, winning audiences for the first time. There’s a service journalism aspect to that, and I think that you’re completely right about that. I’m going to be watching everything you do along that journey very, very closely. It’s hopeful, but it’s not unrealistic. It’s something that we can definitely do.

I do think it’s service journalism, but I think there’s this idea that service journalism sits over here and profitable journalism sits over here. And I think those things are one and connected. That will be the real disruption, I believe, of the future, shedding the idea that we need these profit-seeking models, where shareholders need to be paid out at the end of a business or company, rather than the reporters being able to either be paid properly or be able to be invested in their communities.

I think we need real diversification of ownership. I think we need new models and new people owning them. We often have people who are so passionate about the industry, but they work in the content space. And then we have people over here who own all of it and who decide all of it.

That’s what I’m so passionate about. That’s what I’m wanting to look into next is how we do that. The business question is about actually providing a real need, and I do genuinely believe that the service side and the engagement side can provide the business solution, rather than being separate.

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