Sometimes one of the biggest barriers to getting public record databases isn’t denial; it’s the price tag. In attempts to recover costs or limit access to records, some agencies may want big bucks to give you their data. Although the law varies from state to state, typically you should have to pay only for the cost to reproduce the database.
Before you can begin to use computer-assisted reporting on your beat, you need to get the data in hand. Just like dealing with paper documents, getting electronic information from a government agency can be difficult at times, but by following a few strategies and learning the ins and outs of data, it will get easier.
Whether or not you’re a census reporter, eventually you’re going to need census data. When St. Louis Post-Dispatch features reporter Lorraine Kee was working on a story about a new Ken Burns documentary about Hannibal, Mo., she needed population figures for the Twain town.
Two hours before deadline one day last December, Joe Kolman, a reporter for the Omaha World Herald, noticed a reference in the daily budget to “bird strikes” on aircraft – the problem of birds getting in the way of airplanes. Thinking someone might keep track of such incidents in a database, Kolman did some research and called several colleagues around the country.