Three ways to track campaign cash

Stock photo

Election Day is just around the corner,  and we want you to be prepared to answer any last-minute questions about where the candidates are getting their money.

Here are three of our favorite online campaign finance resources:

  • OpenSecrets.org has a variety of tools to help make sense of campaign cash, including a donor database, a list of the top 40 races to watch this year and information on spending during past elections. 
  • Need a quick peek at who’s bankrolling a Congressional candidate in your coverage area? Wired.com has created a widget to help you out. The tool generates a custom graphic for any incumbent or challenger seeking federal office. Digital editors take note: The graphics can be embedded on most websites. 

Looking for information about local candidates? Check out our New England state-level resources here

Inaugural NEFAI conference a treasure trove for 25 fortunate reporters

Twenty-five of New England's journalists were selected as fellows for the first annual New England First Amendment Institute

 

By Jesse Nankin

Twenty-five New England journalists filed into a small auditorium on an unseasonably warm November afternoon. We came from all corners of New England—some dewy-eyed, others more seasoned, but all eager to learn more about how to harness the full potential of online resources and public records laws to help sustain today’s public service journalism.

Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, stepped up to the podium. Here stood a man who has worked in some of the most competitive newsrooms in the country and has been awarded the industry’s most prestigious honors. From an assistant to the Pentagon Papers reporting team at The New York Times in 1971 to heading up his own investigative reporting center, Rosenthal has been witness to journalism’s zenith and to its current identity crisis. His message to us: with some ingenuity, a willingness to collaborate with other media organizations and a strong grasp of the resources available, we can help breathe new life into investigative and watchdog journalism.

Rosenthal’s energy set the tone for three days of intensive workshops that touched on our rights under federal and state freedom of access laws; discussed new models of investigative reporting; and delved into the seemingly rapidly expanding world of online reporting databases and tools.

Along with Rosenthal were more than 30 skilled reporters and legal experts who served as faculty for the three days, including three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times, Doug Clifton, former executive editor of The Miami Herald and Cleveland Plain Dealer and Jennifer LaFleur, of ProPublica. For the complete line up, click here.

The conference, sponsored by the New England First Amendment Coalition and cosponsored by The Initiative for Investigative Reporting at Northeastern University, was the first annual New England First Amendment Institute. It was held from Nov. 13- Nov. 15, 2011. The idea: To inspire and inform and to pump fresh energy into journalism’s tireless fight for transparency and access to information.

Below are some of the takeaways.


Freedom of Information –Arming Yourself with the Law, the Parlance and a little Swagger

Boston Globe reporter Sean Murphy spoke on the first night about being persistent when pursuing documents.

When it comes to requesting information, said Boston Globe reporter Sean Murphy, start with the assumption that you can have it and remember the following:

-       Be professional

-       Document everything and stay highly organized

-       Be open to compromise

-       Be persistent, be patient

Finally, Murphy tells us to be confident, walk with a swagger and reminds us to ‘get off the phone and hang out where the records are kept.’

So just what documents exist out there, and what is public? ProPublica’s Jennifer LaFleur suggests that reporters request document retention schedules from government agencies. And do your homework, she says! Know the language the agency uses and precisely how to describe the documents you are requesting.

As for those pricey fees that too often come attached to an agency’s response to a request: Ask the agency to itemize, and don’t be afraid to push back.

Mike Donoghue, Vermont’s resident FOI expert and a veteran reporter at the Burlington Free Press, had this to add:

-       Know the nuances of the law

-       Depersonalize, and say, ‘we’ve both got jobs to do and I am just doing mine.’

-       Go up the line at the first refusal

-       Use refusals as fodder for editorials

-       Pay attention to where your public officials stand on open access, and write about it


Tips from the Legal Team

Not every media outlet—especially in today’s economic environment—has the luxury of having a legal team to give advice or to fight FOI battles. So several of New England’s FOI attorneys spent the morning at the Institute to educate on the federal and state laws, and to then answer our questions. Freedom of access laws vary by state, and a report that may be public in one state may be protected information in another. You can learn more about the laws in your states by visiting the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press or the New England First Amendment Center.

Their tips included:

-       Think about how your FOI requests look to the other person—be specific and focused and keep your request narrow

-       Be willing to cajole and negotiate: For example, if an agency refuses because the document contains private information, remind the agency that they can always redact the identifiable information and still provide the document

-       Make contacts and get to know the people from whom you are requesting documents

-       Always follow up—do not be afraid to challenge a refusal and get the denial in writing

-       The first contact when requesting information should be by phone so that when you put it in writing, you get it right the first time.


Computer-Assisted Reporting and Working the Web to Your Advantage

Think you know every corner of the Internet—every database, every resource available to you? Think again! CAR experts Todd Wallack, from The Boston Globe, and Mark Horvit, the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, shared their favorite sites and experiences squeezing information from the World Wide Web.

Wallack had this fun fact for us: Check out pet license databases. Aside from learning the most popular pet name in a particular year, it can be a way to obtain contact information for individuals. Pet owners want to make sure Fido finds his way home so even cell phones may be available.

Google tools you may not know about: Google’s word frequency counter and Google advance, which among its many features, allows you to search by file type (e.g. .xls).

Filings made with the Securities and Exchange Commission are online and can be a wealth of data on a company or on individuals associated with a company. You can search for the business connections and interests of an individual running for town council, for example.

Also worth noting: “Form D” is filed before the initial public offering or IPO, and can tip a reporter off to a new hot start-up; annual reports (10-K) include everything from the income table, the balance sheet, some current litigations, properties owned, biographies on the major players, including key shareholders, and compensation; investor forms will disclose holdings and reveal insider transactions.

But don’t be intimidated or fooled by the language in these forms; use the glossaries to your advantage, Wallack suggests. For example, the “non-equity incentive plan compensation” on a summary compensation table is just a bonus (!!) in sheep’s clothing.

IRE’s Horvit recommends fishing with a focus and using as many as three separate search engines when researching a person or entity. Get a second and third opinion, he says. When you search Google, you are not searching the entire Internet, only the Google servers.

Horvit also directed us to several databases listed here and under the appropriate categories on Watchdog New England’s website:

Good for background research and finding publicly available records online:

Complete Planet (A compilation of more than 70,000 searchable databases and specialty search engines)

IPL2 –the Internet Public Library

BRB Publications –A portal to finding public records

Maplight.org –U.S. Congress Campaign Contributions and Voting Database

People, Addresses and Social Media Search Tools

Zabasearch.com –Address search

Pipl.com  -People search

SocialMention.com –Real time social media search and analysis

Whostalkin.com –Social medial search tool

Samepoint Search –“Reputation Management Social Media Search”

IceRocket.com –Search blogs, Twitter and Facebook, among other media sites

PeekYou.com –People Search

LinkedIn –Use to find former employees at a company of interest, among other information

Domain Searches (find out who owns a domain name)

www.domaintools.com

allwhois.com

Quarkbase –Website information, analysis and research tool

Searching the “dead” Web

The “Wayback Machine” is an Internet archive. It can, for example, help a reporter catch political retractions, wavers or changes in stance.

MINERVA –Library of Congress Web Archives

CyberCemetery– Archives of former federal websites


Uncovering the Story

The conference was not all legalese and techie talk. The fellows were also regaled with “war stories” from some of journalism’s best and brightest. Within these stories lay hidden, timeless gems of strategy when pursuing a story.

Within this group was three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Steve Kurkjian, senior fellow at The Initiative for Investigative Reporting.

Here are some Kurkjian tidbits:

-       Understand your source’s motivations

-       Reach out to people who used to work at a place you are investigating but are no longer there; you can find them by searching old directories or culling through newspaper clips

-       Use sources as beacons for where the documents exist

-       Know the vernacular of the people you are probing for information

-       Know the risks—legal or otherwise

-       Establish a rapport with your sources—be empathetic and be a good listener.


Bulletproofing the Story

Our conference wrapped up with advice from IRE’s Horvit on making sure a story will stand up. First and foremost, Horvit suggests attacking your own hypotheses. Work as hard to disprove as you do to prove, he says, and be in tune with your own biases and those of the public. Secondly, background all of your key sources and seek out independent confirmation of facts (even for a feature/human interest story) to avoid unexpected embarrassment down the road.

Do not be afraid to use experts to help you understand documents and data.

Do not go alone to key interviews.

The baloney detection: Never write around what you don’t know; admit what you are unable to confirm.

Be fair: Let sources see your data, obey the “no surprise” rule and keep opinions to yourself. Knock out the adjectives and characterizations from your story.

The New England First Amendment Coalition currently has funding for two more years of the Institute, with hopes of securing more funds to continue hosting this excellent opportunity for the region’s journalists. Check back on their website or ours for information on how you can apply.

WNE’s Marriage Fraud Investigative Piece Is Picked Up By News Outlets Around New England

On Sunday, Watchdog New England, the website for the Initiative for Investigative Reporting at Northeastern University, published its latest investigative piece that called attention to the scant resources and uneven enforcement when it comes to pursuing prosecutions of Green Card marriages. The story centered on Maria-Helena Knoller, a Brazilian-born Holyoke resident, who was operating one of the country’s largest criminal conspiracies aimed at gaining legal status for illegals by arranging sham marriages with American citizens.

In the spirit of the Initiative’s mission–to share resources and bolster investigative reporting throughout New England– the story was also published on the websites of seven news organizations:

 

Watchdog New England and New England First Amendment Center to Co-host Intensive Training Course

On November 13-15, The New England First Amendment Institute will hold its inaugural conference on freedom of information laws and investigative reporting techniques. The Institute will select 25 journalists — editors and reporters alike — to attend this three-day intensive training course  in Dedham, Mass. These journalists will have the opportunity to work with a faculty that includes six Pulitzer Prizer winners, as well as prominent media law and First Amendment attorneys. The conference is co-sponsored by the New England First Amendment Center (NEFAC) and the Initiative for Investigative Reporting at Northeastern University.

To be eligible to apply, an applicant must be a working journalist in print, digital or broadcast media in New England. The deadline is September 15.

Download the application here.

Download the letter of recommendation form here.

Click here to read the full NEFAC press release.

What makes a community news organization relevant in the age of Facebook?

William Forry, managing editor of the Dorchester Reporter

By William P. Forry

That’s the question that keeps many publishers and managing editors awake at night. And if it doesn’t, it should.

Most people are now the managing editors of their own community news outlets. They use Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media sites to push information that used to be the exclusive domain of newspapers.

They share details of the upcoming parish turkey fry. They post photos of the Little League championship game. They swap gossip about the stately blue house down the street that was just re-painted a ghastly green color. What were these new owners thinking?!

These staples of community newspapers can still be found in the pages of our community newspaper, The Dorchester Reporter. Hopefully, that will remain the case for years to come.

But, our readers have always expected more from their community paper. And, now, they should demand more.

We all have plenty of other options at our fingertips for sharing information. But information is not necessarily news. We still need journalists to sort the chaff from the wheat and to put things in context and perspective.

What remains in short supply at the community level are journalists who spend every workday compiling what Harvard Kennedy School’s Alex Jones describes as the “iron core” of reported news. They attend the school board hearings and civic association meetings. They don’t just monitor the police and fire radio for the latest incident— they chronicle the trends and press public safety officials for explanations on crime strategies and deployment.

These reporters are not stenographers. They analyze and scrutinize. They press for answers and hold public officials— elected and appointed— and other community leaders accountable.

And, importantly, these iron core reporters and editors don’t sit back and wait for the next press release to chart their course. They know their communities so well — and are confident enough in their own sources and judgment— that they can initiate important enterprise stories that can have a meaningful impact.

That’s what we’ve always strived to do at the Reporter.

Shortly after my parents started the Reporter back in 1983, a jumbo jet on approach to Logan Airport came within seconds of landing on a busy roadway in our neighborhood, Morrissey Boulevard. A catastrophe was narrowly averted, but windows were blown out in homes and cars all over the neighborhood. People wanted to know what happened. The Reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act — our first— to get the cockpit recordings and an FAA report on the incident. The pilot had mistaken the street lamps on Morrissey for the runway at Logan.

We’ve been breaking stories like this for more than 25 years now.

But our capacity to pull off these kinds of in-depth, investigative reports has always been limited. When Walter Robinson — the founder and director of Watchdog New England— first approached us with the idea of partnering with his students to conduct long-format, enterprise stories, we leapt at the opportunity.

So far, the Watchdog Team based at the Reporter and led by former Boston Globe Spotlight Team reporter Stephen Kurkjian have assembled five investigative reports that we’ve published in our paper and online. We’ve scrutinized the lack of programming at city-run community centers and the Strand Theatre; we’ve tracked the proliferation of so-called “sober homes” in city neighborhoods and uncovered new information about illegal gun trafficking that fuels shootings and homicides in Boston. And we’ve documented the rising need for public assistance in Dorchester, where one in three people are now using food stamps to buy groceries every month.

Compelling journalism like this is the backbone of social media links and comments. And community newspapers — and/or their online companions— will survive well into the future if they do these kinds of stories and do them well. That’s our charge at the Reporter and we’re thrilled to have partners like Northeastern University, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, who share our enthusiasm and vision.