The Winning Entry

Ayo Awokoya in The Guardian

FIRE-supported reporter Ayo Awokoya
FIRE-supported reporter Ayo Awokoya

Starting with a FIRE Editorial Consultancy in 2018, Nigerian-British freelancer Ayo Awokoya developed a June story for the GuardianUK, co-reported with Tobias Jones, which won the 2019 Frontline Club Award and was runner-up for a second award. The recognition was a testament to Awokoya’s curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, determination, and collaborative spirit. Here is the back story: 

UK-based journalist Ayo Awokoya was working as a newspaper intern in London in 2018, when she came across a story about slave-trade auctions in Libya. 

“I just had a ‘huh’ moment,” Awokoya said, "that maybe this is worth looking into."  

A little more than a year out of undergraduate studies in international relations, Awokoya had recently migrated into journalism because she was curious about the world and the power to influence public understanding of it—“I saw the way people of color were depicted in the media,” she said. “I didn’t feel it was accurate, or humanized."

Here was a modern-day slave market, a forced-labor supply chain evidently leading to Italy—in 2018.   

She started making phone calls, “pulling threads from what I knew.” 

Two weeks and several interviews later, she found a lawyer specializing in Libya, to whom she asked a basic question: “If the exploitation was leading to Italy, what kind of sector would be involved?” 

The answer—agriculture or construction. 

 She chose agriculture.  

Unpaid and without a story commission, she made a flurry of phone calls to NGOs, including to Italian ones (she didn’t speak Italian). 

Then she paused, wrote up her notes, and applied for a FIRE Virtual Newsroom award. She received only a one-hour FIRE Editorial Consultancy.    

But that was a start. “Because of that one hour, I had a good understanding of how to go about this project, what I would need to stand it up.” 

Her challenges would have daunted less determined reporters—find an Italian-speaking co-reporter, secure a travel grant, negotiate a commission with the Guardian, and do so by finding supply-chain sources to trace the problem from the fields back to consumers in the UK (and readers), a formidable undertaking.  

But it would interest editors. "FIRE said, ‘the more ambitious the trajectory, the easier it is to get commissioned,’ which was quite helpful.” 

Awokoya set out to make it happen. She came back with results. She was upgraded to the Virtual Newsroom. She received 

  • general reporting strategy from the FIRE team
  • key labor sources and tips from FIRE's Pulitzer-winning investigative editor Ted Bridis
  • advice and assistance in applying for travel funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
  • access to the IRE Research desk for a powerful data-base search

FIRE also provided referrals to three expert editors, reflecting the Virtual Newsroom's careful matchmaking to meet a reporter's needs, which resulted in "invaluable" consultations with

  • Kimberly Kleman, former Editor in Chief of Consumer Reports, on supply chains
  • Martha Mendoza, an Associated Press reporter on the Pulitzer-winning "Seafood from Slaves" series, on forced-labor networks and supply chains
  • Chris Staiti, veteran Rome correspondent for Bloomberg and Down Jones newswire, on negotiating travel in southern Italy

Along with FIRE's core team, the editors could address any question that came up. 

One by one, Awokoya met her challenges:

  • received the Pulitzer grant (and a small FIRE grant)
  • obtained FIRE's expert travel and labor advice to succeed in southern Italy
  • secured a Guardian commission
  • found a co-reporter largely through her Guardian editor—the Italian-based veteran writer Tobias Jones. 

She and Jones then enlisted FIRE’s team for intensive editorial support to satisfy the Guardian, “writing the draft and going back and forth” until the end. 

At every stage, Awokoya had “constant contact” with FIRE, to “talk out the story” and let FIRE account for specific challenges to “customize the needs of the project individually.”  

“What's quite different obviously with FIRE was the level of support. They were with you the entire way. They were very understanding about what a freelancer's circumstances were.” 

"As a freelancer,  it’s easy to have tunnel vision. It was good to just talk it out with someone who knew a lot about investigative journalism and to, in my mind, cement the areas where I needed to focus. It’s good to have that support base.” 

Awokoya used the support well. Effectively dividing the labor with Jones, she braved a hostile environment to cultivate sources within the migrant community and elsewhere. In the end, she helped the pair identify a regulatory vacuum, a flawed certification system, and a compelling link between the modern-slavery markets in Libya, Mafia-controlled exploitation in southern Italy, and citrus and tomatoes flowing back to UK supermarkets and kitchens. 

The result: an investigation for The Guardian UK Long Reads, released in June 2019, co-reported with Tobias Jones, that won the 2019 Frontline Club Award for print—and was runner-up for the Foreign Press Association print award.