It’s no secret American journalism is undergoing rapid change (and in some cases, decline). StateImpact is an effort to respond by adding journalists on the ground, shoring up our digital capacity and skill at the station level, and focusing on the fundamentals that make journalism vital, like serving the public by watch-dogging the government.
So we’re returning to our journalistic roots for our combined October-November reporter challenge. Your mission? Learning about and using your state’s open-records laws to get government documents that lead to great stories.
“The FOIA has compelled federal agencies to yield millions of documents relating to government operations and performance. Every week, a news organization, scholar or public-interest group somewhere reports information of significance to public health or safety or good governance — based on material gleaned from FOIA requests.” -Paul McMasters
- Focus our journalistic attention and energy on ensuring access to state and local government.
- Allow StateImpact reporters (you) to become educated on the open-records laws in your state and make the connections with records administrators that will be important throughout the course of your reporting for StateImpact.
- Uncover facts that government officials may have tried to keep out of public view.
- Break important stories.
This is going to be more subjective than our last challenge, because the quality of a story idea and “impact” of reporting is difficult to measure. But I’ve laid out a few vectors we’ll be looking at:
What are you seeking to get from the information and what story are you trying to tell? Is it going to be groundbreaking, is it going to help affect change in your community? Or is the scope of what you’re trying to accomplish during this challenge ambitious, because you’re filing a high quantity of requests to yield several good stories? Either approach will win you points. Just email me about what you’re going for and what all you’ve requested (or CC me on the requests).
How interesting is your story idea? Show me how the story or stories you’re seeking documents for got started. Was it a tip? An assignment? How strong is this idea in terms of the impact it could make?
And by this I mean transparency on your part. As digital reporters, you have the opportunity to share the details of your reporting journey along the way, especially if you’re running into areas where the crowd can help you.
Delivery and Follow-Through
A lot of the hard work of journalism is in battling for access and information. There are plenty of hiding tactics you’ll encounter. How wide a net are you casting with your requests? What specifically are you asking for? This is the part where I hope you will learn a lot just by having to negotiate for access. Share with me your requests and the email communication or notes from the process you’ve gone through in order to actually get the information you’re seeking in a timely manner.
I’ll judge the strength of the final stories or posts that show the results of your hard work based on the story difficulty, uniqueness of effort, use of data skills (if applicable), and the impact of the story after publication.
As usual, there are two prizes to split among reporters in the winning state. They are:
- The research help of an NPR librarian, who can do digging on an enterprise story of yours by using her experience of a skilled researcher and NPR’s expansive access to resources databases like Nexis, Public Data search, and a lot more.
- $50 gift card to Amazon or iTunes, depending on where you go to buy your books and podcasts (so you can read or learn more about open records!)