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Story Publication logo May 6, 2013

Britain: Journalist Sarah Neville on the FT's Austerity Audit

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Britain's government is engaged in the steepest deficit reduction of modern times. A team of...

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The town once hosted political party conferences, but politicians have deserted the town in search of better rail links. Pound shops and discount stores make up the backbone of the local economy. Image by Charlie Bibby. UK, 2013.

The Financial Times' Austerity Audit has proved a vehicle for some of the most innovative digital journalism the paper has ever done.

But the genesis of the idea was a piece of old-fashioned shoe leather reporting.

In November 2011, in order to write a piece about changes to welfare benefits for the long-term sick, I had visited Barnsley, in the former industrial heartland of the north of England, where large numbers were affected by the imminent shake up.

In passing, a number of people mentioned to me, in interviews, their concerns about the likely impact on local businesses and shops of a wider raft of welfare reforms which, from April this year, would reduce the scope of benefit entitlements and also the value of benefits.

It struck me that if we could find a way of calculating exactly how much money was being taken out of local economies – and the hit to spending power – we would have a truly original take on the austerity story and one which would have a particular appeal for the FT's business readership.

The principal challenge with this idea was the complexity of the analysis involved. It required weighing millions of pieces of data, a project so intricate and time-consuming that it could not be undertaken in-house. Raising the money to commission the work from outside academics seemed the only way forward – but that felt like a daunting hurdle in an era of constrained budgets.

It was only when our investigations editor Christine Spolar stepped in that I saw daylight. She said we could approach the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for possible funding. It was a great day when I heard we had succeeded in obtaining a grant for the project.

From there it was an easy step to ask two academics, Steve Fothergill, whom I had known for many years, and his colleague Christina Beatty, from Sheffield Hallam University to carry out the work. They specialize in the intersection between the workings of the benefit system and the state of local economies.

The involvement of the FT's economics editor, Chris Giles, and Interactive Editor, Emily Cadman, was also crucial as they worked with Profs Fothergill and Beatty to develop and stress-test the methodology and then to carry out sub-calculations to measure the relative effect on income growth.

The biggest surprise was the sheer extent of the disparities in the impact of the welfare changes. I had expected to see a big divide between the UK's old industrial areas and the far more prosperous south but it was even wider than I had anticipated – with some areas hit five times as hard as others.

The response in the days that followed publication was immediate. The FT's story added context and revelations to what has become a politically-polarized debate in the UK – and plaudits came from right across the spectrum of opinion.

I felt we had realized our goal of moving the debate away from anecdote and emotion and on to more tangible ground.

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