Archant’s new investigations unit has already secured 20 front-page splashes and looks to be extended beyond a nine-month trial period.
The team was launched two months ago and has three full-time journalists and three reporters who work for it one day a week.
The unit’s most extensive work has been on the blood contamination scandal, which saw NHS patients contract HIV and Hepatitis C as a result of blood transfusions in the 1970s and 1980s. According to Archant it has caused more than 2,000 deaths to date.
Sourcing stories using interviews with survivors, and information contained in government reports, the team has produced a series of five-day reports for the Eastern Daily Press, East Anglian Daily Times, Ipswich Star and Norwich Evening News. Coverage of the scandal has also appeared, or is due to appear, in titles in London, Cambridgeshire, Devon, Kent, Hertfordshire and Somerset.
Archant investigations editor David Powles said: “We all know hand on heart that the time we have to do this kind of content is fading. If you can pull a team out and say that they don’t have to worry about the day to day stuff then the results are there for all to see.
“Our starting point is to provide content which is relevant to as many of our newsrooms as possible. For instance, if a report with regionalised statistics could lead to a front page and two page spread for a title in Kent – could that be the case in Hertfordshire?
“However, where need be, there is also scope to conduct an investigation relevant to just one newsroom or title. For example, we did a two-day investigation into a deal in Suffolk in which the council has offloaded a fully working theatre, the Spa Pavilion in Felixstowe, to a local businessman for just £1.
“Increasingly my role is also to be on hand and assist, advise and news edit complex and investigative stories being carried out by the regular teams. The unit has become a tool for our over-stretched newsrooms in more ways than one.”
He added: “We get comments from people saying it is really strong content that lifts the paper. It does well online with graphics and programmes that bring stories to life and keep people on our site. I would say that every newsroom should go for it.”
The Archant team has also investigated cuts to the police helicopter for Norfolk, which Powles showed were planned despite the county already having one of the worst response times in England and Wales. Another investigation, based on an interview with an academic at the University of Westminster, uncovered evidence of widespread Islamic extremist activity at the time that Mohammed Emwazi, 'Jihadi John', was a student.
Issues that Powles plans to cover in the future for Archant's 59 local newspapers include food safety, the housing crisis, care home standards, illegal gangmasters, educational failings and GP and dental access.
“In the next few months we hope to look more closely at how we can enhance investigative content through multi-media platforms such as video, audio and social media, as well as identify the digital tools we need to use to make the content more engaging online.
“The days of simply dumping 1,200 words on the website with two pictures are long gone.”