Walla Walla: FOI on Friday

WALLA WALLA, WASH.–The second session of the day and the last of this swing through Idaho and Washington. Thanks to the William O. Douglas Chapter of SPJ, especially Jillian and Paula, and the staff and management of the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, which provided the venue. The conference room was filled with FOI believers who were quite appreciative that SPJ would come to southeastern Washington. A great group of people who willingly spent a late Friday afternoon talking FOI. I made sure I was done by 5:00 so the weekend could begin–for everyone.

One interesting note–this afternoon’s Union Bulletin had no less than four front page stories with an FOI hook, either from records or meetings.

Boise: From Zero to Full Speed in Four Days

BOISE, IDAHO–The first of two AAA sessions today, at the Idaho Statesman newspaper in Boise. A very good audience of almost 30 people, representing print, public radio, commercial television, the AP and Boise State University (students and faculty.) Huge thanks to Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press Club for organizing the venue and getting the word out. This session came together exactly one week after I e-mailed Betsy following the Idaho Falls presentation. We didn’t make voice contact until this past Monday, which means the session came together in only four days. Remarkable!

Now on to Walla Walla WA, 250+ miles down the road.

AAA in Idaho Falls

Terrific session in Idaho Falls, ID on Thursday morning in a meeting room at the Hotel on the Falls. Thanks to Rob Thornberry at the ID Falls Post-Register for bringing together a fine mix of daily/weekly newspaper folks and people from local, state and federal government. One reporter traveled more than 100 miles to attend. Lively exchanges and a very positive reception overall. Rob followed up the AAA session with another 90-minute seminar on Idaho state access law.

From Newport News….

Had a great session Friday in Newport News!

Hit Newport News Friday for a lively session withe staff of the Daily Press…busy newsroom, as the president was in Hampton and the Democratic governors were in Williamsburg, but we still had a room full….

A Great Event in Richmond!

Last night, the Harrisonburg event gave me renewed faith in journalism. What a great group of reporters from a variety of media outlets!

And tonight: Thanks to the Richmond SPJ chapter for a great evening! My host Paul Fletcher even took time out of his busy day to squire us around the breathtaking Virginia capitol, where the US and the Confederacy once reigned….what a day! An enthusiastic group of SPJers met me for dinner followed by the FOI Road Show session, and I hope everyone had as much fun as I did!


Me and my sidekick Mamie...

From the First Stop….

From the Road…

Session at the Courier-Journal went GREAT....

Some Pics From the Road….

The Southeastern FOI Road Trip is Under Way!

Yesterday I began my leg of the Access Across America Road Show for SPJ in Louisville, Kentucky, where a great room full of journalists at the Courier-Journal talked access and I showed them examples of FOI At Work. A great time was had by all! My daughter, Mamie, 14, and I are on the road again — we drove from Louisville to Beckley, West Virginia yesterday after the session (not a drive to be missed — wow, West Virginia and Kentucky are gorgeous…) and now we are off to Harrisonburg, VA tonight for a session.



It has begun! Tour hits Midwest, Southwest

The Access Across America Part II has begun!

Joey Senat from Oklahoma has talked to groups in Kansas City, Iowa, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, and I talked to folks in Phoenix and Los Angeles. We have more stops coming up this week in San Francisco, Bellingham, Wash., and trainers in other regions are finalizing their schedules.

Check out a one-minute video Joey put together about the tour, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I05ol53N8DY&list=HL1340470367&feature=mh_lolz

I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the questions and comments from people. Citizens and journalists care about government transparency and improving their document skills!

2012 Tour Stops Announced

An early list of 2012 stops, beginning in June, is now available. More stops will be announced shortly, so please stay tuned!

A call to action: Hold the line on access!

With the tour finished, I’ve been able to think about the lessons learned:

1. Law enforcement has gone too far
In town after town one theme emerged consistently – police agencies have steadily become more and more secretive over the past 20 years (see blog post on Day 10). We have the equivalent of secret police in towns throughout the nation – where nothing is available until it hits the courts, or unless a PIO wants to divulge information. Even jail logs are kept secret and scanner frequencies encrypted. This is serious. We need transparent law enforcement to make sure police do not abuse their powers through beating up suspects, locking up political foes, and targeting particular classes of people. It’s time to push back, folks. Regain the ground lost. Fight for an open criminal justice system.

2. Citizens are fired up and starting to do something about it
I had many citizens show up to sessions to learn how to get information about their local governments because they want to be informed. This is a good sign. More people need to understand how to get information and how to hold officials accountable.

3. Journalism is NOT dead
Yes, I saw a lot of newsrooms with empty desks, and in many places the reporters looked beaten down, demoralized and frazzled. A few newspapers were woefully understaffed. Some reporters huddled like abused dogs. Really quite sad. But in many newsrooms I met enthusiastic reporters and editors who are doing outstanding work. The St. Cloud Times, for example, is a 27,000-circulation newspaper but acts like a metro. Outstanding work being done by skilled journalists, including a “watchdog reporter.” The Valencia County News-Bulletin and El Defensor Chieftain in New Mexico are doing great work for twice-a-week papers.

4. Lack of records requests
The main problem is not that agencies are denying valid requests and becoming secretive (although that is a problem). The main problem is people aren’t asking for records. I encountered many journalists who didn’t know how to request records, or that they could even do so (many hadn’t even heard of SPJ, their main journalism association). This is unacceptable. We need to reach journalists throughout the nation, particularly those at weeklies and small dailies (under 20,000 circulation – journalists at metros aren’t that bad off). This is a big task, as they probably comprise three-quarters of journalists and rarely make it to conferences. We have to go out to them.

5. We need a full-time national access training coordinator
We need a full-time access trainer or group in this nation to coordinate the training of journalists and citizens. I don’t care where it is housed (SPJ, NFOIC, ASNE, RCFP, wherever), or who does it (not me – I have a great job that I love), but it is desperately needed. A full-time national FOI training coordinator could accomplish a lot, charged with the following:

  • Coordinate regional trainers who each travel their regions a week a year, visiting newsrooms, coalitions for open government, SPJ chapters and other organizations.
  • Produce online training modules in accessing records that anyone can use – easily digestible and practical.
  • Coordinate national Sunshine Week. Perhaps that role, now shoehorned into existing staff at the American Society of News Editors, could be made into a full-time sunshine training coordinator.
  • Produce booklets and materials for citizens, K-12 schools and college classrooms.

Currently a lot of this is being done here and there by state open government coalitions, SPJ, etc., but having one centralized national access training program that reaches out to everyone – included citizens – could be effective in fostering access and increasing pressure on open government. I could see some collaborations with training of public officials, as well, perhaps with the Office of Government Information Services.

6. Traveling the country can be done effectively
I was amazed that the tour went without a hitch. No parking tickets, speeding tickets, flat tires, missed appointments, etc., and all under budget (by $177 for a $12,250 budget). For the last few weeks I fought off a cold, and in two of the 55 sessions my laptop crashed, causing a few minutes’ delay, but other than that it went very well. Here are some thoughts regarding national travel:

  • GPS systems are the best innovation of this century. Well worth the $165. I never once used the printed out maps I brought along.
  • Sundays are the best day to drive – no rush hour and fewer semi trucks on the road.
  • Consistently awful budget hotels: Super 8, Days Inn, Econo-Lodge. Consistently good budget hotels: La Quinta, Best Western, Howard Johnson.
  • Interstates are incredibly efficient at moving people and goods.
  • Interstates have made this country into one big homogenous blob. If I see another sign for Waffle House or Cracker Barrel I will puke my Big Mac.
  • Toll roads are lame.
  • There is no explaining gas prices. Why did they go down from when I started, April 27, to when I finished, June 10, despite Memorial Day and the BP mess? I hope some journalist can get to the bottom of that someday.
  • People like to make fun of Arizona.
  • People (and drivers) are pretty much the same everywhere.
  • This is an impressive country. While we have our problems and we need to continue to strive to improve, the terrain, innovation, energy and quality of life make me proud to be an American.

I feel honored to have been provided this opportunity. I thank the Society of Professional Journalists, the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, the National Freedom of Information Coalition, and the University of Arizona School of Journalism, for making this happen. I thank my wonderful family for their patience and understanding. I also thank the dedicated coordinators for each event and the 1,009 people who showed up. It was the most rewarding experience in my professional life, and I hope it helped foster freedom of information. This is what it’s all about.

Day 45: Tour ends, but it’s just the beginning!

A thousand points of light!

Final tally: 32 states, 14,135 miles, 56 sessions, 1,009 people (see schedule)

El Paso, Texas — Finished. Yet, there is so much to do.

I just got home to Tucson on this last day of the tour and I’m happy to say we were able to reach more than a thousand people on this trip! While the tour is over, I realize we have more work to do to foster access in America.

Earlier today, I had the chance to talk with journalists from the Belen and Socorro newspapers in New Mexico. This was one of the few sessions where the publisher sat in. David Puddu is chief operating officer for Number Nine Media. It was great to have him in the session – he truly gets it.

David Puddu

Tip No. 56: David Puddu, publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin, El Defensor Chieftain and Mountain View Telegraph, provided this great tip: Reporters should attend training sessions for sales staff to learn techniques for persuading people to do what you want (e.g., hand over records). “Sales skills are critical in this business to save time and get information through the most effective means possible,” he said. For example, one sales tip is to not take “no” for an answer. “You have to find a way.”

Tip No. 57: David Randall, from KTSM-TV in El Paso, provided this tip that I thought was cool. Request a list of all the teachers and substitute teachers in a school district. Then run the names through Facebook and My Space to see their pages. Some have pictures of themselves with bongs or in other situations that would be unbecoming of a teacher. Also run the substitutes through court records. You might find some interesting things! Of course, triple-check to make sure you have the right person matched with the correct inappropriate photo and criminal record.

After the Belen session I did a session for the Rio Grande SPJ chapter in El Paso. It was the last session of the tour, and following that I drove the five hours home to Tucson. Nice! Soon I’ll provide a tour recap here at the blog, outlining some of the things we learned from this national road show – trends and issues I saw throughout the country, along with recommendations for a call to action.

Journalists from New Mexico and Texas with me hoisting a diet soda in celebration of the final session Thursday night.

Day 44: Coordinate a media dogpile

So far: 32 states, 13,631 miles, 54 sessions, 985 people (see schedule)

Albuquerque, N.M. — We have strength in numbers.

In New Mexico today, I learned that journalists have been working to get records from the state on exactly who they have laid off to trim the budget.

Gov. Bill Richardson has said they laid off 59 employees to save money, yet the state has been reluctant to provide the names and salaries of those people. They’ve delayed for more than six months. Did they really lay people off or did they make it up?

Journalists and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government have been pushing for the records to be public (see story). This is really sad that Gov. Richardson would be so secretive and hostile toward open, accountable government. Shameful, really. I remember attending the National Freedom of Information Coalition conference in Santa Fe in 2005 where Richardson spoke to us, espousing the importance of transparency. He said it’s important for people to find out “what our leaders are doing – the good, the bad and the ugly.” Talk is cheap.

I was impressed, however, with the 27 journalists and interested citizens who showed up for the tour session tonight in Albuquerque. Many of them have been pushing for those records. Watchdog journalism is alive and well in New Mexico. Thanks to Betsy Model, president of the Rio Grande SPJ pro chapter, and chapter vice president David Brown, for coordinating the event.

Tip No. 55: Band together with other media to get important records from state government. A lot of journalists are reluctant to team with the competition, but it can be very effective, just like it has been in New Mexico. The focus is on serving citizens and fighting on their behalf. We have strength in numbers.

Thursday: I’ll talk to journalists who work in Belen and Soccoro, south of Albuquerque, then drive to El Paso for a session with journalists part of the Rio Grande SPJ chapter (covers a big area). Then, after the El Paso session, I’ll drive the five hours home to Tucson and be finished with the tour!

Starting to see results from the tour

I’ve started e-mailing attendees of the access sessions from the tour to see if they’ve used any of the tips, and I’m seeing that the world is getting a little better, story by story. Here’s an example of an e-mail from a reporter from the Bakersfield Californian (Day 3 of the tour):

Hi David,
Just wanted to share an experience I had with a records request. Some college officials were giving me crap about accessing a claim filed against the college. They said the claim wasn’t an open record. Using some of the info from the seminar, I explained why it was. They still wouldn’t budge. So what did I do? I sent an open records request – the angry one I knew would get quick results. A week later, I had the claim in my hands. Cheers!
– Jorge Barrientos

Good job, Jorge. I’m glad the information was helpful, particularly the sample request letters – such as the legalistic threatening one. Sometimes we have to remind our public officials of the law and their obligations to follow it. Be the Donald! Keep it up!

Day 43: Teach readers about useful records

So far: 31 states, 13,081 miles, 53 sessions, 958 people (see schedule)

Oklahoma City, Okla. — Deb Gruver empowers Wichita citizens to use public records.

Deb Gruver

For the past four years, Gruver has written a weekly column for The Wichita Eagle called “You Oughta Know,” providing more than 200 public records useful to people’s lives. The column started with the 2006 national Sunshine Week and has included descriptions of such records as air quality, finding people with arrest warrants, and crime statistics. Each column is only four or five paragraphs and includes what the record is, where it can be found, and whether there is any cost. Brief, to the point, and helpful.

This is great stuff! I’ve found in my survey research that records that people highly support access to records that have practical value, particularly those involving public safety. This sort of educational column fosters support for FOI and empowers people. Outstanding.

Tip No. 54: Educate citizens on their rights to public records, focusing on documents that have practical application in life. In my handouts I provide lists of records that can help people background babysitters or dates, buy a house, or avoid being ripped off. A couple of thoughts for doing this: 1. Write a weekly column or fixture that highlights a useful record; 2. Provide a box with every story that is based on a public record, explaining where the record came from (with address) and how people can find it themselves; 3. Create a package for national Sunshine Week each March explaining the process for getting public records and people’s right to information; 4. Provide pamphlets, Web sites, and community education sessions about “journalism for citizens” – tips for gathering information to benefit your life. Public support for FOI will pressure government to keep records open.

I had great sessions in Wichita and Oklahoma City today.  A lot of outstanding journalists showed up. Thanks to Molly McMillin, Kansas SPJ pro chapter president, for coordinating the Wichita event. Also, I was floored by The Oklahoman’s building and grounds. Incredible! They have state-of-the-art broadcast studies (even makeup rooms and a “green room” for guests), advanced multimedia stations, not to mention the most elaborate lobby, conference training area, fitness room (with bike checkout and paths around their own lake), and other amenities. Wow. Thanks to Joe Hight at the paper for showing me around, and Carol Cole-Frowe, the SPJ chapter president in Oklahoma City, for organizing the event (she’s also a member of the SPJ FOI Committee). It was also good to see Joey Senat, a stellar FOI scholar from Oklahoma State University and author of the FOI Oklahoma blog.

Wednesday: I drive to Albuquerque for a session there Wednesday night with the SPJ Rio Grande chapter (cool chapter because they post short bios of new members who join – neat!). I’ll be headed out of tornado territory and back to the drier West. I’ll make sure I have my papers ready to show police when I cross back into Arizona on Thursday.

Day 42: Learn how to acquire, analyze data

So far: 29 states, 12,911 miles, 51 sessions, 902 people (see schedule)

Colorado Springs, Colo. — Every journalist ought to be getting government data. It’s just not that difficult.

Sam Benesby

When I spoke today at the Colorado Springs Gazette, several people expressed interest in getting data. For example, Sam Benesby, a new reporter for the African-American Voice in Colorado Springs, said he would like to examine mortgage data to see if blacks are denied loans more often than comparable whites. No problem.

Bill Dedman won the Pulitzer in 1989 for examining this kind of discrimination, called redlining, in his piece called “The Color of Money.” Since then a bunch of journalists have identified this problem in their communities. Simply get Home Mortgage Disclosure Data (the easiest way is to buy it from Investigative Reporters and Editors), then analyze it for your community. It’s nice if you can control for income and a few other factors.

Tip No. 53: To teach yourself computer-assisted reporting, get yourself a copy of Brant Houston’s textbook on the matter, “Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide.” You can work through the chapters fairly quickly and have it down in a few weeks. It’s not that hard. Start small with easy databases, like your local pet licenses (find the most popular dog name and breed; or people who own the most pets). Check out the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting for other resources.

John Ensslin

Tuesday: I’ll do a session at noon for the Wichita journalists, and then drive to Oklahoma City for a session there Tuesday night. Driving from Colorado to Wichita was fascinating today – watching the elevation drop from 6,300 to 1,400. My ears are still popping. And watch out at dusk for those deer. I’ve evaded three or four this trip, but tonight coming into Wichita one jumped out in front of me on the interstate. Fortunately, I slowed down and missed it but the pickup next to me wasn’t so lucky. The guy had to stop and check out the damage to his front grill. The other thing I noticed today driving most of the backroads through small towns is that a lot of rural America is really hurting. Most of the downtown buildings were boarded up in tiny towns. Pretty sad. But thanks to John Ensslin for coordinating the event today in Colorado Springs. He’s SPJ’s Region 9 Director and a reporter for the Gazette. It’s really a beautiful place – nestled against the mountains and laid back.

Day 41: Tips for finding access tips

So far: 29 states, 12,294 miles, 50 sessions, 884 people (see schedule)

Colorado Springs, Colo. — Today I compiled all 52 tips into one spot that I’ve been posting daily on this blog so far. I figured it might be helpful if they are in one place. See the main “Tips in one file” link at the Access Across America page, at right.

Tip No. 52: Check out Web sites that provide useful tips for accessing records. Here are some other places where you can find more tips about accessing public records:

  • FOI FYI blog. This SPJ blog provides access news and tips for accessing records. I usually post to it, along with Donald Myers from the SPJ FOI Committee. This summer, SPJ intern April Dudash has been posting (and doing a great job!). When I post I tend to focus on access tips (see the category link for “FOI Strategies and Tips,” on the right side of the page.
  • The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records. This is the blog that Charles Davis and I post to in relation to our recent book by the same title. I haven’t posted lately because of this tour, but I’ll resume when I get back to Tucson!
  • The FOI Advocate. This blog by the National Freedom of Information Coalition provides news about FOI as well as document ideas and some tips for strategies.
  • The National Security Archive provides tips on submitting FOIA requests. You’ll find very good information about the U.S. FOIA process.
  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provides a section on its website for accessing records, including some tips from a frequent requester, and tips for requesting federal records and appealing.
  • WikiFOIA provides tips and strategies for making requests.
  • BRB Publications is a company that publishes a lot of books about where to find public records, often used by private investigators and other commercial users. Check out their website for tips on access and sources of information.

Monday: I’ll meet with journalists from the Colorado Springs Gazette, then drive to Wichita in preparation for a session there Tuesday, along with one in Oklahoma City.

Day 40: When agencies balk, ‘Release the McCraken!’

So far: 28 states, 12,114 miles, 50 sessions, 884 people (see schedule)

Laramie, Wyo. — Today I spoke with a group of journalists who work in Wyoming newspapers owned by the McCraken family, including the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne.

Public record laws are only good when they have teeth - and when those teeth are used occasionally. Release the Kracken!

Wyoming Tribune Eagle Managing Editor Brian K. Martin, who coordinated the event, said his company has gone to court on several fronts for records recently, including a fight for public employee salaries. When officials balk, the publisher, Mike McCraken, is ready to defend the public’s right to know (fyi, I guess his name is pronounced Mc-CRAKE-en, not Mc-CRACK-en, but I still like that line from the latest Clash of the Titans movie, especially with Irishman Liam Neeson saying it – “Release the McCraken!”). Media owners must sue on behalf of the public. It is their professional, ethical and moral obligation as members of the press. If we expect special rights by the First Amendment, then we must fulfill certain obligations expected of those rights (e.g., protect democracy). Our industry is about more than just profits. As far as I’m concerned, any publisher that considers newspapers and television news equivalent to producing widgets, and nothing more, should be run out of town, or at least run out of business. Kudos to publishers like Mike McCraken who take their responsibility seriously.

More news agencies need to go to court for records, but they often say they can’t afford it. I’ve heard that a few times this tour. A survey last year by the National Freedom of Information Coalition showed that more than 80 percent of state access coalitions say litigation is dropping (see study summary). This is a big problem. No “FOI police” exist to cite agencies for breaking public records laws. We have to sue (or use other means, both legal and ethical).

Tip No. 51: If your organization can’t afford to sue, check out the new litigation fund coordinated by the National Freedom of Information Coalition, provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight FOI Fund will pay for up-front costs, such as court fees, depositions and initial consultation fees, if attorneys are willing to take cases that otherwise would go unfiled.

Rugged hills at 8,300 feet between Laramie and Cheyenne.

Sunday: I’ll drive to Colorado Springs in preparation for a session Monday morning with the newspaper. It’s been great coming back out West. I went yesterday from St. Louis, elevation 465 feet, to Laramie, Wyo., elevation 7,300 feet, today. I see mountains and wide-open spaces – starting to feel like home again. The tour finishes Thursday. While I’ll be really happy to get home to the family, I’m going to miss seeing the country and and meeting all these good journalists!

Day 39: Chickens of death foster access

So far: 28 states, 11,804 miles, 49 sessions, 861 people (see schedule)

Springfield, Mo. — Often journalists tell me they are frustrated because they get the impression that citizens don’t care about access or government.

I found out today that what we do CAN get citizens interested in their communities and access. Just ask Mari Taylor, publisher of the online community forum, the Joplin Independent. Mari said she felt some citizens in Neosho, a nearby town, were apathetic and didn’t care about their government. But that changed after a chicken story.

Mari Taylor

Her Web site exposed a local chicken plant disposing of sickly or old chickens by sending them down a conveyor belt into a Dumpster, alive. A citizen got a picture of the conveyor belt, which was visible from the road. The story got a lot of attention and people came out of the woodwork. Now, folks are involved in their community and care about open government. Exposing problems in a community can empower people.

Tip No. 50: Citizens get riled up when government ignores the plight of animals. People will become involved in their government and interested in accessing records. Examine the treatment of animals by your local animal control agency. Start easy by asking for pet license data. Do a feature, noting the most popular name and breed. Then examine which zip code has the least licenses per capita, and find out why (usually poor areas). Then examine businesses and agencies and how they treat animals. Check out non-profit shelters in your community – are they up to snuff? Write about what people care about – and explain how they can get involved and where they can get records. It’s crucial that average people be empowered to access their government, too!

I chatted with Mari at a session in Springfield, Mo., today. A great crowd of journalists from weeklies and small dailies, some journalism professors, and online. I’m seeing quite a few citizen journalists show up. I think there is a growing wave of activists turning to the Web to get their messages out, like Mari. She’s been providing her community a forum for nine years – and she doesn’t make a dime. Now that’s civic engagement.

Saturday: I drove today to North Platte, Neb., and on Saturday will drive the rest of the way to Laramie, Wyo., for an all-day session with journalists (in addition to the access talk I’ll give a session on delivering good writing on deadline). Now I’m back in the flat farmland. I love the smell of pasture and young corn plants!

Day 38: Map out your document universe

So far: 28 states, 11,064 miles, 48 sessions, 847 people (see schedule)

St. Louis, Mo. — The best way to integrate document reporting into your day-to-day life is to exercise your records muscles daily.

Tip No. 48 – Circle of Light: This is a tip from Duff Wilson of The New York Times. When backgrounding someone, such as a candidate for political office, get out a piece of paper and write the person’s name in the middle. Then think of all the roles the person has in life – pet owner, property owner, spouse, boat owner, etc., and write each role around the name in a circle. Then jot down all the records around those roles that pertain to those roles. When you’re done you have a solar system of records to check out – a road map for your document search. Do this enough and you’ll be able to rattle off records on deadline.

Tip No. 49 – Freemind and Clusty: If you don’t like to manually write out stuff on paper, look for software to help you find connections. A participant in the St. Louis session mentioned the free software online called “Freemind” that you can use to do this on the computer. I checked it out and it looks interesting. Some people have suggested using social network software, although that can be a little clunky for casual use. Also, another participant suggested “Clusty,” which clusters Google hits by topic on a particular search (person you put in) by area so you can separate one John Smith from another John Smith. So if you put in “John Smith” in your Clusty search it will put together all the links for a particular one that shows up a lot. That way you don’t have to wade through pages and pages of Google pages sorting through all of them mixed up. Do you have other suggestions for documents-related software? E-mail me or post them here!

Friday: I drive to Springfield, Mo., for a session with the SPJ chapter, then onto North Platte, Neb., where I’ll stay the night. Doing a session in Laramie, Wyo., on Saturday. It was great Thursday – I met with staffers from the Effingham, Il., newspaper and then the St. Louis pro chapter.

Day 37: My return to the SPJ mother ship

So far: 26 states, 10,724 miles, 46 sessions, 817 people (see schedule)

Indianapolis, Ind. — The heart of the Society of Professional Journalists beats right here in Indianapolis – national headquarters.

Some of the SPJ national headquarters staff, from left, membership coordinator Linda Hall, intern April Dudash, and Associate Executive Director Chris Vachon.

Today I spoke to members of the Indianapolis SPJ pro chapter, coordinated by Amy Wimmer Schwarb, and then chatted with the staff members who run this organization of more than 8,000 members – the nation’s largest journalism group. Chris Vachon, associate executive director, deserves a lot of credit for this tour since it was she who re-worked the grant application that the SDX Foundation approved. Also, Heather Porter is coordinating the expenses and got the handouts together, and Scott Leadingham and Karen Grabowski have promoted the tour. Pulliam/Kilgore intern April Dudash from the University of Florida is hard at work on the annual FOI issue, due out this fall, and she’s updating the FOI FYI blog since I’m focusing on this tour for now. Webmaster Billy O’Keefe put together the special website and tour maps. I also thank Executive Director Joe Skeel for his support and providing some great pizza tonight. It’s truly a team effort.

Terry Harper

Today was also a special day to visit Indianapolis, as it marks the one year anniversary of the death of Terry Harper, the former SPJ executive director who led the organization while battling brain cancer for several years. The staff gathered with his widow, Lee Ann, and toasted a great man.

Tip No. 47: Join SPJ online right now to enhance your FOI powers! Here are some practical benefits, from an access perspective, of joining SPJ: Network with folks who care about FOI — Check out the FOI Committee members and feel free to e-mail them and develop contacts. Get special deals on cheaper contest entry fees for those great document-based stories. Get a break on conference registration fees, like the national convention Oct. 3-5 in Las Vegas (including a three-hour special training session I’ll teach on acquiring government data and putting it online for readers to search, not to mention other sessions on access to school records, among other topics). Access to special members-only training opportunities. Subscription to Quill magazine, which includes the “FOI Toolbox” column with practical tips for accessing records. Discounted services and deals so you can spend more money on document photocopies. The satisfaction that your membership dues will go toward SPJ’s efforts to keep government open, including letters opposing secrecy-oriented legislation (see yesterday’s post), talking with members of Congress to explain the importance of transparency, and joining or initiating court battles for records. Those reasons alone are enough to join, but don’t join for the practical reasons. Join because of our ideals. We don’t do this for the money. We do it because it makes the world better. It’s the right thing to do. Joining SPJ makes the world better. It’s the right thing to do.

Thursday: I’ll drive from Indianapolis to Effingham, Ill., to do a session for journalists there, then continue on for a session at 6:30 p.m. for the St. Louis, Mo., professional chapter.

Day 36: Educate lawmakers with letters, editorials

So far: 24 states, 10,365 miles, 45 sessions, 804 people (see schedule)

Cleveland, Ohio — If lawmakers want to shut down records in your state, educate them on why it’s important to the public to leave them open.

Clifford Anthony

Earlier this year Ohio legislators (and those in other states) considered shutting down 911 tapes (see FOI FYI blog entry). In the odd case in Ohio, the legislation would have allowed for a $10,000 fine against anyone broadcasting 911 calls (the tapes would still be public – it’s just that nobody could broadcast them). Clifford Anthony, a former journalist and current assistant professor at Lorain County Community College (and president of the Cleveland SPJ pro chapter), rallied the troops. He got SPJ to put together a letter, signed by national President Kevin Smith and the presidents from the three pro chapters (Clifford, Kevin Kemper from the Central Ohio chapter and James Pilcher from Cincinnati). Newspapers wrote convincing editorials. The legislation died. When I talked to Clifford tonight after the Cleveland session, he said he thinks it was the power of that letter and the editorials that led to the change of heart.

Tip No. 46: Contact SPJ to see if they can write a letter opposing secrecy. It’s helpful if local journalists lead the charge because they are known by the lawmakers and know the nuances better. Summarize the issue for SPJ national. You can even write a draft letter if you want. Then the FOI Committee chair and president can put in some quotes, sign it and get it back. Get all the SPJ chapters in the state to sign off on the letter. Then get it to all the media. Encourage folks to write editorials. This kind of pressure can do wonders.

Wednesday: I drive to Indianapolis to do a session at the Mothership (SPJ national headquarters). Had great sessions today for SPJ chapters in Cincinnati and Cleveland. Here were a few comments from attendees in Cleveland:

This one presentation was more helpful and informative than four years of college lectures.

Please continue to provide these types of programs. They are invaluable to us small-town journalists on the front lines.

Day 35: Crossroads of America – and journalism

So far: 24 states, 10,095 miles, 43 sessions, 770 people (see schedule)

Cincinnati, Ohio — Today as I reached the tour’s crossroads (the middle of the figure-8 for the tour route – I drove past here May 14 on the way from Detroit to Louisville), I realized that we too, in journalism, are at a crossroads.

Hagit Limor

That was hit home at dinner tonight with Hagit Limor, SPJ national president-elect and investigative reporter for WCPO-TV, and James Pilcher, president of the Cincinnati SPJ pro chapter. Hagit said this is a crucial time for journalists – and it’s important to get the message out that our survival is essential to protecting democracy.

She is so right.

Thanks to TV shows and movies, the average person perceives journalists as out to sell papers and uncover dirt for some perverse sadistic jollies. Most people don’t realize that we go into this biz to make the world better, that we put up with low pay, bad hours, unappreciative sources/readers/bosses, and high stress because we believe in what we do. We protect democracy.

In a way, journalists are true freedom fighters. And many of us pay the ultimate sacrifice, like soldiers. On this day, Memorial Day, I say we honor fallen journalists as well as fallen soldiers. Here are some stats, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists:

  • 15 journalists have been killed so far this year in the world.
  • 813 killed since 1992.
  • 35 are imprisoned in Iran.

The remains from the bombed out car that killed reporter Don Bolles in 1976.

Tip No. 45: Check out the atrocities toward the press at the CPJ website and remember what we are fighting for – keeping our country from going down the same path as those countries. Most journalist deaths aren’t in the U.S. They are in Iraq, Mexico, Africa, Pakistan, etc. Deaths do happen here, and when they do we often rally. Don Bolles’ death in Phoenix on June 13, 1976, led to the formation of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Oakland (Calif.) Post editor Chauncey Bailey’s death in 2007 led to an incredible investigative project online (great document work). When you argue for open police records, in addition to arguing on behalf of citizens who want to know what crimes are happening in their neighborhoods, argue that transparent law enforcement is necessary to prevent abuses of excessive force, brutality, and intimidation of political foes. THAT is why we need openness and a strong press. Without that we head down the same path as those other countries where press rights are trampled and citizen liberties squashed.

Don Bolles

So yes, journalism is at a crossroads as far as economic models, but one thing we cannot let go in all this is the importance of a strong Fourth Estate to hold those in power accountable and keep government open. That is what the founding fathers intended, for democracy to work. Hagit and others at SPJ know this to be true, and want to promote the cause. If we do not, who will? Hold the line on transparency!

Tuesday: I’ll talk to the Cincinnati SPJ pro chapter at noon and then the Cleveland pro chapter at 7 p.m. About 10 days left of the tour. Still going strong!

Day 34: Memorialize veterans with records

So far: 24 states, 9,785 miles, 43 sessions, 770 people (see schedule)

Pittsburgh, Penn. — This Memorial Day weekend, honor those in your family who served in the military by getting copies of their service records. Make copies for relatives and hand them down to future generations. Documents provide tangible, authoritative and relatively accurate memorials for your own personal heroes.

Tip No. 44: To get an individual’s service records, go to the National Archives & Records Administration Web site. Next of kin (father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, unremarried surviving spouse) of deceased veterans can order up the information free online at this site. A similar online ordering form is available at The National Archives. If you aren’t next of kin or if the person is still alive, you can still get some information. You just have to fill out a written form instead of doing it online. Snag Standard Form 180 at The National Archives Web site, or fill out a formal FOIA request letter. They ask you to fill out as much information as you can, including full name, SSN, Date of birth, place of birth, service branch. But if you don’t know it all, that’s OK. They’ll give it their best shot to find the person. You will get a Report of Separation (DD Form 214), which verifies service and reason for separation.

You can get a summary of their policies at another Web site. I checked it out and found it is possible to get the following information about someone if you specifically ask for it (if you don’t ask they won’t give it out, the policy states): dates of service, rank, present and past assignments, decorations and awards, military schooling, photograph, and records of court-martial trials. For deceased veterans, they’ll give out place of birth, date and location of death, and place of burial.

Monday: I drive to Cincinnati in preparation of two sessions Tuesday, one in Cincinnati and one in Cleveland.

Day 33: Consider mediation before litigation

So far: 24 states, 9,445 miles, 43 sessions, 770 people (see schedule)

Wilkes-Barre, Penn. — Today at a session in with journalists from the Wilkes-Barre and Scranton area we had the chance to talk with an appeals officer for the state Office of Open Records.

Audrey Buglione, an appeals officer for the agency, provided some extremely useful information and tips for requesters.

Audrey Buglione, appeals officer for the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records

Tip No. 43: Consider trying mediation or dispute resolution to resolve sticky access battles. Sometimes it’s easier than going to court. Buglione said requesters and agencies have the option to seek mediation before going through a more involved appeal process and litigation. Sometimes agencies would rather mediate a dispute so it doesn’t become public and embarrassing. It’s a good way to let them save face and avoid expensive and timely court time.

One thing I’ve picked up going around the country is that these ombudsman-type offices in about half the states seem to have a pretty good impact on access to records, particularly in training government employees about the law. While the process isn’t perfect, I think it’s a net gain for FOI. An outstanding scholar from Texas Christian University, Daxton “Chip” Stewart, has done some good research on the subject. I look forward to more.

I’m impressed that a dozen people would show up for the session on a Saturday during Memorial Day weekend. Thanks to Andrew Seaman from the Wilkes-Barre student chapter and Daniel Axelrod from the Keystone State pro chapter for co-sponsoring the event.

Sunday-Monday: I take the rest of the holiday weekend to work my way to Cincinnati for a few sessions in Ohio on Tuesday.

Tour continues to get media coverage

John Curran of The Associated Press covered the Vermont session Friday. See his story here.

Also, the Reynolds Center in the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University put up a video of the presentation in Phoenix toward the beginning of the tour. It’s great to get this message out – and it’s not even national Sunshine Week!

Day 32: Rally liberals, conservatives for FOI

So far: 23 states, 9,445 miles, 42 sessions, 758 people (see schedule)

Montpelier, Vt. –Elephants and donkeys CAN work together for freedom of information. Today I talked with more than 30 Vermont residents, rallied by SPJ Vermont Sunshine Chair Mike Donoghue from The Burlington Free Press.

Jack Hoffman in front of a screen projection of his website, "Vermont Transparency."

Tip No. 42: Get conservative and liberal think tanks together to fight for open government. Jack Hoffman is working with two such organizations in Vermont to gather government data and put it online for citizens at Vermont Transparency. Jack covered the state Legislature for 20 years for the Vermont Press Bureau, so he knows his way around state government. For the past few years he’s been working for the liberal Public Assets Institute to help citizens get government data online in usable, easily searchable formats. The liberal group has joined with the conservative Ethan Allen Institute to create this transparency website. It goes to show that government transparency and accountability is bipartisan! I’ve seen a variety of government-accountability non-profits throughout the country fight for transparency – the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Washington state, and the Mackinac Center in Michigan. All of these groups are great allies in pushing for open, accountable government. I’ve been told that every state has such a group in some form or another. Involve them in your fights, and in your coalitions!

The capitol building in Montpelier, Vt. Really cool!

Driving through New England today was a real treat. The rolling hills, lush trees and shallow rocky rivers reminded me of parts of the Pacific Northwest. What I can’t understand is why these beautiful states aren’t overrun with people! They’ve been around for centuries – I would think everyone would want to live in New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, etc. Incredibly nice places. And Montpelier is a unique place. It has about 9,000 people, based on some census stats, making it the smallest state capital in the nation. I was told it’s also the only state capital that doesn’t have a McDonald’s. In fact, I was really impressed with Vermont – no billboards, no cheesy interstate clusters of the usual suspects (Waffle House, Cracker Barrel, etc.). It was so nice. Every state should be like Vermont!

Even though I’m about three-quarters of the way through, and still have about two weeks, I’m still so pumped at the effects of this kind of training. Here was a comment in the anonymous evaluations:

You brought my enthusiasm for daily journalism back to life! Can’t wait to try one of these ideas out.

Saturday: I’ll meet with journalists in the Scranton, Penn., area. I’m hoping to pick up some good Dunder-Mifflin souvenirs from the TV show, The Office, while I’m here.

Day 31: Be prepared with copy of the law

So far: 22 states, 9,273 miles, 41 sessions, 727 people (see schedule)

Portland, Maine — Jeff Inglis always comes prepared for a public record.

Jeff Inglis carries the Maine public records law in a folded piece of paper in his wallet.

Tip No. 40: Jeff, president of the Maine SPJ chapter, copied the Maine Freedom of Access Act (cool name for a state public records law) and pasted it to a piece of paper, about 4-point font, and folded it up in a way so it fits in his wallet. When an official denies a public records request he simply pulls out the law and asks politely where in the law it says the record can be kept secret. If the official doesn’t believe that he has the whole state public records law on the double-sided sheet of paper he shows them the law on a website. If you can, carry along a copy of the law printed by your state’s association of cities, which government officials are going to trust. Great idea, Jeff!

Irwin Gratz

It was great to meet with the Portland, Maine, SPJ chapter tonight, including former SPJ President Irwn Gratz. Earlier in the day I stopped at the Telegram and Gazette in Worcester, Mass., for a session (they tell me you pronounce the city “Wousta” or “Wista”). The papers, owned by The New York Times, recently went to battle for records regarding disciplinary records of a police officer. With enough perseverance they got the city to yield. Good job!

Investigative reporters Thomas Caywood, left, and Shaun Sutner, at the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Mass.

Tip No. 41: Shaun Sutner, a member of the paper’s investigative reporting team, said that when he requests a record via e-mail he’ll often cc others, such as the person’s supervisor or the state public records supervisor, so the official knows that others are aware of the request. It’s more difficult to ignore or deny a request when others are aware of its existence.

Thursday: I drive to Montpelier, Vt., to talk with access advocates and journalists. My first time to Maine and Vermont. No Waffle Houses on these highway interchanges!

Day 30: Build your FOI network on FOI-L

So far: 20 states, 8,933 miles, 39 sessions, 690 people (see schedule)

New York, N.Y. — In the anonymous feedback forms today, someone from the New York Deadline Club chapter session suggested we start a FOI listserv. Great idea!

But someone’s already beat us to it.

Tip No. 39: Join the FOI-listserv. This listserv is run by Barbara Fought of Syracuse University. You’ll find people who have problems getting records, with experts willing to provide thoughts. You’ll also see the breadth of the FOI community, including some people who are watchdogging certain agencies or out for specific causes (e.g., exposing records documenting proof of UFOs). I find the listserv helpful. For more details, check out the NFOIC Web site with how to sign up. Also, if you are into government data, check out the NICAR listserv (National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting).

Today I had a great session with journalists in East Brunswick, N.J. It’s a Gannett paper, and I have to tell you, I’ve been impressed with Gannett lately. The emphasis on watchdog journalism appears to be paying off. I’m seeing some outstanding FOI work at these places. Thanks to Caryn Shinske for organizing it.

Then, tonight, I drove to NYC to speak to the SPJ chapter Deadline Club. I’m not a big fan of the 15-mile backups on the freeways, but I do have to say that driving in Manhattan is pretty fun. It’s like a school of minnows sliding through streets in an odd someone coordinated flow (minnows that honk their horns a lot). The Deadline Club session was hosted by The Associated Press and coordinated by Tricia Couture. It was a pleasure talking with them.

Thursday: I do a session in Worcester, Mass., and then for the Maine SPJ pro chapter in Portland. I’ve never been to New England, so I’m looking forward to the drive!

Day 29: Sometimes you just gotta go to the mat

So far: 18 states, 8,833 miles, 37 sessions, 640 people (see schedule)

Martinsburg, WV — Occasionally you’ll run into some public officials who just don’t want to follow the law – knowingly denying information that is legally disclosable.

Time to take of the gloves and remind them who is boss – the public.

I talked with some excellent journalists today (Tuesday) from the Martinsburg (W.V.) Journal and Shepherdstown Chronicle. They talked about a struggle to get copies of work-related e-mails that were sent among public officials on their private e-mail accounts. The papers got the records. Here’s how:

Tip No. 38 – Bring in the attack dogs: If an agency is balking at giving out records that should be given out, call them up and talk about how your attorneys are ready to go to bat. Threat of lawsuit is very powerful. Of course, be ready to follow through. Another hard tactic is to apply public pressure by writing stories. Or create a running box on your editorial pages called “Days of Denial” where you have a one-paragraph summary of how an agency has refused to provide legally disclosable records with a big number each day representing how many days the agency has kept the information secret.

Wednesday: After driving through West Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania (so nice and green, but then everything is green compared to southern Arizona), today I stopped in Allentown, Penn. On Wednesday I’ll do a session at the newspapers in East Brunswick, N.J., and then conduct an evening session for the New York City SPJ chapter, the Deadline Club. I’m looking forward to it, although the charge for parking for my car is more than what I’ve paid for hotel rooms in some towns!

Day 28: In the heart of the beast – D.C.

So far: 17 states, 8,565 miles, 36 sessions, 628 people (see schedule)

Washington, D.C. — If you want to focus on freedom of information, you come to Washington, D.C.

Today (Monday), before a night session at the National Press Club, I had the chance to drive around the city (I don’t recommend doing that, but I had to), visiting FOIA experts. Here’s what I found out:

Julia Chapman

Tip No. 34: Go out and get something easy. Julia Chapman, a publications fellow for the Student Press Law Center, said a lot of student journalists don’t go out and seek records. Heck, I’ve visited with a lot of professional journalists who have never requested records, are intimidated to ask, and have never requested a record. Frank LoMonte, executive director of SPLC, told me in their Arlington, Va., offices this morning, that he suggests people start with simple records, like restaurant inspections. They are easy to get and have high local impact. “Start easy. Don’t star with something that is a long shot and will take a long time.” Also, Frank said, don’t assume a denial from a school based on the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is based on the law. Most of the time the schools misapply the law (check SPJ’s Reporter’s Guide to FERPA for more details). Also, make sure to check the SPLC Web site for the latest news in student press rights, gleaned by the summer interns, Sommer Ingram from Baylor University and Josh Moore from Western Kentucky University.

SPLC interns Sommer Ingram and Josh Moore

Rick Blum

Tip No. 35: Find the “librarian” of the agency, said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, also housed in a nice office building in Arlington, Va. Rick said it’s helpful to have someone to talk to you if you don’t know where a record is. Someone at an agency who can tell you what the record is called and where it might be, “like a librarian sitting at a desk ready to take 15 minutes to help you find the book you need.” This is a great tip. No use wasting a lot of time browsing thousands of book shelves for a record. Ask the person at the agency who knows what is kept and where. Call around until you find that person.

Mark Caramanica

Tip No. 36: Know the Web site for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. This is an awesome organization that fights for journalists’ rights, particularly in freedom of information. Mark Caramanica is the new FOIA director for RCFP, as he wraps up his Ph.D. from the University of Florida. He’s been on the job for about a month and is there to help reporters who have problems with accessing records. The RCFP Web site has tons of useful guides for reporters in its reading room. Check them out!

Tip No. 37: Know the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the new federal ombudsman for accessing public records. This office, started last fall is OUTSTANDING (and I don’t put things in all-caps often). I met with the staffers today in their offices in College Park, Md., and I was impressed. First, they are housed in the National Archives, which is cool (better than being house by the Department of Justice). Second, their staff is comprised of experts from both sides – requesters and government, including the former FOIA director of RCFP. Outstanding people. If you have a problem getting records from a federal agency, call or e-mail this office. They get about 5-10 queries a day and try to help mediate between requesters and agencies. They have so far handled several hundred cases, with most of those resolved. The largest issue seems to be when agencies deny requests (28 percent of their cases).

The OGIS crew, from left, Adrianna C. Rodriguez, Kirsten Mitchell, Candace Boston, Corinna Zarek, Miriam Nisbet, Carrie McGuire, and Karen Finnegan.

Tonight I did a session with more than 40 people at the National Press Club. It was a diverse audience – a good mix of college students and experienced pros. I appreciate the work of Julie Asher and others in coordinating the event.

Tuesday: I’ll drive to West Virginia for a session with journalists in Martinsburg, then end the day in Allentown, Penn. I look forward to seeing a piece of the Shenandoah Valley.

Day 27: Details in the data

So far: 17 states, 8,495 miles, 35 sessions, 584 people (see schedule)

Washington, D.C. — It’s amazing what you can find in the buried properties of electronic records.

Tip No. 33: Make sure to ask for electronic files in their “native format.” So if they were Word documents, as for copies of the original Word documents. Then check the properties of the file to see who created it, who changed it, when it was changed, etc (on  PC, right-click on the file icon and pick “properties,” then look at the various tabs of info). You might find that the file was edited or changed by someone.

In Arizona the state Supreme Court ruled that the embedded information in electronic files are part of the records so they are subject to the public records law just like other parts of the recorded record. If an agency says it doesn’t have to provide you the “meta-data” then you probably will have a good chance of challenging and winning.

Power of preaching: Some kind words from Michael Koretzky to the SPJ board in an e-mail following the stop in South Florida last week:

… Dave drove into South Florida Thursday night and completely kicked ass … this wasn’t a dry recitation of how to acquire arcane documents. Dave psyched up and out those journalists.

One of my students even emailed me well after midnight that he was “up late on an FOI buzz,” researching a whole bunch of crap online that he learned from Dave four hours earlier. And he found two story ideas he’s already pursuing.

Dave Cuillier doesn’t just give a lecture, he delivers a call to arms. He explicitly shows what you can do with those damning documents you unearth, and he ends with an impassioned, damn-the-torpedos exhortation. The high-tech clickers are cool, too.

Now, I don’t post this to brag, but rather to show the power of some FOI evangelism. I’m hoping we can continue this sort of programming for journalists and citizens for years to come. And I’m looking forward to the last three weeks of this tour!

Monday: Today (Sunday) I drove to Washington, D.C., in preparation for a session with the SPJ DC chapter Monday night. It’s fun to be in D.C. – what a place of history. I love seeing the original Bill of Rights – the original First Amendment. Beautiful words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Day 26: Figure out the real reason for the denial

So far: 17 states, 8,385 miles, 35 sessions, 584 people (see schedule)

Richmond, Va. — Nicole Bell from NBC-12 in Richmond was trying to get a simple court file about an animal cruelty case, involving abused horses, and the clerk said “no.”

Nicole Bell

She was surprised. Why would something presumptively open, like a basic court file, be kept secret? The clerk said “I don’t feel comfortable giving that out,” Bell told me today (Saturday) at the session for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. The clerk wanted to funnel the decision up to the Supreme Court!

Nicole said she was baffled, and she didn’t know what to do. That would baffle me, too.

Tip No. 32: Figure out the real reason for the denial – what is making the clerk nervous about releasing the record? Is it because there is one piece of information that is particularly sensitive (involving a child victim)? Is it because the clerk is afraid of getting in trouble by releasing it? Once you know the reason for the denial then you can work through the issues (e.g., talk about the potential balancing test of privacy and public interest, talk to a higher-up so that person doesn’t get in trouble). A study by Michele Kimball of the University of South Alabama showed that law enforcement clerks are sometimes arbitrary in whether they give out a legally disclosable document, depending on whether they think the person deserves it. For example, they will often provide victims records for free. But if they think the requester is out to get someone in the records they might say the record is secret to protect people in the records. They aren’t supposed to do that, but it often happens. By the way, when you write a story about the secrecy, make sure to name the specific person who is denying the record, and let that person know he or she will be named as the person responsible. Don’t just name the agency in general. That will make the person think twice.

Thanks to Megan Rhyme, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, for coordinating the event, which included more than 30 journalists and interested citizens. It was a great group. Three private investigators showed up as well! The Virginia Press Association hosted the gathering – sweet building.

Sunday: I drive to D.C. to get ready for a session there, and meet with various open government groups, including the new Office of Government Information Services (the federal FOIA “ombudsman” office).

Day 25: You dig answers? So does Joe

So far: 16 states, 8,165 miles, 34 sessions, 552 people (see schedule)

Jacksonville, Fla. — Joe Adams loves answers, and he is great at helping others find them.

Joe is an editorial writer at The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and vice chairman of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee. I had lunch with Joe today (Friday) on my way from Miami to North Carolina.

Joe Adams

Joe is phenomenal. Everyone in Florida knows him. He’s talked to just about every class and media organization about FOI. He wrote the Florida Public Records Guide, hands-down the most comprehensive state FOI guide in the nation (I collect them). He’s created great classroom tools for college journalism instructors. But more important, Joe has created a great Web site that helps citizens access their records. It’s called idiganswers.com, and it includes his “hit records” as well as tips for backgrounding dates. This is the best way to spread freedom of information.

Tip No. 31: Publish a weekly column in your newspaper or on your Web site about “Records for Everyday Life,” providing each week a cool record that people can use to improve their lives. Jennifer LaFleur, formerly of The Dallas Morning News and now with ProPublica, used to write a column like this, called Citizen Watchdog. It was awesome. Every paper should do this. Not only is it news-you-can-use that citizens appreciate, but it fosters public support for government records because they see the practical utility of them.

Saturday: I’ll drive from Dunn, N.C. to Richmond, Va., where I’ll give a talk to the Virginia SPJ pro chapter. Thanks for having lunch with me, Joe! Tip for travelers: I have a tough time finding postcards for my kids. But I found that trucker travel centers usually have them – so far “Pilot” centers along the interstates always have them. Most other places are hit or miss.

Day 24: Refer to sources agencies respect

So far: 16 states, 7,428 miles, 34 sessions, 552 people (see attached)

Boca Raton, Fla. — Today (Thursday) I spoke with the South Florida SPJ pro chapter at Florida Atlantic University and had the chance to hear from students who struggle to get information from administrators.

University officials are notorious for dinking students around over records. It can be tough to exert authority when administrators consider themselves all-powerful (and forget that they are public servants).

Michael Koretzky

Michael Koretzky, an SPJ national board member and adviser to the FAU student newspaper, said he found that universities won’t usually listen to journalists or open-government organizations, but they will listen to other universities, particularly bigger, more prestigious universities.

Tip No. 30: If an agency doesn’t believe you that a record is public, provide open-government manuals from official entities they would respect, such as the state attorney general’s office or the state’s association for cities and towns. Often those entities provide guides to cities and other local jurisdictions. The cities might not believe you, but they might believe their peers or the AG, the highest government attorney in the state.

Darcie Lunsford

It was good to chat with Darcie Lunsford, who is secretary-treasurer for the national SPJ board of directors and associate editor of the South Florida Business Journal. She’s covering the real estate market – a tad busy in recent years! I also had the chance today to chat with Eric Newton, vice president for the journalism program at the Knight Foundation in Miami. The Knight Foundation provided some of the funding for this tour, via the National Freedom of Information Coalition, so I’m grateful for a group that believes in journalism and freedom of information. Check out all the cool programs they fund for journalism. I talked to Eric about some of what I’ve seen so far, including the huge need for training at small papers. A lot of journalists don’t learn how to access records in college, and some of them aren’t getting it on the job. We need to figure out ways to make sure every community has hard-charging, knowledgeable journalists and citizens fighting for good governance and accountability!

Friday: I start heading north again up the East Coast for sessions in Virginia Saturday, in D.C. on Monday, and beyond. I’ll have lunch Friday with Joe Adams, vice chair of the SPJ FOI Committee, who is an editorial writer for the Jacksonville, Fla., newspaper and authored Florida’s public records handbook. It’s been a lot of fun in Florida – I saw a wild alligator in some water near the highway. Crikey!

Day 23: Don’t become journalistic roadkill

So far: 15 states, 7,123 miles, 33 sessions, 536 people (see schedule)

Vultures preying on roadkill on a highway between Montgomery, Ala., and Valdosta, Ga.

Valdosta, Ga. — Today as I drove the backroads of southern Georgia I often came across turkey vultures munching gleefully on the splattered remains of various mammals. It made me think of the relationship today between journalists and government. Unfortunately, journalists aren’t the ones with the feathers.

As I go from newsroom to newsroom I see empty desks everywhere. Staffs are half the level they were five years ago. Journalists are stretched thin, often making phone calls for record checks instead of personal visits. A lot of people are stressed out and demoralized. Many government officials know it, and are taking advantage of it.

Don’t become journalistic roadkill. Stay strong and don’t let officials wear you down. Your community is relying on you!

Tip No. 27: Stay charged up by teaming up with journalists from other organizations. If you’re an education reporter, find an education reporter at a similar-sized organization in your state and work together on a project. Get statewide data and divide up the work. Come out with a nice beefy piece, localized to each of your communities. Make an impact. You’ll also make a friend – a colleague who understands your beat. Support each other. Keep charged.

Tip No. 28: Similarly, stay charged up by looking at inspirational reporting online while you’re at home watching bad TV (I do this while watching reality television). Check out the Extra Extra stories posted and archived by subject at www.ire.org. Even better, join IRE and have access to a 25,000-story online morgue of investigative stories, keyword searchable. Not to mention their tipsheets from conferences, also online for members, keyword searchable. Check out the SPJ Open Doors publication, or Joe Adams’ “hit records”. Charles Davis and I have started posting document ideas on our Art of Access website as well. Look at award-winning work, such as the Pulitzer winners or the SDX awards. See previous post on appointing a doc cheerleader,  a post on inspirational videos and one on spreading FOI fervor in your community. Get inspired so government doesn’t take advantage of you.

Pep talks can keep you at your best. Following Tuesday night’s session in Montgomery, David Joyner from Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. wrote some inspirational words, including thoughts he got from the Valdosta Daily Times Editor Kay Harris, who attended a session I gave today.

Dean Poling, assistant managing editor, Valdosta Daily Times

While I was chatting with the folks at the Valdosta (Ga.) Daily Times, they talked about a great tip for getting officials to provide records that are sensitive. Here’s what Dean Poling, assistant managing editor, said:

Tip No. 29: When you hear rumors of something up, go to officials and tell them the rumors, which are often worse than reality. For example, “I heard the principal ran off with a woman and stole thousands of dollars. We’re looking into it. Any comments?” The agency will say, “No, no, no, you can’t print that! It was the secretary who stole $500 from the student-body account. It wasn’t anything like you describe. Here’s the information…”

Thursday: I’ll drive from Tampa to Boca Raton for a session with the South Florida SPJ pro chapter.

Day 22: Don’t worry about ticking off officials

So far: 15 states, 6,411 miles, 32 sessions, 530 people (see schedule)

Montgomery, Ala. — Some journalists, particularly beginning reporters, worry that if they push too hard for records then they’ll anger officials and then the officials won’t talk to them.

Don’t worry about that! What are they going to do, not tell you about an upcoming ribbon cutting? Bahh! Elected officials need journalists more than journalists need them. With public records and good sourcing among line workers you won’t need to talk to the mayor.

The key is to focus on what the public thinks, not what top government officials think. Serve citizens, not sources. I emphasized this today in a few sessions, one in Atlanta before a crowd of about 35 people organized by the Georgia First Amendment Coalition (thanks to Director Hollie Manheimer). The second session was in Montgomery, Ala., for the state SPJ pro chapter. Thanks to SPJ Regional Director Jenn Rowell for organizing it.

Melody Dare

Tip No. 26: Melody Dare, an assistant editor at the Rockmart Journal in Georgia, provided a good tip about source development. When you first start a beat and are getting to know sources, explain that you will do your best to be accurate and fair, and that it is your job to write the good and the bad – that people will need to expect you to push for information because it is your job. While you are meeting people in that brief honeymoon period, ask for cell phone numbers from all your sources. Then later, after that story comes out that torques your sources, you will have those numbers for when you need them.

Here were some more comment from the anonymous evals:

Great journalists at the Montgomery session, from left, Alabama Pro Chapter President Dennis Pillion from AL.com, Jenn Rowell from the Montgomery Advertiser, Laura Johnson from the Anniston Star, David Joyner from Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (and vice president of the Alabama SPJ chapter), and George Daniels, from the University of Alabama and the SPJ Board of Directors

“Loved it. I haven’t done much with FOI in awhile and this was a great program to get me thinking more about FOI and how I can use it on my beat.”

“This has been a great, informative and inspiring couple of hours – I feel much more capable of going out to get info now than I did when I came in.”

“I needed an evangelist to rev me up!”

Wednesday: I drive south for a session at the Valdosta, Ga., newspaper, then land in Tampa for the night before doing a session in Miami Thursday. I love this southern food!

Day 21: Do we join FOI battles with allies?

So far: 13 states, 6,021 miles, 30 sessions, 490 people (see schedule)

Knoxville, Tenn. — How close should we get with FOI allies to battle illegal denials?

An outstanding session Monday night in Knoxville for the East Tennessee SPJ pro chapter

That was an excellent question raised by a journalist today (Monday) at a session in Knoxville. I usually suggest journalists work with others to battle illegal closures, including libertarian policy institutes, Realtors, contractors, Common Cause, ACLU, League of Women Voters, etc. But it feels odd “teaming up” with groups we might have to cover. How can we do that and still remain “objective”? I think we can do this several ways.

Tip No. 25: Appoint someone at your organization to create alliances in public records battles, such as an editorial page editor or manager who does not cover political issues regularly and has more leeway in working with outside groups. Second, we have to get away from the idea that this is inside baseball or a “press” issue. There are no FOI police. When government illegally denies records it is our ethical, moral and professional responsibility to take up the fight. Yes, we must avoid conflicts of interests and remain free of associations that would damage credibility, but we also must “be vigilant and courageous about holding those in power accountable,” according to the SPJ code of ethics. The code includes: “Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.” Also, note the very first sentence of the code of ethics, explaining our purpose on this earth: “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” It is our duty to fight for enlightenment, truth and information – for the good of the country.

Clint Brewer

Thanks to Elenora Edwards for coordinating the Knoxville session and Frank Gibson for organizing the Nashville session. Both gatherings were outstanding. Frank is a longtime FOI warrior. He delivered a letter to the Legislature on Monday opposing the effort to remove an AP reporter from the press corps (see blog item below). The resolution to stifle the press was taken off the table. Good work, Frank, and to all the groups who fought for press rights in Tennessee! Also, it was great to see former SPJ President Clint Brewer, who is doing great work for a Tennessee watchdog organization. Now that is journalism!

Tuesday: Heading to Atlanta for a lunch session, then Montgomery, Ala., for an evening talk. Love the South! Had lunch at Zaxby’s (chicken fast food in the South), and tomorrow I think I’ll chow down on grits.

Spread freedom in your own community!

It’s been encouraging to hear the feedback on this tour so far. Today (Sunday), John Bodette, editor of the St. Cloud Times, wrote a column about the session last week. Some highlights:

“The tour is an inspiration and a strong reminder of the important work journalists do to help provide information to citizens so they can make decisions.”

“One of his messages was to stand up against secrecy. It often takes time and hard work to get the information the public is entitled to, but if we don’t do it, who will?”

“His grueling cross-country trip is a great example of what one person can do for democracy.”

Thanks, John. That’s nice of you to say. We can’t stop with this one tour. All of us can spread freedom in our own communities. Think of it this way: We have thousands of soldiers who are willing to give up six months or years of their lives to serve their country to preserve our freedom, at great risk to their own lives. The least every American can do is take a few days or weeks out to preserve freedom in our own ways. I would probably be an awful soldier (my kids wallop me in Call of Duty), but I can talk about fundamental principles that our country is founded upon. I can’t spread freedom in Iraq, but I can do something here in our country. Join the cause!

Tip No. 24: Here are some ideas for spreading freedom in your own community:

  • Editorialize and write about the importance of liberty and freedom. Explain the practical benefits of voting, volunteering, getting involved in local government. Highlight the dangers of ignoring these principles through reminders of history (e.g., Stalin, Nazi Germany, Japanese interment camps, secret prisons, wiretapping innocent citizens).
  • Include sidebars and boxes with stories explaining where records can be obtained and explaining the fundamental reasons for why you had access to the information in your story.
  • Speak at community groups – Rotary, League of Women Voters, parent-teacher associations, writers groups, etc. Speak to high school civics classes.
  • Teach community education classes on “Journalism for Citizens,” providing helpful tips and skills on getting information, verifying facts, ethics, photography, video, and writing clearly (heck, maybe people would pay to attend such sessions at your newsroom offices).
  • Carve out a public service budget to pay for billboards and ads promoting First Amendment freedoms.
  • Put together an annual access project for national Sunshine Week, held each March.
  • Conduct your own statewide or regional access tour to speak to smaller newsrooms or citizen groups. It’s not difficult and people appreciate it. Good for grooming up-and-coming stars, to improve the hiring pool.
  • Create a coalition for open government in your state, if you don’t have one. If you do, get involved and keep it strong. See the list of state coalitions at the National Freedom of Information Coalition (a co-sponsor for this tour).
  • Join SPJ! Support the fight for your rights! The group has had a hit to membership, just like many others. We need to stand strong, side-by-side, or we will lose our rights. Freedom ain’t free (it costs a $1.05, or maybe a little more, but it’s worth it).

Day 20: When diabetes leads to secrecy

So far: 13 states, 5,536 miles, 28 sessions, 443 people (see schedule)

Nashville, Tenn. — Odd how something like diabetes can cause a fuss over access.

Today (Sunday) I got a day of rest, and a chance to prep for my sessions Monday for the Middle-Tennessee SPJ pro chapter and then the Knoxville chapter. The big topic of discussion Monday in Nashville will be the brouhaha over a political reporter’s photos of a fainting lawmaker.

According to The Tennessean and Nashville Scene, House Speaker Kent Williams collapsed Thursday because he hadn’t had breakfast and suffered from low blood sugar from his diabetes. As people scrambled to see if he was OK (or alive), Associated Press reporter Erik Schelzig started taking pictures with his cell phone. Legislators apparently got angry and a trooper ordered him out.

Since then, a bill has been proposed by Rep. Joe Towns to ask the chair of the Capitol Hill Press Corps to revoke Schelzig’s press credentials. (see the bill, Resolution 371). The bill states Schelzig acted “without thought and good judgment in attempting to take photographs and thereby needlessly hindering emergency medical personnel from providing necessary medical care…” From the photo I saw he wasn’t hindering aid (it was a photo of everyone coming to Williams’ aid). What’s interesting is the chair of the press corps is Schelzig, so the resolution is more of a public poke than anything.

Towns’ resolution is outrageous. What else is a journalist going to do when a leader in our government keels over? It’s our job to document history as it unfolds. The public expects that. This was big news – it could have been a fatal heart attack for all these people knew.

Tip No. 23: Reporters often face attacks on access to places. For great guides on how to handle these situations, as well as the law in accessing police scenes and other locales, check out the Reporters Committee’s guides on access to places, their nice reporter’s field guide, as well as one on access to Indian reservations. SPJ has a guide on access to prisons. Know your rights, and your limitations!

Monday: I’ll do a lunch session for the Middle Tennessee pro chapter in Nashville, then drive to Knoxville for a night session with the East Tennessee pro chapter.

Day 19: A little name dropping never hurts

So far: 12 states, 5,536 miles, 28 sessions, 443 people (see schedule)

Louisville, Ky. — Want a little clout in your records request? It doesn’t hurt to drop a popular name sometimes.

That’s what I learned today (Saturday) from Steve York, president of the Louisville SPJ pro chapter. Steve is a longtime manager at WAVE-3 TV. It’s been a while since he’s been on air, so most people don’t know him by name. When he submits a public records request he said he is calling on behalf of one of their popular reporters or anchors, like Dawne Gee. People fall all over themselves to help these community celebrities.

Steve York

Tip No. 22: Add oomph and authority to your request by having it come from, or co-authored by, someone who has perceived power or popularity. Ask the editor or publisher to sign your request. Or team up with a popular columnist on staff. Authority is a compelling psychological tactic in accessing records.

During the discussion I also heard from John Ferré, who teaches media ethics at the University of Louisville. He’s a big First Amendment fan, but he also understands the other side of the counter. John has administrative duties, so he assists in handling public records requests for his university. “Usually most requests are reasonable but what I find irritating is when people go on fishing expeditions, assuming that something bad is going on. The odd person will drive you crazy.” I hear that from record custodians a lot. Some people are out to harass public employees through abusive requests – asking for the world and then not picking up the records. Be sure not to be lumped into that category – pick up the records, even if it’s past deadline.

Neil Ralston

Today, after the session in Louisville, I drove to Bowling Green, Ky., and had lunch with Neil Ralston, SPJ’s vice president for campus chapter affairs, and a professor at Western Kentucky University, home of the fighting Hilltoppers with the mascot Big Red (Big Red looks like a cross between Barney and Patrick from Sponge Bob, which I suppose could be quite intimidating under the right circumstances). The campus is very nice – and the journalism building rocks. Neil is a champion for student press rights. If you are a student journalist and run into problems with your administration, feel free to contact Neil. He cares passionately about your rights!

Kentucky is a beautiful state. I’m impressed by the nice roads, lush trees and friendly people. And I love that southern twang!

Sunday: Woo-hoo! My first day off in 19 days. I’m going to sit in my hotel room in Nashville and get caught up on work (my other job as a journalism professor). I might sleep in – got a heavy week ahead, going down to Miami and back up the eastern coastline. I feel for the residents here who are still cleaning up after the flooding. The hotel is packed with workers in town to put things back in order. On Monday I give a session to the Middle-Tennessee SPJ pro chapter.

Day 18: Some records are like ice cream

So far: 11 states, 5,414 miles, 27 sessions, 439 people (see schedule)

Findlay, Ohio — Public records are like broccoli and ice cream.

The thought just struck me as I visited Findlay, Ohio, today. I met with staffers from The Courier, as well as other visiting students, journalists and educators (thanks to Editor Peter Mattiace for coordinating the event). Even Edwin Heminger attended, who is the third generation publisher to run the paper (it’s onto the fourth generation publisher now). The Heminger family has led the paper since 1886.

I grabbed some ice cream in Findlay, Ohio, before my session with The Courier.

A colleague at the University of Arizona School of Journalism grew up in Findlay, and she told me I had to go to Dietsch Brothers ice cream shop, in business since 1937. I got a scoop of chocolate chocolate chip. Yummy. The town is lined with American flags, nicely cut lawns and huge leafy trees. Friendly people right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The heart of the country!

As I ate my ice cream I wondered how this company has stayed in business for so long, as well as the newspaper (the longest continuously run business in Findlay). Well, obviously they both provide something people want. Ice cream is a slam dunk. Everyone likes that every now and then. It tastes good.

Records have taste, too. Some records are like broccoli: they aren’t that thrilling but they are essential for sustaining a healthy democracy, such as budgets, audits, and consultant reports. We need to look at them because they tell us what our government is up to.

Other records are like ice cream. They taste good. They tantalize and give readers thrills. Take it in too fast and it might give you a headache, though. And democracies can’t live solely on ice-cream records. They are the kinds of records that drive hits on Web sites: public-employee salaries, restaurant inspections, crime/court records and text messages between public employees and their lovers. They also can inform us on how government is working (e.g., identifying the governor’s friends and family on the payroll for not doing anything).

Art on a Courier paper box

Tip No. 21: In my survey research I’ve found that the public strongly supports public-safety records to be made public, such as crime, dam inspection data, location of chemical dangers, and sex offenders. However, if records have a hint of privacy then people tend to demonstrate less support (e.g., property tax, divorce records). In posting records or data online, make sure to explain the public importance if there is a privacy concern. Highlight records that have a public safety function.

So let me ask all the Web masters out there: What records/databases on your sites are most popular? That would be a great study. Comment here if you can.

Saturday: I’ll be meeting with the Louisville SPJ pro chapter, then driving to Nashville.

Day 17: Request the FOI logs to get record ideas

So far: Ten states, 5,084 miles, 26 sessions, 420 people (see schedule)

Detroit — Despite the economic woes of media organizations today, fierce competition is alive and well in cities like Detroit.

Today (Thursday) I visited the Detroit SPJ pro chapter and could feel the excitement of competition in the room. It was great! The meeting was held in a training room in the building that houses The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. Folks from both camps attended, as well as television stations and independent weeklies (It was great to see Jim Schaefer there from the Free Press – he did outstanding work outing former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s corruption, winning a Pulliam award from SPJ and a Pulitzer a few years back. And it was great to be in Detroit – I interned at the Free Press in 1988 and loved it). There is a point in the talk where I have people share record ideas and the room was silent. Nobody wanted to tip off their competition!

Owosso Argus-Press Editor Dan Basso, and part of the gang.

Tip No. 20: I suggest reporters request the agency’s FOI logs to see what kinds of records might be out there. Most agencies track who requested records, when the records were requested, when they were provided, and the record description. Some journalists use this to see what the competition is up to, which I think is a kind of cheap. But it’s so important to have these records public. In Chicago, the mayor recently announced he would post FOI logs online for anyone to see, which is GREAT! Some journalists are complaining, saying it’s a tactic to thwart reporters (see Reporters Committee blurb and Chicago Sun-Times story). Maybe it is an attempt by the mayor to jab the media, which illustrates how agencies are strategic about controlling information and the media (and why we need to be strategic about getting information). But regardless of the possible intent, having that information public is essential for people to know how our agencies are processing records. We can’t argue for FOI and then call for records to be muzzled just because it’s inconvenient for our jobs. Several studies have examined federal FOIA logs to see what percentage of requesters are journalists (5-14%), commercial users (about 66%) and the public/non-profits (25%). Some scholars have used these types of records to show that agencies delay or deny requests more often to journalists than for other users (see compilation of research at the Art of Access website).  So make sure you have access to this information – and go get it!

Thanks to Detroit pro chapter President Colleen Clement, Ann Zaniewski, Walter Middlebrook, and others for coordinating the chapter event. They have an awesome group. While in Michigan I stopped by the Owosso Argus-Press and chatted with the staff of five newsies. It was a great crew. They work hard covering a lot of agencies! One reporter said he was billed more than $100 for a photocopy of a report. That’s robbery! See tips for talking down outrageous fees in an earlier post.

Friday: Headed to Ohio for a session in Findlay, then driving to Louisville before an SPJ session Saturday morning.

Day 16: Private investigators wealth of knowledge

So far: Ten states, 4,884 miles, 24 sessions, 396 people (see schedule)

Lansing, Mich. — Make sure to tap into the knowledge of private investigators, particularly those who were once journalists – they combine information-hunting skills with ethics.

Tonight (Wednesday) at a gathering for the Mid-Michigan Pro Chapter in Lansing, an enthusiastic crowd offered a bunch of tips in access that I think are outstanding. Here are a few from former journalist and current private investigator Patrick Clawson:

Kevin Polzin, business editor of the Lansing State Journal, left, Jeremy Steele, SPJ Region 4 Director, and Diana Buchanan, a former Journal staffer, at the Mid-Michigan Pro Chapter meeting Wednesday night.

Tip No. 17: Specify in your request the way the records will help people understand how government operates. Now, in most public records law the reason why you want the records is irrelevant – you shouldn’t have to explain yourself. Yet, at the same time the courts are increasingly saying that public records laws apply only to records that illuminate what the government is up to. There’s a disconnect there. If you specify how the records illustrate how well government is working then that prevents one potential reason for denial. For example, let’s use the example of pet licenses. Snoopy reason: I want to get the database to have home addresses to find people on deadline. Government operations reason: I want to analyze the percentage of licensed pets by zip code to see if the agency is adequately serving all demographic groups in the city.

Tip No. 18: If you are denied a record and write about the denial focus on the individual person who denied you. Don’t say the agency denied you, because officials can then hide behind the agency title – nobody has to take responsibility. Single out the person – put a human face to the denial-giver. Furthermore, it gives an easy way out for the person in charge to provide the records by blaming the person who denied the records (the agency head might throw the employee under the bus to save face).

Tip No. 19: Get your private investigator license (if your state licenses PIs) and learn all the sources of information they get, including driver’s license data. I did this once when I was a reporter but didn’t feel like I could use the records as a PI for reporting purposes. But Patrick Clawson said it’s worked for him, and that he even defended the practice in court. So it’s worth checking out. I did learn quite a bit when I went through the training and certification process.

Thanks to Tony Tagliavia, chapter president, and Jeremy Steele, Region 4 Director, for organizing the event. It was a blast. Some great representation from local papers, The Associated Press, and university.

Thursday: I’ll visit with the Owosso Argus Press then the Detroit pro chapter. Michigan is nice and green!

Day 15: Appoint document/data cheerleader

So far: Nine states, 4,224 miles, 23 sessions, 378 people (see schedule)

Minneapolis, Minn. — You don’t have to be The New York Times to do incredible database journalism. Just check out the St. Cloud Times, a 27,000-circulation daily in Minnesota.

Dave Aiekens

I was wowed by the paper’s journalists who focus on computer-assisted reporting and watchdog investigations. Not to mention Dave Aeikens, SPJ’s president last year, who is an FOI guru and dogged reporter. They are gathering data and providing it for people on their Web site. You’ll find building permits, restaurant inspections, pool inspections, and much more. Check it out.

Tip No. 16: Appoint someone in your newsroom to be the “watchdog reporter” or “database cheerleader.” I think it’s even better to appoint an assistant city editor position for that duty because the person would have a little clout over the reporters. Then have that person work with each reporter in producing a stellar document-or-data-based project each year. If you have 12 reporters then that would be one great Sunday project each month. Shoot for two per reporter per year the following year (two a month published). Sometimes we need a cheerleader in the newsroom to keep people fired up, because the daily grind can wipe people out!

Minneapolis SPJ pro chapter President Scott Theisen talks with the group.

After chatting with folks in St. Cloud, I drove to Minneapolis for a session with the SPJ pro chapter. Thanks to Scott Theisen, chapter president, for organizing the session, along with Sarah Bauer, president-elect. We had a great discussion. I appreciate some of the folks encouraging me to focus on examples of document-based stories anyone can do in their neighborhoods – not just an investigative team from a metro. That is so true. Great stories come in all shapes and sizes.

Wednesday: I get up early and drive to Lansing, Mich., for a session with the Mid-Michigan Pro Chapter.

Day 14: Shooting for a thousand points of light

So far: Nine states, 4,131 miles, 21 sessions, 343 people (see schedule)

Marshall, Minn. — It’s my hope this access tour ignites a thousand points of lights. So far 343 down, and 657 to go.

A picture of the sky today in Minnesota. Gray and dumping rain all day. Let there be light!

It’s dark out there – secrecy shrouds and obfuscates government operations. Just like the clouds and heavy rains that kept the Minneosta skies gray today. We need more light in this country.

So I’m hoping I’ll have a chance to talk to more than 1,000 people during this trip. So far, a third of the way there, it looks like we’re on track to accomplish that. Then, I hope those 1,000 people tell others and spread a little sunshine around.

I had a chance to talk with news reporters from the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Argus Leader and the Marshall (Minn.) Independent. Education reporter Jodelle Greiner from the Independent brought up a great tip for dealing with school officials:

Tip No. 15: Explain to officials that they are better off being up front about problems and handing over records rather than fighting to keep them secret to hide embarrassing facts. The cover-up is always worse than the crime. Also, when officials hide records reporters work harder to get them, and editors perceive the story more important (Page One play, here we come). So if you can explain that to officials, and remind them that it’s better to “get in front of a story” and provide information quickly and openly, then the pain will be over faster.

Here’s an e-mail I got today from a Spokane, Wash., journalist:

Just wanted to drop you a line to tell you thanks for the great FOI training session last week. I’ve heard very positive remarks from many of those who attended, so it’s safe to say you were a hit. I’m glad you’re doing this road trip — it’s exactly what newsrooms like ours need, and what SPJ should be devoting its time and money to.

Thanks for the comment! I’m starting to think this is one way to reach a lot of people with a high-impact training experience. In addition to online training and conferences, this might be a great way to spread knowledge. But still 30 days to go. Check back with me in June!

Tuesday: I’ll talk with the St. Cloud newspaper staff then travel to Minneapolis for a session with the SPJ pro chapter.

FOI First on Fridays

Sioux Falls, S.D. — One tip I’m giving people, particularly those who are stretched thin, is to make records requests a weekly ritual.

Tip No. 14: Reserve an hour during the week when you aren’t too busy – maybe a Friday morning before others come in. Request one record, or type of record, from an agency each week and use that time to check in on pending requests. Track the requests. If you do that you’ll have at least 52 records requests issued in a year, and if you get stories from just half of them then you’ll have ratcheted up your reporting a whole level. Also, it gets the agency accustomed to you asking for records, which will make the process easier down the road. Put a sticky note on your monitor to remind yourself: “FOI First on Fridays.”

I think this can work for a lot of people. Here’s an e-mail I got from an editor at a paper following a stop:


Sorry to be tardy in sending you a note to let you know that you were an out-of-the-park hit with our reporters, editors and us vigorous veterans.

Everyone seemed eager to put your information into practice. Our reporters had filed three public access requests by 5 p.m. Friday… I heard from more than one reporter that it was great to be validated for professional, accountable and ethical newsgathering in this twittering era of the blogosphere.


Day 13: Heroes come in all sizes

So far: Eight states, 3,876 miles, 19 sessions, 328 people (see schedule)

Rapid City, S.D. — Today I saw many national heroes – some presidents larger than life (Mt. Rushmore) and some reporters making their communities better.

Emilie Rusch, city hall reporter for the Rapid City Journal

I chatted with a dozen journalists from the Rapid City Journal today, organized by copy editor Savannah Tranchell (a University of Idaho graduate – go Vandals! I taught there as an adjunct while in grad school). Talk about dedication – coming in on a Sunday afternoon on Mother’s Day. Emilie Rusch, a city hall reporter, told me she sometimes has troubles getting the mayor to cough up records. But she reminds him about his pledge to keep government transparent. It’s one of his platforms.

Tip No. 12: Get public officials to sign pledges of openness when they run for office, then when they break the public records law pull the pledge out and remind them of their promise. At the very least, ask every incoming elected official and high-ranking officer what their views are on access, quote them and get it in the record. Then if they favor illegal secrecy run those initial quotes in your story. And if it’s an official who ran on a platform of openness, just remind that person every now and then.

Mount Rushmore - Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln

After the session I drove to Mount Rushmore, about 20 miles from Rapid City, and took a gander at some presidential icons – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. My favorite Lincoln quote: “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe.” Then I toodled another 10 miles to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, still in progress.

These rock sculptures are inspirational to FOI requesters. George Washington challenged the tyranny of the king of England. Crazy Horse was an Oglata Lakota warrior who challenged the tyranny of a government that reneged on promises. These principle-based leaders fought for something greater than their personal well-being. Journalists, too, fight for principles and challenge authority. We must always put our principles first and our bottom line second. It is our duty to challenge authority and demand transparency so people can make informed decisions!

The Crazy Horse Monument is still under construction. When finished, he will point to the right and be riding a horse. It will be HUGE.

Tip No. 13: Get inspired by watching videos that rev your ideals. It doesn’t even have to be a journalism movie. For me, The Untouchables is inspirational – people fighting for what’s right, against all odds. Here are some ideas for FOI-inspiring video nights (comment with your favorites!):
* All the President’s Men (documents and sources can bring down a president)
* Good Night and Good Luck (journalists like Edward R. Murrow stand up to the abuse of power)
* Veronica Guerin (journalists are willing to give their lives for uncovering societal ills)
* Snow Falling on Cedars (journalists at community papers can stand up for what’s right, and use records in ways to further justice)
* The Fog of War (great look into how government spins, featuring Robert McNamara)
* McLibel (shows how citizens can stand up to big corporations)
* The Running Man (cheesy Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick that shows what kind of society we might have if we don’t hold the line – great short documentary on civil liberties on the DVD)

One of the many billboards for Wall Drug, in Wall, S.D.

Monday: I’ll be talking with the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, then driving into Minnesota to talk with the Marshall Independent and bunk in St. Cloud. Today I drove the distance of South Dakota. I could not escape the hundreds of Wall Drug signs along the highway. Now that’s advertising.

Day 12: From Wyoming to India – sunny there?

So far: Seven states, 3,456 miles, 18 sessions, 317 people (see schedule)

Cody, Wyo. — Today I chatted with some folks from Cody, Wyo., including Ron Feemster, adviser to the Northwest College student paper, the Northwest Trail. Feemster is leaving his position this summer to take a job teaching at the Indian Institute for Journalism & New Media.

That’s right. From Cody to to Bangalore. He’ll teach investigative reporting to the master’s-level students who are learning how to apply U.S. journalists’ skills in their country. Ron asked me how transparent Indian government is. Good question!

Ron Feemster is headed to India.

Tip No. 11: Since I don’t know much about India, when I get queries about how freedom of information laws work in other countries (the lingo in the international community is “Access to Information (ATI)” laws, or often Right to Information (RTI) laws), I refer people first to www.freedominfo.org, which provides detailed information about access to information in most countries. You’ll find a report by access scholar Alasdair Roberts, who analyzed how well India’s FOIA law has been working, now in its fourth year (based on a paper he published in January in Public Administration Review). Also, FOIAnet is a great resource for international FOI issues. Right2Info.org also provides a breakdown of countries’ access laws.

Another interesting conversation was with a psychology professor who attended the session in Cody. I asked for his suggestions in using psychology to get clerks to comply with the law, and he offered some keen insights:

Tip No. 10: Empower clerks to use their power. A lot of clerks aren’t paid that much, but are likely to get a lot of satisfaction out of serving the public and having a little bit of power. He said he assesses a person’s sense of power and the importance they place on that power. So if a clerk feels a sense of power over the records (and who gets them and who doesn’t), use that to your advantage. Acknowledge their power, don’t discount it Discounting: “It doesn’t matter what YOU say, the LAW says you have to give me the record.” Acknowledging: “I understand you have to make decisions on how these documents are disseminated, and that you take that responsibility seriously. I respect that. I appreciate the authority you have in providing these records to me and the rest of the public.”

The Belfry (Montana) School mascot is the bat, as displayed by the Bill-the-Cat-esque metal artwork in front of the building.

After chatting in Cody, I drove 481 miles to Rapid City, S.D. What beautiful country! I am so lucky to be seeing the greatness of this land. I passed by Belfry, Mont., on the way. The mascot for the high school? The bats, of course.

Sunday: The Rapid City Journal staff will gather Sunday 11:30-1 to talk about access. What a dedicated bunch to take time out of their weekend! Then I drive to Sioux Falls, S.D., in preparation for a Monday morning session.

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