A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists


October 11th, 2010 • Quill Archives
More Than Pretty Words (Hopefully)

When President Barack Obama stepped into office in January 2009 and immediately called for a more transparent, participatory government, freedom of information advocates were thrilled by the positive memorandum. However, more than a year and a half later, advocates are contemplating whether Obama’s FOI policies have been as far-reaching as he made them seem.

October 11th, 2010 • Quill Archives
Where are the Watchdogs?

It’s no secret that newsroom demographics are changing. Older, more seasoned journalists are being replaced with dewy-eyed newbies out of college. As younger journalists are being added to the newsroom, they are bringing crucial multimedia skills and accepting meager pay. This may seem like the package deal to struggling media outlets, but many young reporters nowadays are starting out with a lack of solid freedom of information knowledge.

October 11th, 2010 • Quill Archives, FOI Toolbox
FOI Toolbox

Foiled by federal FOIA? Get help from the Office of Government Information Services. This federal ombudsman office, housed in the National Archives and Records Administration just outside Washington, D.C., in College Park, Md., is a year old as of September. Seven staff attorneys mediate disputes when requesters feel agencies are not following the U.S.

August 3rd, 2010 • Quill Archives
Sigma Delta Chi Awards Winners – Newspapers/Wire Services

[b]Click here for introduction to the awards and a menu of all categories. Deadline Reporting (Daily Circulation 100,001+) Winner: Staff, The Seattle Times “Four Officers Slain” During the Thanksgiving weekend of 2009, four Lakewood, Wash., police officers were murdered at a coffee shop, the deadliest attack in law enforcement in the state’s history.

August 2nd, 2010 • Quill Archives, FOI Toolbox
FOI Toolbox

Strengthen your public records skills through an easy document-gathering workout regimen: 1. FOI FIRST ON FRIDAYS Pick one hour a week, block out everything for that hour, and submit one records request. If you do this each week, you’ll have 52 requests a year.

October 5th, 2009 • Quill Archives
President Obama: Opaque Transparency?

Hopes for a more transparent Washington are beginning to fade, a consequence of President Barack Obama’s perceived hesitation to follow through with promises made during his campaign and on his first full day in office. But journalists and open government proponents aren’t ready to give up yet.

October 5th, 2009 • Quill Archives
No Money to Fight

While the economic meltdown has proven painful for journalists nationwide, the sting might be felt more acutely in freedom of information fights, where news outlets are spending less on investigative projects. Those who know the Freedom of Information Act best say there has been a steep plunge not only in the number of requests being made, but also in the number of lawsuits filed, though no national statistics are available.

October 4th, 2009 • Quill Archives, FOI Toolbox
FOI Toolbox

What good is access to government records if it costs as much as a bank buyout to get copies? Too often public agencies charge more than they should for copies of records, sometimes as much as $1 or more per page.

April 3rd, 2009 • Quill Archives
FOI scavengers seek out records

When looking for great documents to support your stories, be sure to reap the benefits of freedom of information advocates who have already acquired government records and posted them online for everyone to view. These document vaults are rich with information and story ideas: wrongdoing by local companies; complaints against television shows; investigations into prominent newsmakers.

January 30th, 2009 • Quill Archives
Moving up the newsroom ladder

When Cristina Alesci graduated from City University of New York in December 2008 with a master’s in journalism, she already had a promising future. Armed with a degree from an innovative journalism program and internships with the New York Daily News and Bloomberg, she certainly had the education and clips necessary to excel as a cub reporter.

November 4th, 2008 • Quill Archives

[b]Jack C. Landau Jack C. Landau, a Key Club member of SPJ since 1979, died Aug. 9 in Arlington, Va. Born Jacob Charles Landau on April 10, 1934, he was an avid supporter of the First Amendment and tirelessly worked to educate and inform the public about the essential role of a free press in modern society.

August 25th, 2008 • Quill Archives
Context Clues

Keeping FOIA relevant in our technology-friendly society does not end with databases and access to government e-mail. Just five years ago, public officials might have considered their e-mails private. Then along came journalists and other open-records advocates who wanted access to this information.

August 25th, 2008 • Quill Archives
‘An Opportunity Lost’

A Coalition of Journalists for Open Government study released in July revealed that federal government agencies made almost no improvements in 2007 when it came to responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, even though they were given a presidential order to improve services.

August 25th, 2008 • Quill Archives
FOIA requests challenge freelancers

The Freedom of Information Act is a vital tool for journalists, granting a generous wealth of information and accessibility. Created by Congress and implemented through the Federal Communications Commission in 1966, the act has allowed for many issues to be brought to light.

August 1st, 2008 • Quill Archives
FOI: New FOIA amendments speed records requests

Finally, some improvements to the federal Freedom of Information Act. On Dec. 31, President Bush signed into law the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which was the biggest overhaul of FOIA since 1996. While on paper the amendments improve access to federal records, the law’s effectiveness is so far unknown, according to SPJ attorney Laurie Babinski.

July 9th, 2008 • Quill Archives
Winner: Alan Prendergast, Westword

When the goon squad showed up at his place at five in the morning, Tommy Silverstein knew something was up. He wasn’t accustomed to greeting guests at such an ungodly hour — much less a team of correction officers, helmeted and suited for action… Silverstein could only think of a couple of reasons why so many well-padded, well-equipped officers would be at his door, ordering him to strip for a search.

July 9th, 2008 • Quill Archives
Winner: The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists at the Center for Public Integrity

After more than a year of reporting and research, combing through thousands of foreign lobbying records and haggling with government officials of FOIA requests, the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published a comprehensive resource on U.S. military aid and assistance in a post-9/11 era.

September 1st, 2007 • Quill Archives
Beating Down Secrecy

In the wake of heightened government secrecy in the post-9/11 era, one media outlet has responded by making freedom of information news coverage a full-time job. The government secrecy beat at Cox News Service’s Washington Bureau was the brainchild of bureau chief Andy Alexander, who dreamed up the position in response to the heightened levels of secrecy — not just in the Bush administration but at state and local levels.

September 1st, 2007 • Quill Archives
Governments Fight Back

Journalists have been fighting what they view as government and agency abuse of Freedom of Information laws for as long as the laws have been on the books. Now, in cases where FOI laws have been deemed to be over-used or purposely abused by the public they are intended to benefit, governments are fighting back.

September 1st, 2007 • Quill Archives
State of FOIA

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill Aug. 3 that would strengthen the Freedom of Information Act and close existing loopholes. The vote ended months of deadlock on the measure and has brought FOIA one step closer to reform. The 110th Congress has seen the introduction of legislation proposing the most significant overhaul to the Freedom of Information Act in more than a decade, when the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996 helped bring federal public records law into the modern age.

September 1st, 2007 • Quill Archives
The fruits of public records

Reporters used the federal Freedom of Information Act and state open-records laws to write great stories this year. From drunken paramedics to wasted Katrina aid to corrupt U.S. allies, these stories brought serious problems to light. Here are examples of some of them.

August 7th, 2007 • Quill Archives
The Web’s Hidden Gems

Technology often means steep prices, steep learning or both. But a number of recent innovations are free and easy to use, and they offer tremendous benefits for journalists, journalism educators and journalism students. With these tips, you can: • Do better and more efficient research.

July 3rd, 2007 • Quill Archives
SDX Awards: Public Service in Newsletter Journalism

In the wake of the Sago disaster, print, television and radio press quickly discovered they did not understand mining, the law or how to get needed information from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. While having to cover the disaster for the Mine Safety and Health News, Managing Editor Ellen Smith also assisted more than 50 reporters in a two-week period.

March 6th, 2007 • Quill Archives
8 simple rules to getting the documents you need

When facilitators take SPJ’s national newsroom training on the road, we suggest ways to create a “document-driven” newsroom. Stories based on documents are more thorough and carry much more credibility. Here are some steps reporters can take to make that happen on just about any beat.

December 1st, 2006 • Narrative Writing Toolbox
Government outsourcing leads to cloaked figures

Mitch Pearlman, the longtime head of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, once likened government privatization to the Klingon Empire’s “cloaking device,” which hides spacecraft in the sci-fi TV series “Star Trek.” To be sure, the Klingon fleet is growing, journalists and the public should be careful as government cloaks services and budgets in privatized deal-making.

September 1st, 2006 • Quill Archives
FOIA Fruits

Reporters throughout the country dug deeply into public records this summer to create important stories that served the public. On beats ranging from health care to the environment to cops, the Freedom of Information Act allowed reporters to unearth documents that people in power wanted to keep hidden.

September 1st, 2006 • Quill Archives
Uncovering ’The Hidden Cost of Tenure’

It’s a refrain that could be whispered by parents in PTA meetings or muttered in faculty lounges by those aggravated with a colleague: “They can’t fire him; he’s got tenure.” But is that really the case? I spent six months trying to find out.

September 1st, 2006 • Quill Archives
Military Muckrackers

Matt Kauffman can’t remember exactly how he and reporting partner Lisa Chedekel began what would become an open government victory and a national story on the how the military ignores the mental health of combat soldiers. What the Connecticut reporter remembers is waiting.

September 1st, 2006 • Quill Archives
FOIA after forty

Offices throughout Washington, D.C., house a league of Freedom of Information Act activists who have been fighting for government transparency for decades — some since FOIA’s inception 40 years ago. In honor of the act’s birthday, the experts graded federal agencies and found that public records aren’t as available as they should be, there is little funding for staffing and supplies, and backlogs are a growing problem in some agencies.

September 1st, 2006 • Quill Archives
Senator: Administration obsessed with secrets

The public’s need to know is a constant in a democratic society, but fulfillment of the public’s right to know ebbs and flows. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, the current ebb tide of public access to government information has been especially severe, drawn down by a secrecy-obsessed administration that too often seems to treat information as the sovereign property not of the people but of the executive branch.

September 1st, 2006 • Quill Archives
Senator: Work remains to preserve open-government principles

Open government is one of the most basic requirements of a healthy democracy. The default position of our government must be one of openness. If records can be open, they should be open. If good reason exists to keep something closed, it is the government that should bear the burden to prove that need — not the other way around.

March 30th, 2006 • Narrative Writing Toolbox
Want to be a better storyteller? Read poetry

Within most newsrooms, it’s easier to get someone to sit down with a young reporter and explain how to look at a city budget than it is to have someone explain how to construct a scene. You can find 10 reporters who can tell you how to fill out a FOIA request, but you’re out of luck when it comes to locating just anyone who can help you with the muddled middle section of your narrative.