Chasing Political Fat Cats: 29 Papers Create Database p.19

By: david noack Tired of waiting for the state to do it, newspapers across New York have banded
together to fund the creation of a massive campaign-funds-tracking database
After years of frustration at New York state's failure to computerize campaign finance records, 29 state newspapers have joined together to create their own massive database for tracking and analyzing campaign contributions.
Members of the ambitious collaboration ? from the New York Times to the small Daily Mail in Catskill ? have kicked in an initial $100,000 to fund the undertaking designed to computerize the campaign funding records of top state officials, lawmakers and political party committees. The 29 newspapers have a combined statewide daily circulation of roughly 2.6 million.
The project, the New York State Campaign Finance Consortium, got underway last year when the newspapers collectively agreed to hire an outside consultant to set up a system for gathering documents and entering information into a database. So far, more than 67,000 documents have been compiled. The records go back to 1995 for the statewide candidates and to 1997 for state lawmakers.

Localized Political Stories
The first round of stories based on the new data began appearing across the state in mid-February. News-rooms participating in the ongoing project receive database files of raw campaign finance information detailing how much each candidate received in campaign contributions and from whom.
Data can be analyzed in a variety of ways that allow reporters to study the funding patterns, trends and connections relevant to their own region's politicians. The ultimate result is localized stories that bring a new depth and factual insight to the individual newspaper's political coverage.
For instance:
u The Buffalo News used the database to write "Incumbents Cash In On Campaign Trail," a story that reported, among other things, how hundreds of companies that have lucrative non-bid government contracts are heavy political contributors.
u Newsday used the data to prepare the story, "Donor's Deep Pockets Secured Jobs." It detailed how big contributors to state races were systematically rewarded with appointments to influential state boards, councils and other government positions.
u The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester used the data for the story, "N.Y. Political Cash Comes From Afar." It documented how 20% of the campaign funds received by local politicians comes from donors outside of New York state ? a situation that suggests that big-money donors from California or Texas could exert as much or more influence over regional government affairs as groups of local citizens.
In addition, the Albany Times Union has made the database accessible for free in fully searchable format on its Web site at capitol/contributions/.

Opens New Era for Reporters
"I think it's newspapers doing the right thing for the right reasons and it's been very gratifying," said Ford Fessenden, database team leader for the project at Newsday and one of the organizers of the project. "In the first round of data there have been stories and stories and stories. It's kind of created its own momentum. Everybody is writing tons of stuff off it."
"The historic element of this is that this is the first time anyone has been able to look at (New York) campaign contributions in a comprehensive, statewide way," said Rose Ciotta, computer-assisted reporting editor at the Buffalo News. "We're hoping that the collective impact of this project is going to be pretty significant."
"It would have been really hard to do it without the database," concurred Rochester Democrat and Chronicle political reporter Gary Craig. "A lot of papers would not be doing these kinds of stories if not for the consortium."
He pointed out how useful it was for reporters to be able to quickly isolate patterns of contributions from groups such as labor unions and political action committees.
Michael Caputo, who covers county government for the paper, said that farming out the finance data work has made it easier to zero in on how local companies are contributing to election campaigns.
"We can not only track what Rochester companies are doing for the governor and all state legislators, but we can do the reverse and find out how many corporations locally are going over our contribution limit of $5,000," said Craig.
In addition, he said the newspaper has also compiled campaign finance reports for county and local races and included that information in its database.
Consortium participants also pointed out that this is just the beginning because all four statewide offices and the entire 211-member state legislature will face the voters this November ? a process that will generate thousands of more finance records to be collected and compiled by the newspaper consortium.

Organizing the program
The New York State Campaign Finance Consortium borrowed its founding concept from the Virginia Public Access Project ? a group of nine newspapers that chipped in to cover the cost of creating a similar database of state information. David M. Poole, a former reporter for the Virginian-Pilot in Nor-folk, was hired by the Virginia newspaper consortium to oversee the financial records projects.
The New York state newspaper group also hired Poole to organize its statewide financial rec-ords efforts.
Lew Wheaton, bureau chief for the Associated Press in Albany, who also handled many of the organizing and administrative tasks, said that after plotting out the logistics and goals of the project, it was important to get other newspapers involved to help share the cost.
Some hard decisions also had to be made. For instance, one way to hold down costs was to limit the amount of campaign finance data that would go into the database, so contributions of less than $100 were not included.
"We did not know for sure that this was going to fly until we got everybody on board in enough of the major markets," Wheaton said. "We divided up the cost of the project based on the newspapers' size, so naturally your bigger papers are paying a bigger percentage of the total. We had to have several large members; otherwise it just became undoable."
The idea ? to do something to make the vast amounts of statewide campaign finance data accessible in a way that is meaningful to reporters ? had been kicking around for years in New York newsrooms.
Harvy Lipman, the computer-assisted editor at the Times Union in Albany, said the Board of Elections in New York state still runs a largely paper-based operation even though it does computerize corporate contribution data in order to determine if corporations exceed their donation limits.
Lipman explained that over the last few years there have been informal talks among reporters about the need to get campaign finance reports computerized. Recently, a private firm in New York City was attempting to computerize campaign records as a profit-making venture, but news reporters say the results were as limited in scope as they were spotty in quality. The company has since closed its New York offices.
Regional good government advocacy groups have also been turning up the volume on their demands for access to computerized campaign money records and state lawmakers have been grappling with the issue. Last year, Gov. George Pataki put money in the state budget to begin the computerization of the Board of Elections' records. But that won't start until 1999.

News organizations participating in the New York State Campaign Finance Consortium:
Associated Press, Albany
Times Union, Albany
Buffalo News
Press & Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton
Newsday, Melville
Times Herald-Record, Middletown
Daily News, New York
New York Times
Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester
Daily Gazette, Schenectady
Post-Standard, Syracuse
Syracuse Herald-Journal
Observer-Dispatch, Utica
Johnson Newspapers, Watertown
Daily News, Batavia
Journal, Ogdensburg
Malone Telegram
Massena Courier- Observer
Daily Mail, Catskill
Register-Star, Hudson
Watertown Daily Times
Daily Times, Mamaroneck
Mount Vernon Argus
New Rochelle Standard
Ossining Citizens Register
Peekskill Star
Port Chester Daily Item
Rockland Journal News
Tarrytown Daily News
White Plains Reporter-Dispatch
Yonkers Herald-Statesman
The newspapers participating in the Virginia Public Access project:
Daily Press, Newport News
Daily Progress, Charlottesville
Danville Register & Bee
News & Advance, Lynchburg
Potomac News
Richmond Times-Dispatch
Roanoke Times
Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk
Washington Post
?(E&P Web Site: [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher April 18, 1998) [Caption]


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here