Mining the vast depths of public records requests

In the business of journalism, information is power.

Information was primarily gained via access to sources in days gone by, where an enterprising reporter could build relationships with key information holders in order to be the first reporter “in the know.”

Examples of this are legion, from the real world example of Bob Woodward and Mark Felt, popularly known as “Deep Throat” during the Watergate Era, or fictionalized a la “House of Cards”, where a young reporter turns her access to the Majority Whip of the US Congress into online scoops that make her a short-lived star.

One of the most prolific bloggers in the Greensboro area has long used his access to inside information to dominate the breaking news market. That title goes to Ben Holder, known as The Troublemaker, who has given the last few police chiefs and city managers all they could handle by breaking inside news wide open on his popular blog.

Back when I was just a plain old web browser at the height of the Greensboro blog scene (circa 2005-08) I used to shake my head in disbelief at the stories Holder would break about powerful police commanders, among others, and the comments at his blog could keep a person up all night.

Holder, along with online ombudsman Roch Smith Jr., was also one of the first to mine accessible public records for salient data. I learned much from observing these two, in addition to a reporter in the area who has an unrivaled skill at turning public records requests into compelling narrative storytelling.

So it was to my delight when I began working here at YES! Weekly that I met the staff at Greensboro’s Public Affairs Department in mid-February in an effort to learn how to mine that information and create interesting stories.

My previous experience as a reporter was on the breaking news beat and in covering courts. I quickly learned how to stay in good graces with battalion chiefs, fire marshals and captains of the police department’s patrol and criminal investigation divisions. By being respectful and attentive, in addition to accurately quoting these information gatekeepers, I was able to build a stable of solid sources that allowed me to do my job with minimal conflict. Except for the time I parked behind a ladder truck at the scene of a train trestle accident. Pro tip: Don’t do that.

That was 14 years ago. Back then there was little in the way of online access to public records. You made formal requests. You received copies of printed materials. I remember one of the first times I watched a veteran reporter stalk the credit card travel receipts of an elected official for months. He pinned that guy down to an exorbitant alcohol charge to a city credit card while on an official city trip. It was not pretty.

My first foray into public records reporting was when I requested federal agriculture subsidy payments in four counties in the coverage area. After a crash course in database reporting from the aforementioned veteran reporter, I was able to craft an in depth report on who received agriculture subsidies. It was similar to the recent release of Medicare payment information that has gotten a lot of attention in the last two months.

From observing Holder, Smith and others here in Greensboro I knew that online and electronic information was readily available. I just needed to know where to look and how to ask. So when I met with city staff I learned about their much discussed public information request (PIRT) system and I began dipping my toe in the water.

After a few easy forays for information I should have been able to look up myself, I began making targeted requests for emails and financial data that has landed me a handful of compact discs full of information. So far, I’ve polished off one investigative story, the Boston’s House of Jazz settlement, that I pieced together from fragments of electronic records.

On my desk right now are two stacks of printouts given to me by a source and a recent PIRT CD full of emails among Greensboro’s most powerful players. In my inbox are a dozen emails from a new source who last week began sending me official correspondence between government agencies.

It’s a heavy burden, and one I take very seriously, to plumb the depths of this information in search of both conflict and truth. The possibilities seem endless and the responsibilities great.

But the time is finite, so off I go. !