The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Megan Lucero: it’s time for data journalism to go local

Data journalism is going local in the UK: Interhacktives' Matteo Moschella talks with Megan Lucero.

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Megan Lucero has seen it all. The former head of data at The Times and The Sunday Times is now directing her attention to local data journalism as the head of the Local Data Lab at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In a (second) discussion with the Interhacktives, Megan talks about her decision to leave The Times, how she envisions the Lab’s future, the importance of collaborative data journalism at a local level.

“I left purely from the idea of it [the Local Data Lab] is really what journalism needs and what data journalism should be contributing to,” she says.

“I left the Times really happy with how we got on there,” she continues. “We brought data investigations into the heart of the newsroom. We went from being a sort of Excel help-desk to actually being integrated into news investigations, big-time front pages […] I was very happy to leave knowing that I was leaving a really strong legacy. But I left because I believe that this is really, really important”.

Megan is referring to the Local Data Lab, an arm of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who have set out to “fill the voids” after many newsrooms cut provisions for investigative journalism in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. “Investigative journalism is expensive: it takes time it takes a lot of people and a lot of [economical] resources,” she explains.

Local newspapers bore the brunt of these cuts, so the “idea was to try to help to solve that,” Megan continues. The Lab will focus on data journalism, which she believes is a form of investigative journalism at its core. For her, data journalism hinges on “the idea that you harness data to find stories, and using data to find stories is in itself journalism.”

Data journalism is an exercise in finding stories in the large amount of data that the digitised world offers today:the journalist has to be able to swim in a sea of information,” Megan says. “In order to do that, there is often technical innovation that is needed, and that’s where I see the [data journalism] coming in. The computational method — the means in which to programmatically query and build databases, automate the process — all of that comes together in digital journalism.”

One of the Lab’s more challenging tasks, Megan says, will be to bring data journalism to the local level: “It’s an ambitious challenge —it’s a really daunting one — but I absolutely [think] that’s right where my next step had to be.”

“There is a time and moment to listen to our communities and to find out what it is that each member of those communities is trying to say,” she says.

Megan maintains that the introduction of computer-assisted journalism to regional newsrooms will not affect regional reporters: “We want to make sure that we are not trying to put local journalists out. A lot of local journalists use the Office of National Statistics or data.gov.uk We are not going to try to change that because that would potentially harm their jobs,” she says. “We are after the gaps in the industry, right? Local reporters don’t have the means, the time or the resources to do the computational work […] My team essentially would be coming in to try and provide this”.

Megan insists that the new Lab will focus on unearthing local stories and issues with the help of regional journalists: “There is a time and moment to listen to our communities and to find out what it is that each member of those communities is trying to say,” she says.

How will she carry out this goal? “I am going to listen more than I am going to talk,” she explains. “What are the stories that need to be told at a local level? What are the stories they want to tell? What are the datasets that are not open? What are the challenges to covering local beats?”

She explains that the Lab’s role will empower local newsrooms, and stresses the need for transparency and accountability at a local government level. A failure of local governments to provide information and data surrounding its work is “a problem for democracy and it’s a problem for the free press unless we address it”.

She then discusses her vision for the Lab: “I don’t want to be too prescriptive at this stage, but my goal is to find datasets that are not in the public domain. Already we have a few stories that we want to be bringing out: things that NGOs, charity groups [and]activists have obtained via Freedom of Information requests, a lot of datasets that haven’t actually been brought out nationally or locally. We are going to merge lots of datasets to find analyses that maybe we hadn’t [found before].”

But searching for datasets is not her sole objective, she says. The Lab also hopes to change the way local stories are told and highlighted in the media: instead of having national newspapers dictate the media agenda of the day from the top down, local news outlets will shine: “Our idea is to put the power directly into the local stories, so every dataset that we worked on has to scale on a national [newspaper]”.

The Lab will work together with local newsrooms by collaborating on local issues identified by the partner and discovering whether it might be a story suitable for a national audience. They will do that by using resources not typically available for the local newsroom (it could be complicated datasets that can’t be accessed from a local newspaper, or advanced analysis techniques): “So the idea is that we would scale it [for national coverage]”.

The Lab and the local newspaper will then break the story together, one (the Bureau) as a national news outlet and the other locally. Cooperation is a fundamental journalistic value for Megan: there is little space for competition as “it’s very unlikely that anyone will ever scoop you or steal your story out of the back of it,” she says.

Megan says the creation of the Lab was inspired also by other major nonprofit newsrooms, such as ProPublica. ”Their Electionland project, their data lab, their data stories — they are everything that we were looking to do”, she explains. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism frequently communicated with Scott Klein, ProPublica’s editor, while it was developing the Lab.

Finally, the Lab comes together in one role: “the idea of independent journalism breaking down important complex datasets to very small levels, that’s where we are hoping to do”.

Does the idea of working for the Data Lab interest you? The Bureau will be accepting candidacies until the 1st of February, you can find applications details on Megan’s Medium.

Correction: February 2, 2017
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the Lab. It is the Local Data Lab, not the Local News Lab. Some other amendments were done to the quotes in accordance with Megan Lucero.

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