There’s nothing as empowering — or maddening — as a clean slate. What will you do with 2013? Drop those 15 pounds? Go to the gym every morning? Quit smoking, gossip, drinking, donuts, ill-chosen romantic partners, Facebook — or all of them at once? Good luck with that.
Here are six public-records resolutions you stand an actual chance of keeping — and if you’re a student journalist you absolutely should:
(1) Get a copy of the school’s budget — and actually look at it. The budget for a school or college is, let’s be honest, never going to make the best-seller list. You can stare at seemingly meaningless columns of numbers until your eyeballs ache. Is $10 million a suspiciously large amount to spend on school buses, or suspiciously little? Without context, there’s no telling.
But if you get beyond the initial “I was told there would be no math in journalism” factor, budgets are the way that government agencies tell their stories and reveal their secrets.
Is there a huge increase in the budget line for attorney fees? For health insurance premiums? For administrative salaries? That tells you something. Every substantive decision that a school or college makes — how big will classes be, what sports will we compete in, how long will holiday breaks last — comes down to money. Seeing the storyline behind the numbers (and if you can’t, don’t be shy about asking an expert for help) is what separates great reporters from adequate ones.
(2) Make a field trip to the courthouse. Lawsuits are a Powerball jackpot of information that reporters ordinarily don’t get to see, and sources they don’t ordinarily get to meet. The legal system can be intimidating, but it’s increasingly built to be user-friendly — almost every courthouse has a Civil Division Clerk with a public-access computer terminal where you can search the names of your school and its key individuals for involvement in lawsuits.
If there’s a case in which your institution (or its president, board chair or other top official) is named as a party, ask the clerk for the entire case file, pull up a chair and start taking notes. Most case files are organized in reverse-chronological order, so start from the bottom, and look for a “docket sheet” that records each event so you can figure out how far along the case has progressed. The motherlode of information is a “summary judgment motion” — that’s where lawyers for both sides will present snippets of testimony and documentary evidence to demonstrate why the case should (or should not) get its day in front of a jury. If nothing else, lawsuits will give you the names of insiders — and their lawyers — who have information and are no longer motivated to conceal it.
(3) Get the straight story on the policies that confound or irritate your readers the most. Listen to your audience, and if there’s something that annoys a lot of them, that’s a story. If you’re at a high school, are people constantly complaining that they can’t access YouTube, Google or Wikipedia on school computers? The list of blocked websites at your school — and the contract with any company that provides filtering software — is a public record.
If you’re at a college, does everyone raid the cafeteria loading up on cornflakes at the end of every semester because meal-plan money can’t be carried from term to term? Then get a copy of your college’s dining-card policy — and its contract with any food-services vendor — and see whether your school’s policies are pro- or anti-consumer as compared with comparable institutions (some of which offer full or partial refunds for unused meals).
Parking fines. Football-ticket waiting lines. Overpriced textbooks. Unreliable bus service. Every frustration that makes the average student ask “who’s in charge of this and why can’t it be improved” should be a flashing neon “STORY” sign for the campus journalist.
(4) Figure out who’s (really) in charge. Knowing the power structure tells you where to look for documents and sources. If yours is a school that filters everything through a pit-bull press officer who never knows the answer, then it’s time to figure out who does. That might be members of a board of trustees, state legislators and their aides, staffers in the state Education Department, labor-union leaders — get to know them all, and find out what records they keep (or have access to). (Real example: the Associated Press, stonewalled by Penn State in the weeks following disclosure of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, was able to get internal PSU memos through Pennsylvania’s Department of Education, where officials were copied on damaging emails that Penn State itself refused to release.)
(5) Cover sports like what they really are: A business. The worth of sportswriters often is measured by the compelling game-action story. And those are terrific — but they aren’t enough.
Sports are an enormous expense for schools and colleges, and — contrary to popular belief — they generally are not a huge profit center. The highest-paid individual at most upper-division colleges is the football coach, with the basketball coach and athletic director not far behind. College athletic associations almost always are incorporated as nonprofit corporations, meaning they must file annual Form 990 reports with the IRS that make public what their top executives — coaches included — are paid. And colleges must report annually to the Department of Education about what they spend on sports, what they earn, and how much more they pay coaches in men’s sports than in women’s sports.
(6) Look under the hood of campus crime reports. Colleges are required by federal law to report to the Department of Education, and the public, about the frequency of crimes and disciplinary actions every year. A suspicious number of the reports are blank or nearly blank. Does anyone believe Miami-Dade College — which bills itself as the largest college in the nation and has its main campus in the middle of downtown Miami — had no sexual assaults, no aggravated assaults and one robbery over the last three years? Yeah, me neither.
It’s great to write about the release of these annual Clery Act crime reports — but if the statistics look too good to be true, they almost certainly are. Using publicly available records, including their colleges’ own police incident reports, journalists have had little difficulty demonstrating that Clery statistics can be deceptively reassuring.
We’ve developed a protocol based on student journalists’ past successes to help you get started. And your seventh resolution should be, share. If you use public records to expose long-buried secrets or explain the inexplicable, let the SPLC know so we can share your success to inspire others.