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Going Beyond the Agenda:
Investigating Local Government

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Use Documents and Computer-Assisted Reporting to Follow the Money

By Andrew Wellner

One of the oldest clichés in journalism is “Follow the money,” because the money trail will eventually lead reporters to where the story lies hidden.

But the money trail has become increasingly difficult to pick out from the massive piles of government-generated documents and records – unless you employ a blend of old-school people skills and sophisticated computer analysis.

Ron Nixon, computer-assisted reporting editor of The Minneapolis Star Tribune, outlined some strategies during the “Following the Money” session. 

The most important document for an investigative journalist covering city hall is the city budget, Nixon said. The ability to understand and analyze large amounts of data are indispensable skills. 

Nixon described how he fell in love with budgets when he teamed up with another reporter to cover a story in Henry County, Virginia, in 1998 that “began with a line item in a budget, and ended with the county administrator out in the woods with a gun to his head threatening to commit suicide.”

Journalists must understand that a budget is a planning document that lays out the city’s priorities.  “Don’t think of the budget as a collection of numbers,” he urged. 

Budgets are usually very large documents with massive amounts of information.  A good strategy when dealing with a budget is to take one unusual budget item, investigate that item and then write a story about it, Nixon said. 

When dealing with budgets, reporters should compare city budgets over a number of years to discern patterns, find out which items have been allocated more money and which have been allocated less.  Reporters should also check for a deficit by looking to see if spending is greater than revenue. 

Other crucial documents for city hall reporters are audit reports, bond statements and credit reports. 

Nixon said he loves audit reports.  “I’m of the opinion that if you follow audits you’ll never be surprised about anything that happens in city government.”

Audits are conducted to discover problems with the management of city funds.  Since a lot of city officials don’t read audit reports, reporters who read them will often find problems before city hall officials find them. 

Another key source of information is bid specifications, Nixon said.  These documents are produced when the city needs to hire a contractor or solicit bids for a service or product.  The city puts together a specific list of what they need – but sometimes hidden in the dry numbers and specifications are the details that mandate that the bid can only go to one company in town.  This is one tricky way that politicians attempt to reward campaign contributors, Nixon said.

Nixon said reporters should also be aware that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) of the Federal government does not just deal with Federal issues.  Local stories can come out of the GAO as well.  Another good source is the Federal Assistance Awards Database System (FAADS), which tracks Federal money awarded to local governments. 

Some of the best places to go in city hall are the city clerk’s office and the city treasurer’s office because that’s where you’ll find the technicians in charge of maintaining crucial databases.  Nixon said these people are often “computer geeks nobody ever talks to,” who may be more than willing to show off their databases and download copies of them than other government officials.

Paul D’Ambrosio of the Asbury Park Press, who was part of the team that won last year’s Seldon Ring Award, said that New Jersey has recently become “the Disneyland of corrupt officials and investigative reporters.”

The computer spreadsheet program Excel is a crucial tool for any investigative reporter, D’Ambrosio said.  “If you don’t know Excel, you’re only doing half your job.”

D’Ambrosio recommended looking into the city’s check register – an electronic database of checks issued by the city.  He said reporters should look at the register by date to find a common theme.  “If someone’s getting 10 oil changes a month, that’s a good way to fluff up the bills,” he said, and a good sign that corruption is afoot. 

However valuable a digital check register may be, records available only on paper should not be overlooked, D’Ambrosio added.  For these documents, he recommended buying a portable photocopier because it can save your paper hundreds and even thousands of dollars in copying costs. 

“And the clerks will love you for it,” he said, because it frees them up to do their other tasks. 

Reporters should look at expense reports for suspicious items paid for with city money, check for expensive equipment sitting unused in city lots and for no-bid contracts going to campaign contributors, D’Ambrosio said.  All of these are potential stories because they are common methods by which government officials hide corruption.

Most people at city hall will be forthcoming with databases and documents, said D’Ambrosio.  “The government doesn’t really recognize the value of [Computer Assisted Reporting],” he said, “they just say ‘Sure.  Here it is, it’s public information, have fun with it.’ ”

At the end of the investigation, a reporter should confront officials and press for change, D’Ambrosio said.  After the story runs, the paper should run updates early and often, but reporters should not grow frustrated if the changes are not immediate.  “We work on a 24-hour cycle but government works on a 24-month cycle,” he said. 

Both Nixon and D’Ambrosio stressed the importance of digital databases.  When a clerk tries to hand D’Ambrosio paper, he pushes for a digital archive.  But both cautioned against relying wholly on the databases. 

“Most data is entered by poorly-paid pissed-off people.  There is no clean database,” Nixon said.

However, once the data has been sorted and analyzed, once the reporter is certain they have the complete story, they should try not to surprise or ambush the subject of the investigation. 

Instead, D’Ambrosio counseled that reporters talk to the subject, show them what the story will say and ask them to comment.  When the story is done right, the subject “may say ‘This is stupid, I hate you.’ But they can’t refute it,” D’Ambrosio said.

Resources

Video of Ron Nixon’s presentation

Video of Paul D’Ambrosio’s presentation

Q&A from both panelists

PowerPoint from Paul D’Ambrosio

PowerPoint from Ron Nixon

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