As part of SPJ’s national newsroom training program, trainers propose document-driven projects that are fairly easy to begin. Here are some story ideas and examples that you could begin using tomorrow:
Check on claims and out-of-court settlements at City Hall. Most claims and threatened litigation with local governments never make it to court. You should look at the kinds of settlements your local city is making with residents. It’s usually surprising the kind of money cities and towns spend each year on claims for accidents and injuries.
2. Bus drivers
Get a list of bus drivers from your local school district and compare the list to driving records, arrest records or court records. While driver’s license records are off limits because of federal law, many states still allow access to driving records, including DUI arrests.
A variation of the bus driver story is to compare cabbies and DUI convictions. Using driving and criminal records obtained under Georgia Open Records Laws, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 72 percent of taxicab drivers had a serious violation on his or her personal or professional driving record, including excessive speed and DUI.
In the past seven years, 622 taxicab drivers have had their licenses suspended, including 94 who currently have a suspended driver’s license.
In April 2002, KIRO-TV in Seattle reported that a public transportation program for the disabled has covered up fatal accidents. The reporters managed to obtain documents revealing the flaws in the system: incident reports, autopsy reports, wrongful death lawsuits, trip reimbursement vouchers, etc.
Get a copy of a government budget for the past five years. Whether it is a school district, county or city budget, uncovering the largest increases and decreases in budgets can lead to some great stories. To keep it simple, focus on department-level budgets. What’s tied to a 50 percent increase in the police budget, or what effect has a decrease in human service programs had on your area?
Take a look at travel expense reports. In May 2004, reporters at the Richmond Times-Dispatch made a public records request to find out that taxpayers sent 25 of its employees to a Philadelphia conference for public administrators at a cost of about $45,000. A Boise, Idaho, TV station helped bring down the city’s mayor through an investigation that started with questions about extravagant travel expenses.
Get a copy of local crime statistics reports. Each year, police agencies have to report crime statistics. There is usually a state agency that compiles and reports the statistics. The statistics are also available through the FBI. Take a tough look at increases and decreases in crime. This record should lead to some stories related to trends, budgets and resources. Here’s a resource to get you started, the most recent (2006) preliminary report on crime statistics from the FBI: www.fbi.gov/ucr/06prelim/index.html
Ask for the salaries of all of the employees and officials in the county or city government. You might be surprised what you find, including high-paid political contributors and poorly qualified people in top jobs. Also look at compensation of part-time elected board positions. Often, a part-time board member (who often already has insurance coverage) qualifies for full insurance coverage costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each.
Many governments are creating nonprofit foundations to help raise money for school districts, colleges and communities. They join more traditional organizations that raise money for community nonprofit causes such as theater groups, symphonies and ballets. Start with an IRS form 990. These are publicly available from the agency or through the Web site www.guidestar.com. Follow up using foundation budgets and expense reports.
10. Contracts and grants
Examine government contracts. One possible project is to cross reference campaign finance reports with government contracts. Are campaign contributors getting key city or county contracts?