It’s finally been announced that my project Help Me Investigate is being funded by 4iP and Screen West Midlands.
Help Me Investigate (HMI) is a platform for crowdsourcing investigative journalism. It allows anyone to submit a question they want to investigate – “How much does my hospital make from parking charges?” “What happened to the money that was allocated to my local area?” “Why was that supermarket allowed to be built opposite another supermarket?” …
But more importantly, it then enables users to mobilise support behind that question; and to pursue it.
HMI attempts to address the biggest issue facing journalism: how do we save the good stuff? The persistent slow-brewed journalism that was previously subsidised (if you were lucky) by more commercially friendly instant journalism, but which stands to lose most as commercial content becomes disaggregated and reaggregated, and audiences and their activity measurable.
How do you support Slow Journalism?
Help Me Investigate is an attempt to use the qualities of the web to pursue investigative journalism. There are various aspects to this (which I’ll be exploring, along with others, in the Help Me Investigate blog), but fundamentally it comes down to this:
- The web allows you to ‘atomise’ processes – break them down into their constituent parts. The site breaks apart investigative – often campaigning – journalism allowing users to contribute in specific and different ways. This is not citizen journalism – it is micro-volunteering.
- Investigative journalism is about more than just ‘telling a story’; it is about enlightening, empowering and making a positive difference. And the web offers enormous potential here – but users must be involved in the process and have ownership of the agenda.
- The web is more tool than destination – successful business models rest on creating a platform
- Likewise, the web is more of a communication medium than a storytelling one; therefore, we are focusing on communication and community rather than stories; process, rather than product.
- We are also focused on making the process itself rewarding, not just the end result. Journalism is a by-product.
- Online, failure is cheap; unlike a traditional news organisation, HMI doesn’t need the majority of investigations to ‘succeed’; in fact, failure is built into the design as a necessary ingredient of the site’s overall success. If you want to budget for it, put it under ‘training’ and ‘R&D’.
- Do what you do best and link to the rest: the site is networked – we’re not trying to be or host all things but will be pointing elsewhere more often than not
I could go on, and I will in the blog. But I think those points are core. I don’t expect this project will have all the answers, but I think we are asking the right questions, at the right time.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that the idea of ‘investigative journalism’ covered here is a broad one – indeed, we have no idea of predicting what questions will be pursued: the agenda will be determined almost entirely by users (including journalists) and topics could range from the very personal, hyperlocal to more national questions. That alternative to a mainstream editorial agenda will be interesting in itself: how many questions will we get that newspapers would find unappealing?
So what’s happening now?
We’re building a very rough and ready frame within which users can play. How that develops depends in large part on what the users need to do – we’ll be doing much of the development as it is being used.
Already a handful of people have used the site in its closed test form, and in the following weeks quite a few more will start to go through it. Then the site will be opened in a semi-closed beta.
To begin with we’re focusing our personal efforts on Birmingham, although people elsewhere will be able to use the site.
The site is being built by Webby Award-winning developer Stef Lewandowski, while the community side of things is headed up by Nick Booth. Both have been crucial contributors to the development of HMI. Joining us behind the site are community support Paul Henderson and investigative journalist Heather Brooke, author of the wonderful guide to FOI Your Right To Know. They will be suggesting and supporting activities to users who submit or join investigations on the site.
It’s taken 18 months to get to this point, and the hard work starts now. If you want to be involved in any capacity let me know.