USING OPEN RECORDS: Paper use numbers can be gold mine of stories

Earlier this week

Last year’s stories

A citizen’s right to know and journalists’ rights to report are threatened every day, say the organizers of Sunshine Week, who planned the weeklong program to highlight freedom of information issues and emphasize the importance of open government. The Student Press Law Center is celebrating Sunshine Week with a series of reports on how student journalists can encourage open government and use open records to expand their journalistic horizons and let the sunshine in.

There is probably no breed of investigative journalism more alluring than that which uncovers excessive spending of public money. And when an article in the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill revealed the amount students were paying for their printing labs, it caught the attention of many readers.

In November 2005 The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper, conducted an inquiry into the paper use at its campus printing labs, which allowed unlimited free printing for students, faculty and staff.

Using records obtained from the school’s information and technology service, the article reported that the school’s almost 27,000 students printed an average of 2.4 million pages per month pages during the 2004-2005 school year — a fact staggering enough to encourage the university to implement limits on free printing.

The investigation also found that paper usage was on the rise. During the 2001-2002 academic year, students at the university printed 1.3 million pages on average per month.

Many readers were shocked not only by the amount of paper used, but also by what it was costing in student fees. When the article was published in November, more than $44,000 in student fees had already been spent up to that point in the fall semester to print 9 million sheets of paper.

“I had no idea that so much paper was being wasted,” said Logan Yonavjak, a senior and chairwoman of the student government’s environmental affairs committee at the time.

The Daily Tar Heel went to information and technology services to find the records of paper usage. At your school, the library or technology department is likely to maintain a record of paper use and its cost, or it can be found in the office that maintains your school’s financial records.

Like most investigative articles that are based on open records, the story is not merely the numbers themselves, but rather an analysis of the data trends. For example, The Daily Tar Heel’s story also noted that the increase in printing coincided with the digitalization of campus, and in an accompanying article expounded upon that concept.

Freshmen entering the school in 2001 were the first to be required to have laptops, and each subsequent year classes became more attuned to universal computer access. And as more instructors began to assign online readings rather than textbooks, printing skyrocketed.

When numbers climb to a certain level, they begin to lose their meaning. So whenever presenting data — especially raw numbers — it can be helpful to offer them in context. The Daily Tar Heel compared the amount of pages printed to a notable campus landmark, in this case the 172-foot tall campus bell tower. The September 2005 printing total — 5,259,757 pages — stacks taller than 10 bell towers, the newspaper reported.

Also, the article compared the school’s total to nearby North Carolina State University, whose printing on campus peaked at 2 to 3 million pages each month before limits on free printing brought the total to less than 100,000.

Interestingly, it was this investigation that played a role in a revision of the printing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Motivated by the article, Yonavjak began a push for printing limits, and her organization served as a catalyst for a movement that drew support from students and administrators.

Beginning in the fall 2006 semester, students could only print 500 pages for free before being charged 5 cents per page. Within a few months, administrators were reporting a significant decrease from the 1,400 pages the average student printed during the previous school year.

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer

Hudson was involved in the planning and execution of the story discussed above as an editor at The Daily Tar Heel.