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.