“Local stories of national interest” – New Johnston Press (Data Journalism) Investigations Unit

Complementing the approach of Trinity Mirror, who launched a cross-group data journalism unit back in 2013, Johnston Press has pulled together a (virtual?) Investigations Unit made up from several investigative and data skilled reporters from across the Johnston Press regional titles (press release).

The unit’s first campaign is focussed on sentences awarded for causing death by dangerous driving. The campaign allows the unit to report on national datasets, as such, as well as developing local stories based on examples taken from the national dataset, bubbling up local stories to wider national interest as campaign hooks. From the press release announcing the launch of the unit, it seems as if this campaigning style of national/local investigative reporting will be underpin the unit’s activities.

“As well as carrying out investigations, and telling powerful human interest stories, the unit has a campaigning and lobbying role at its heart” – Johnston Press press release.

The use of campaigns means the same theme can be kept alive and repeatedly reported on as on ongoing series over an extended period of time, tracked nationally but reported in a local context on the one hand, promoting local campaigns and then reporting them widely on the other.

The national/local model is one that I’ve long thought makes sense, though I’ve not really considered it in terms of the local to national twist. Instead, I’ve been framing it as an opportunity to address centrally common pain points that may be experienced trying to produce a story from data at a local level, as discussed in these thoughts on a locally targeted, nationally scoped datawire.

National dataset local story

One advantage of this approach is scale: graphics communicating national level statistics can be produced centrally and reused across local titles, perhaps with local customisation; local stories can be used to provide relevance to generic “national context” inserts reused across titles; and story templates can be customised to generate local reports from the same national dataset.

Another advantage with looking at national datasets is that they can help flag the newsworthiness of a local story given its national context (for example, national rankings generate story points for the top M, bottom N rankings).

I haven’t spent much time thinking about the campaign aspect, but on quick reflection I think that campaigns can act as nice wrappers for a wider range of templated activities an outputs.

For example, I’ve written a couple of times about the notion of story templates, noting how these have been rolled out in previous years by at least the Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror (Local News Templates – A Business Opportunity for Data Journalists?).

And eighteen months or so ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of days seeing how Ruby Kitchen, then of the Harrogate Advertiser, now of the Yorkshire Post / Yorkshire Evening Post and the Johnston Press Investigations Unit, worked on a Food Standards Agency story on (Data Journalism in Practice). One of the takeaways for me from that was what was involved in actually making use of leads thrown up from a data trawl and then chasing down people for comment. The work involved in putting together an investigation at a single local level may need to be repeated for other locales, but the process can be reused – the investigatory process can be templated.

On the way back home from Harrogate, I’d started fantasising about putting together a training pack based on the the Food Standards Agency food hygiene ratings data (h/t Andy Dickinson for tangentially reminding me of this a couple of days ago :-), with a dual objective in mind: firstly, to produce a training pack for demonstrating various aspects of how to practically work with national datasets at a local level; secondly, to template a data journalism investigation that could be worked through by local or hyperlocal journalists, or journalism students, to produce a feature local food hygiene ratings. (It’s still sitting on the to do pile… Maybe I should have tried kickstarter!)

(Note that it’s not just news organisations that can scale templated systems, or reuse locally developed solutions for national benefit. For example, see the post Putting Public Open Data to Work…? for several examples of online services developed by local councils and used to publish local data that can also be scaled across other council areas.)

Whilst newspaper groups such as Trinity Mirror or Johnston Press have the scale in terms of the number of local outlets to merit a co-ordinated centre reducing the pain once for working with national datasets and then scaling out the benefits across the regional and local titles, independent hyperlocals are often more resource bound when it comes to pursuing investigations (though The Bristol Cable among others repeatedly shows how hyperlocal led investigations are possible).

Whilst I keep not starting to properly scope a hyperlocal datawire service, Will Perrin’s  Local News Engine seems to have gained some traction in its development recently (Early proof of concept for Local News Engine [code]). This service “is testing the theory that story leads can be found in local data where a newsworthy person or place is engaged in a newsworthy activity”, searching local datasources (license applications, planning applications) for notable names (see for example What data are we using in Local News Engine? and Who, what and where is newsworthy for Local News Engine?). The approach taken – named entity extraction cross-referenced with the names of local notables – complements an alternative approach that I favour for the datawire that would flag local stories from national datasets based on things like top N, bottom M rankings, outliers, notable trends or dramatic change in statistics for a local area from a national dataset based on a comparison with previous data releases, other locales and national averages.

PS you can tell this is a personal blog post, not a piece of journalism – I didn’t reach out to anyone from the Johnston Press, or Trinity Mirror, or get in touch with Will Perrin to check facts or ask for comment. It’s all just my personal comment, bias, interpretation and opinion….

PPS See also Archant’s Investigations Unit (2015 announcement) – h/t Andy Dickinson.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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