Sometimes the most important stories are worth the wait.
This was the case for Numbers Game, an investigative series the King’s School of Journalism released last week in conjunction with the Chronicle Herald.
Numbers Game is a dive into video lottery terminals (VLTs) and the harm they’ve caused gamblers in the 31 years since they were introduced. The series is the culmination of two years’ work, started by the journalism school’s investigative workshop back in 2020. Led by Associate Professor Fred Vallance-Jones, the series explores how the government is aware of these machines’ risks and their disproportionate damage, but does little.
“They know they’re running a product that is damaging its customers when used as directed,” Vallance Jones says.
Among the data used to anchor the series: the government acknowledges that 10 per cent who play are considered “problem gamblers” and 35 per cent are at risk of developing a problem, While only six or seven per cent of adults play, the annual revenue VLTs bring in is around $100 million.
The government’s plan has been to gradually phase out VLTs. Every time a business closes, the VLTs in the business close down too. But, as the series uncovered, this hasn’t exactly been the case.
“The question the story raises is ultimately, is it okay to do extreme damage to a relatively small group in our society?” Vallance-Jones says. “These 10 per cent of people who play, maybe 5000 people, are we comfortable with taking their life savings and money that might have gone to their kids, to raise all this money which essentially just replaces tax revenue?”
While the story itself leaves no stone unturned, the process to get to that point was not without setbacks.
The class originally chose the project as a 10-year follow-up to an investigation into VLTs the workshop did in 2010.
“We got a list of all the VLTs from the end of 2019, a list of [how many were at each establishment],” Vallance-Jones recalls. “And then a group in the class—the data group—started to compare that with a list from 2010, and that’s when all these patterns started to jump out…It was great work, fantastic work. And then Covid hit.”
The group tried to build back their momentum during online classes, but with all the external uncertainties everyone was facing, they were ultimately forced to put the project on hold.
Vallance-Jones picked it back up during the summer a few months later, hiring Josh Hoffman— a rising fourth-year bachelor of journalism (honours) student at the time—to resume the investigation. With not much else going on, they were able to put a lot of focus into the project.
“We filed all these [freedom of information requests] to the gaming corporation and various provincial departments,” he explains. “We thought we were going to publish in the fall, but then online teaching took over and it went on the shelf.”
Progress resumed again in summer 2021. Because so much time had passed, Vallance-Jones and Hoffman had to go through and reach out to everyone they’d interviewed, to make sure the information was still relevant.
Finally, two years after its conception, the story was published.
Vallance-Jones remarks that this project not only reflects the dedication of the journalists involved, it also shows the importance of local reporting.
“It’s an interesting thing, because [VLTs have] become so normalized now. Most people don’t think about them anymore…” he says. “One of the roles of investigative journalism is to go out and tell those public interest stories that aren’t being written about.”
Read the full project here.