Spotlight On | Ally Tibbitt, Co-Founder of The Ferret
“We’ve been keen to show that small independent media organisations can also do international reporting.”
Ally Tibbitt is a journalist and digital marketing professional, specialising in audience engagement. He works as Head of Audience at openDemocracy and freelance for The Ferret, which he co-founded, and has won awards for hyperlocal journalism and his work on environmental projects.
In our latest Spotlight interview, Ally shares his motivation for co-founding The Ferret, how the team's investigative work has called PMs to the despatch box and his optimism that despite increasing challenges facing the sector, independent, entrepreneurial journalism will always find a way to prosper.
> You launched The Ferret in 2015, what motivated you all to start an investigative journalism cooperative?
The Ferret has always been a joint endeavour - but it was the product of a few factors that coincided at the same time. Several of us were frustrated with the constraints of larger media organisations and wanted more freedom to pursue topics and techniques we were passionate about. Digital technologies offered us the promise of being able to set-up a new kind of media organisation without crippling overheads. Seven years on there’s a lot more of us - but we still try to run a tight ship.
Rather than simply acting as a group of freelancers - we wanted to see if we could build a sustainable institution that had ‘independence’ built in, and - with the backing of enough members - could be more than the sum of its parts.
> The Ferret has carried out countless hard-hitting investigations and achieved multiple plaudits. What stories or moments are you most proud of in the platform’s history?
We gained international attention when we broke the news that Nicola Sturgeon pulled out of a conference that Steve Bannon was due to speak at. Our work on an obscure trust that was used to channel donations to Conservative politicians in Scotland led to Theresa May having to respond at the despatch box at PMQs. We also established the names of the trustees, forcing one to resign, after it turned out they were also working as a lobbyist at Holyrood - where his firm would have sought support for policies to the same politicians, he’d helped get elected.
However, it’s often the less high profile wins that matter more. Our focus on Asylum and homelessness has often led to tangible improvements to the quality of life or services vulnerable Scots rely on. On a personal level I’ve been pleased to learn that whole GP surgeries have pulled out of suspect data sharing agreements with local NHS trusts after a story I wrote that queried where their patient data might end up.
> You often report on stories that are local in nature but national, or even international, in impact. How do you see the relationship between local, community-based reporting and the global news media?
It’s a cliche to say it - but all news is local. Nevertheless, through our work on issues such as tax havens, private finance, and the far-right we have tried to unmask the way sometimes quite opaque international forces can affect our local quality of life.
Our primary focus is always on serving the interests of our members.
They suggest and vote on the topics that we focus on. Sometimes the issues that our members highlight can be a long way from the ‘Westminster’ bubble. Issues such as rural housing, fish farming, and policy proposals at Holyrood are rarely reported outside Scotland. Of course, when COP26 happens on our patch, or Obama comes to town then we try to play our part in reporting on these global events too.
And lastly, we are proud of our record of working constructively with national and international media - as well as freelancers from all over the world. We have worked on several grant-funded collaborative cross-border investigations, and we’ve been keen to show that small independent media organisations can also do international reporting.
> How do you view the current climate and landscape for independent media? What key challenges do you foresee and what do you think some of the solutions are?
When it comes to public policy, the independent media sector - however you might define it - is often still outgunned by the bigger media groups in the UK. Whilst their interests often align - it remains the case that we think both the governments in London and Edinburgh could do more to support a more diverse media landscape in all senses of the word - ownership structures, geographies, business models, and of course the people involved in the industry.
When we launched there were few Scottish media organisations with a paywall, seeking to fund themselves from reader revenue. We’re now seeing much more competition for reader cash and that’s likely to be a real challenge for smaller players - especially in an environment where nearly everyone has less disposable income.
On the other hand, there’s an almost limitless scope for independent players to move quickly and develop their own mixed funding model - so with a bit of creativity I’m optimistic that there’ll always be room for entrepreneurial journalists to do interesting things in this space.
> The economic foundations of the media, particularly alternative media, are in constant flux. Which factors do you see as most pertinent to sustaining independent, investigative journalism?
It can be difficult for smaller organisations to decide which new multimedia trends to jump on. They may not have the in-house resources or skills to rapidly format complex stories in multiple different ways. It can also make measuring impact and audience or getting traffic off some of these platforms and onto their owned platforms less than straightforward. So smaller publishers may need to consider making a few big bets, rather than trying to do everything.
Secondly, there are ongoing regulatory issues that threaten independent journalists. The UK Government seems unable to adopt a consistent definition of ‘news provider’ - and as it seeks to tighten up the rules around large digital platforms there currently seems to be some risk coming down the line that some unregulated independent publishers may be restricted from what they can publish on third party platforms. In the proposed new National Security Bill, journalists could be jailed for reporting on public sector leaks, and potentially penalised for receiving some types of foreign funding. This latter proposal could be a particular problem for some grant funded organisations.
I’d encourage anyone involved in the independent media sector to lobby their local politicians on these kinds of policy issues - and to consider responding to consultations when they happen.
> What would you say to journalists aspiring to be more investigative in their work?
Stay curious, and make sure you carve out enough time to see a project through to the end. I’m always underestimating how long things can take!
> The Ferret was the first publisher in Scotland to join IMPRESS. What encouraged you to do so and how do you see the role of independent press regulation in maintaining journalistic standards?
It was a decision we thought about very carefully, but ultimately, we concluded that we had more to gain by adopting an independent regulator than not having one. We felt that new publications need to do everything they can to build trust around their brand.
We saw operating to the IMPRESS code as way of differentiating ourselves from both the established media and other newer start-ups in Scotland.
Operating to a recognised, independent standard also helps us when dealing with other stakeholders - from government officials to social media platforms. We were pleased with the outcome of the recent IMPRESS code review, which shows that the organisation can move with the times.
Ally Tibbitt is a journalist and digital marketing professional, specialising in audience engagement. He works as Head of Audience at openDemocracy and freelance for The Ferret. He also works on digital marketing projects for private sector clients including multi-national blue chip firms and small businesses. He has a work history that spans the voluntary, public and private sectors, and has raised money for various non-profits during his career, including youth, digital inclusion, environment and homelessness projects. He has won awards for hyperlocal journalism and his work on environmental projects. His journalism has appeared in STV News, The Herald, The National and other outlets. Ally is a co-founder of The Ferret and Chair of the Operations Committee. He also maintains The Ferret’s website.