Dublin Inquirer journalist shortlisted for international award

Lois Kapila found it difficult to break into Irish media. It’s ‘very white’, she says

How did a local Dublin newspaper reporter find herself up for an internationally recognised award?

On Tuesday the winner of the Orwell Prize for Journalism will be announced in London. It’s a prestigious award – this paper’s Fintan O’Toole is a former recipient – and most of the shortlisted journalists write for internationally-known publications such as the Guardian and the Economist.

But one of the six journalists on the shortlist is more of an outlier. Lois Kapila is the publisher and managing editor of an independent newspaper called the Dublin Inquirer. It's been producing local reporting in a weekly digital edition and a monthly print edition since Kapila and her husband Sam Tranum established it four years ago.

Kapila is slightly baffled by her shortlisting and very keen to share credit with Tranum and her colleagues. “When you’re writing about things like housing and people in bad situations it feels really weird to be profiting in any way from it,” she says.


One-room office

The Inquirer staff operates out of a one-room office and they specialise in well-crafted reports about the people, events, systems and infrastructure of Dublin city. Kapila is shortlisted for a trio of pieces that cover, in different ways, the city’s housing crisis.

"I liked finding out things that people don't want you to know and I like people. It was also about understanding the world. I find that it's a way to feel less afraid."

Neither Kapila nor Tranum comes from Dublin. Kapila is the daughter of a British mother and Indian father and comes from the English Fens while Tranum is from Massachusetts. They met in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan where Kapila was working for an English-language newspaper (she had formerly studied Russian) and where Tranum was teaching journalism. “[Sam] pretends I was his student because it annoys me and he thinks it’s funny,” says Kapila.

They’ve moved around a lot. They went to the United States and got married. Kapila returned to the United Kingdom to do a masters in comparative politics before going to the US to work in the public defender’s service as a trainee investigator. “Like Kalinda in the Good Wife!” she says.

She missed journalism so the pair went to Calcutta where she worked as a reporter at the English-language Statesman newspaper for two years. Why did she want to be a journalist so much? “I liked finding out things that people don’t want you to know and I like people,” she says. “It was also about understanding the world. I find that it’s a way to feel less afraid.”

"Maybe there were different ways to go about stories, a slower journalism that wasn't just breaking news"

They came to Ireland because Kapila had to relinquish her US green card and because the rules around whether foreign-born spouses like Tranum could work in the UK had changed. “Sam and I could live together under the EU right to family treaty elsewhere in the EU.”

They originally thought they’d be here for just a few months before returning to the UK but they were tired of moving and, after Brexit, she says, “I felt really betrayed and thought ‘f**k ’em’ and stayed here.”

She found it difficult to break into Irish media. She says that this is an experience shared by many foreign-born journalists she has met here. Irish media is “very white,” she says. “And there’s also a bit of a thing here where nothing you’ve done before [coming here] seems to count. Ebun Joseph [an academic who writes for the Dublin Inquirer] has done a lot about job market discrimination, and I think there’s a feeling that you’re almost newborn when you come here, that you didn’t exist before.”

Slower journalism

So she and Tranum decided to establish something themselves, a subscription-based newspaper influenced by their observations of the Statesman and American weeklies such as the Washington City Paper. “[We thought] that maybe there were different ways to go about stories,” she says, “a slower journalism that wasn’t just breaking news . . . We were trying to create a place where not everything has to be written about straightaway and people can think about things for a bit.”

But why did they turn to local news? “I find it a lot more concrete,” she says. “I think it’s very important that people know what’s going on around them and feel connected to everybody around them, and when you cover a small geographical area it’s a really good opportunity to work with other people on projects and do more collaborative journalism.”

She’s heartened by how, despite being relatively new to the city, the paper quickly connected into local networks and communities. “People know we’re around,” she says. “We’ve been here a while and they know how to find us and we know how to find them and we can be a bit more sensitive and listen . . . Journalism is just about caring, right? And asking the right questions.”

Illegal evictions

She’s proud of their role as a watchdog, covering illegal evictions or inadequate fire-safety procedures in Dublin schools, but she also likes smaller more intimate stories. “You can get jaded if you’re just depicting how bad things are,” she says. “People are also really kind to each other and [covering that is] just as valuable.”

Running the paper hasn’t always been easy. They’ve been partly funded in the past by loans and the income from Tranum’s day job with a publisher. Only recently, as their business model has begun to stabilise, has Kapila been able to stop taking on additional freelance work. She would love to be able to pay their staff more and to hire more people, she says.

“And I have dreams of moving to a more co-operative structure, a workers’ co-op or something like that.”

In the meantime, she will discover if she has won an Orwell Prize at a ceremony in University College London on June 24th. It coincides with deadline day, so she thinks that the paper might be a little late that week.

Might some bigger media organisation swoop in and buy them? She laughs. “We’d be such a bad, bad investment. Anyone who thinks they’re going to make money out of this is going to ruin it.”