Australian banks have been able to avoid questions on branch closures for decades due to a lack of transparency in official data.
Frustrated by this, I spent a year building my own database to get to the bottom of what was really happening in regional areas where most banks have been lost, creating human rights and other issues due to isolation.
From this statistical base I reported on the impact these closures have had locally and – as a consequence – on the national economy.
My research also exposed errors in official data that I discovered was being published unchecked.
I published independently to maintain control of the intellectual property of my data maps. In doing this I was reliant on the work being shared organically, but this proved a good strategy.
The main story (‘Big four’ casting a dangerous shadow) and its companion piece (Why I spent a year counting every bank in regional Australia) were picked up and shared widely by people who have been lobbying government to do something about the human rights issues being created by the behaviour of the major banks for years. They included members of grassroots groups and political parties fighting for services in regional Australia, unions concerned about bank workers’ jobs and finance commentators informing the general public.
“This is the kind of information that can be used to pressure MPs to implement real banking reform,” one tweeted.
Other reaction included it being described as a “massive thought-provoking work” by economics academic and commentator Peter Martin AM and a former prime minister saying the story was “tremendous and important”.
My stories were referenced in public calls for action on the issue and as a direct result of this pressure, the Federal Government announced an inquiry into regional bank closures in October 2021 – the first in 17 years.
In response to this I followed up with another story summarising my research and providing regional communities with numbers, facts and strategies they could use to push for a meaningful outcome.
The enduring impact of my work is a database that allows for banks’ behaviour in regional Australia to be reported on in accurate detail for the first time (see 2021 update). Analysis of this data, combined with other research, has revealed impacts that could finally jolt the government into action.
With mapping regularly updated, it will continue to inform for years to come.
My project utilised a combination of old-fashioned journalistic elbow grease and technology that is now available to help engage readers with visual and interactive elements.
I collected my data manually using traditional research techniques. My sources included print copies of historic bank and banking industry records, electronic BSB listings, media reports, bank websites and independent research.
I used Google Maps to help verify locations and when branches closed.
The information was collated in Excel spreadsheets and I cleaned the data manually.
The main findings from the data were written into my stories but I also displayed the full database in interactive maps embedded in the copy.
I used a program created by Batchgeo, which produces an interactive Google map from spreadsheet data pasted into its mapping tool.
There are limits on the number of categories it can show so this had to be taken into account when preparing the spreadsheets. The program can be finicky about what information it picks up for toggling and sensitive to errors in the copy, so there was much trial and error before the maps were ready to be published.
The maps can be embedded into a story like any image and they are easily updated whenever a new branch is closed.
Writing the stories began with a process of research in which I read every banking inquiry report back to 1981, research papers on cash and the shadow economy and trawled through countless bank annual reports. I sought comment and offered right of reply when necessary. I also visited the town featured as my case study, conducting face-to-face interviews and taking the photographs featured in the main story.
What was the hardest part of this project?
To report on this issue properly I needed to quantify and measure something that had never been independently scrutinized.
I started from scratch, inputting by hand nearly 4000 banks I had identified as being “regional” and then classifying them into service level categories that would help me tell my story.
This information was not easy to find. Banks no longer publish branch footprints and will not give that information to journalists. I spent months sifting through BSB records to pull my core data on major banks. Smaller institutions were harder again to find as they don’t use this system and I had to go to each bank’s website and individually note, by hand, branch details. Historic records were also manually incorporated.
One of the most difficult aspects of reporting on bank closures has been obtaining figures for regional Australia. (Where does regional start and finish?) The government database journalists are routinely pointed to doesn’t differentiate between regional and metropolitan, so this was something I again had to tackle from scratch. Full branch lists had to be pared back to “regional” line by line by cross-referencing locations against local government lists.
Once I had finally sourced and verified my data, I taught myself mapping, which is far more complex than just dropping information into a program.
I found designing a spreadsheet within the mapping tool parameters that could be toggled to find answers to questions readers wanted to know required complex thought processes not unlike writing, but in data.
Refining datasets to reveal information banks have been hiding – such as identifying the towns in which they are the last banking presence – has been the most satisfying achievement of this project because it is a tool that is being used by communities to help fight for their rights.
What can others learn from this project?
Journalists should be able to trust official government data but in the course of writing my story I discovered that the information being provided by banks contained errors and it was not being checked before publication.
These errors have been skewing the statistics journalists have been using to report on bank closures in regional Australia for decades.
All it took to expose this was to drop their raw data into software that is generally not available in newsrooms, so I can highly recommend adding this sort of technology to the arsenal of any journalist who is working with sourced data.
The warning here though, is that it is important to know your subject well. I recognised errors in classification, which I wouldn’t have if I didn’t have the background knowledge, so the more you know about your subject, the more you will get out of working with data and the better your stories will be.
Investing in technology has other benefits.
While I don’t want to run maps with every story I write, having a mapping program on hand allows me to check newly released bank data, or any other geo-location spreadsheets that come my way.
Tools like Batchgeo can also smash production time, which is a boon after the slog of collecting and verifying your own data, a process that can’t be hastened.
The time I took to compile my own data was also good investment.
My database may have taken a year to build but it will continue to inform my work for years to come and allow me to make expert comment on my special subject.
It also lifted my story from what could have been just a comment piece to a credible news feature based in fact.
It makes a journalist hard to ignore.