Paul Bradshaw is an investigative journalist and author based in Birmingham, U.K., who teaches online journalism at Birmingham City University and is also a visiting professor at City University in London. He publishes the Online Journalism Blog and recently wrote about data visualization for The Guardian’s Data Blog. CJR assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Bradshaw about Help Me Investigate, a project he launched last summer that invites readers to suggest local governance issues for each other to investigate—issues that the mainstream media might miss. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
What was your motivation in starting Help Me Investigate?
I was researching crowdsourced journalism for a book chapter, and a couple of examples I found made me quite excited about the potential for engagement with local issues. For instance, The Florida News Press really brought it home [with their crowdsourced investigation into price-gouging by public utility companies] with how popular that story was on the website; that would have been quite a dry story in print, and probably not that widely read. But more broadly, I could see where things were going. I’ve been writing about online journalism and technology for almost ten years, and I’d gotten to the point where I could see that…if you’re going to choose where to invest your efforts, investigative journalism seemed to be area that most needed some support, most needed a way to make it effective.
With a crowdsourcing approach, you’re not just telling a story; you’re actually passing along information and expertise to people, so that those people can then help you in the future. So the fact that I’ve been involved in investigations on the site, means that I now know about parking laws, or the deregulation of transport routes, and so I can help with future investigations [on those issues]. I think that’s a key part of crowdsourcing. It’s about diffusing expertise as well as just finding and telling stories. You’re empowering people to become part of your team.
What types of stories did you think were the most important to investigate?
There’s a lot of academic literature out there about news values and gatekeeping, and what is seen as ‘newsworthy,’ and so on. One of the things I wanted to see was, if you opened up the editorial process and handed off the agenda to users, would you get a different mix of stories? In the 1980s there were so many ‘miscarriage of justice’ stories, but for some reason you hardly ever see those these days; they’ve fallen out of fashion. Whether something gets investigated or not in traditional media depends on all kinds of things, like whether it’s a fashionable subject, who’s being affected by it, whether that audience is going to be attractive to advertisers, whether the legal risks are worth it commercially, all those kinds of things. Well, you don’t necessarily have those same considerations in a crowdsourcing exercises.
All of the investigations we do are chosen by the users of the site, it’s not me choosing what to investigate. And some of my favorite investigations have been the very small, personal investigations that you would never get in a local newspaper. One person asked why there were two bus companies running buses on the same route. Someone else asked how they could find out who owned a particular piece of land in Birmingham. These are really specific investigations, which you might see as too trivial, but they are actually quite important to those individuals, and can lead to other kinds of civic engagement, and, more broadly, people holding power to account.
What is the typical process of an investigation on Help Me Investigate?
Anyone who is a member of the site can start an investigation; an investigation is basically just a question. For instance, ‘What is happening with the Birmingham Council website?’ or ‘What is the worst street in Birmingham for parking fines?’ Then we give them advice, on two fronts: first of all, how they might begin to investigate it or find more information, and then how to build a community around that question. So there’s a social task and there’s an editorial task there, effectively. Then we’ll break down the main question into smaller tasks: they’re called ‘challenges.’ A challenge in investigating a business might be to find a particular year’s accounts of that business, or speak to a particular person in the company, or look at [public] reports. So the question is broken down that way. Anyone can join on to an investigation, and we can invite people with specific skills who we think might be able to help. And as the site builds up, more and more resources start to build up, and we build a bigger network of support.