Emma Youle: “Local newspapers are one of the best places to do in-depth investigations because they are very well connected to the community”

emma youle

Emma Youle speaking at the Data Journalism UK conference in 2017 – photo by Wan Ulfa Nur Zuhra

As Archant’s award-winning Emma Youle announces she is to leave local newspapers to join Huffington Post UK as a special correspondent. Victoria Oliveres spoke to the investigative journalist about setting up local investigations, using data, and campaigning.

If you’ve looked at any UK journalism awards ceremony in the last few years, chances are you will have seen Emma Youle’s name: winner of the Private Eye Paul Foot Award in 2017, and the Weekly Reporter of the Year at Regional Press Awards 2016, she has also been shortlisted in many others, largely for her approach to showing the impact of national decisions at local level.

This success has come after a career of over a decade in journalism, including the last three years as part of Archant‘s investigations unit, where she uncovered in-depth stories from London boroughs.

Setting up local investigations

The unit was set up in 2015, which Youle considers to be quite pioneering at the time.

“I think local newspapers are one of the best places to do in depth investigations because they are very well connected to the community,” Emma says.

“There’s an opportunity for news desks every day, when stories come in, that one can be something bigger.”

Members of the team have more time to focus on stories than most reporters, so they can run in-depth investigations (Emma’s presentation about the unit at Data Journalism UK 2017 is embedded below).

Emma admits that it isn’t possible to work this way in every story but having successes helps reporters make the case when proposing other investigations.

“They have been able to say that these long term investigations can have an impact.”

Many of these stories have an impact outside the local audience and Emma is happy hers are not the only ones. “It’s really encouraging to see stories that have national impact coming from local newspapers and investigations from different regional publishers.”

Data in local reporting

One of the biggest data-gathering projects Youle has been involved in became the basis of the award-winning Hidden Homeless campaign.

“Data is really the heart of it, although the reader might not immediately spot that.”

The story didn’t start with the data, however — it came from a call to the Hackney Gazette saying that a man had been found dead in a room in a homeless hostel.

Reporting on that tragic event and speaking to the hostel residents, Youle realised that there were a lot of concerns about homelessness and temporary accommodation, and she started looking at the issue.

“I wanted to know more about the numbers in temporary accommodation and how many people were living there this way,” she says.

At first she focused on data about Hackney, but then expanded her scope to include the rest of London’s boroughs so she could provide a comparison.

The data work combined Freedom of Information requests about local authority spending with Government statistics on the number of people in different types of accommodation.

Offshore ownership

This wasn’t the only time Youle had used data for an investigation. One story involving the largest amount of data revolved around London property owned by offshore companies: the reporter combined her own findings from data obtained by Private Eye with the Panama Papers database to find more details.

Although she doesn’t consider herself as specifically a data journalist, she often uses data as a starting point:

“The data work will give you something new that you want to report on, and you quite often find your case studies afterwards.

“Case studies are important. If you want to do journalism with impact and make people engage with the story, you must be able to show the effects on people.”

And here again local newspapers’ connections with their audiences often pays dividends:

“Often we find case studies for our stories by putting an appeal in our papers asking the readers if they have been affected — and that does work surprisingly well.”

Taking a stand in an investigation

This connection with the readers allowed the Hackney Gazette to launch a campaign to raise awareness of the borough’s growing homelessness crisis, linked to Emma’s reporting around hidden homelessness.

Emma’s team decided that if they were going to dedicate this amount of time and space to the story, “they should try to make some change as well”.

For Youle it was important that there was a lot of journalism, data and human interest stories behind the campaign. And the issue needed to be one that readers cared about. This campaign fulfilled those criteria.

But she recognises that when you work on a story like this, pursuing intimate details of people’s lives that they are generous enough to share, you do become involved. To keep her distance, then, she tries not to work on only one story at any time.

Ultimately though, Emma says her investigative work is about keeping her mind “focused on finding great stories, those that haven’t been done and those you just can’t step away from”. Only then does she look for the data and think how can she use it to find those stories.

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