Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On the Record: Backgrounding Business

Learning how to learn about a business can come in handy.

In some ways, businesses are like individuals: They own things (property records), they pay taxes (property-tax records) and they sue people or get sued (court records), and they can go broke (bankruptcy filings).

Beyond that, they also leave special paper trails with:

-- Licensing agencies, agencies than permit corporations (Secretary of State's office)
-- Regulatory agencies (OSHA, EPA, FAA, FTC, state and local agencies, etc.)
-- Agencies that contract for products and services, or that grant business loans (SBA, CDBG, etc.)

What you can learn may also depend on what kind of business you're investigating.

Privately held businesses are generally owned by families or small groups of individual investors, who share the profits and the risks. They do not sell shares to the public. Typicially, you'll find less public information about them, although you may find plenty through trade or business sites, such as Hoover's.com. (Its free service offers basic info and links to news and press releases. Try searching for Mars, Incorporated. The pay service will look up company's public paper trail.)

Publicly traded companies share the profits and risks with shareholders, who buy and sell shares to the public in stock markets. To protect shareholders from being swindled, such companies are regulated by federal and state governments.

The federal regulator is the Securities and Exchange Commission, which To requires such companies to file a whole string of public reports, which can tell investors -- and reporters -- a lot about the way the company operates. You'll find annual and quarterly financial reports, announcements of major changes in ownership, etc.

In Montana, the State Auditor regulates companies that sell securities (stocks and bonds) and insurance. The auditor occasionally investigates wrongdoing and can instigate prosecutions through the courts.

Nonprofit companies or organizations are a different breed of business altogether. Most are exempt from paying taxes, and in return for that special treatment they must file an annual report (IRS Form 990 or PF990) that outlines what they do, how much money they take in and spend, who runs the show, etc.

Companies are required to keep copies of these reports for inspection but you can also order them from the IRS or find them online through an outfit called Guidestar.

On the Record: Backgrounding Individuals

You may be surprised to find at what you'll find on Google, Lexis-Nexis, Facebook, etc., but don't overlook public records when you're investigating an individual. Here are some public records that may prove helpful:

Birth records (Montana makes them available 30 years after a birth.)

School records (Dates attended, degrees conferred, theses, dissertations. No grades.)

Property records (Deeds, property assessments, taxes paid and unpaid.)

Marriage and divorce records (You can see a marriage license but not the application. Divorces are civil action.)

Bankruptcies (Individuals have to file with a U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Lots of detail here about what people own and owe.)

Driver's licenses and other licenses (Hunting, fishing, etc. You may not get to see the application but you should be able to find out if a person is license for these activities.)

Professional license information (Most states keep these records for doctors, nurses, lawyers, public school teachers, pilots, cosmetologists, etc. You can find out if someone is in fact licensed.)

Court records (Criminal and civil histories -- convictions, judgments, complaints, depositions, etc.)

Some military records (Dates of services, rank, medals and commendations.)

Concealed weapons permits (Check with the Sheriff's Department.)

Some lending information (UCC filings document some loans. Check with the county clerk and recorder, Secretary of State.)

Salary information for public employees (Check with the human services officer in the agency that employs them.)

Voter registration information. (You can also find out if someone voted but not how they voted.)

Public officials' voting records (Local govt. minutes, legislative and congressional journals, Project Vote Smart, etc.)

State and federal campaign donations (Check followthemoney.org for donations to state candidates. Check opensecrets.org for contributions to federal candidates.)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Make Readers See

Here's an old post, but a goodie.

It's not easy getting busy people to read longer stories. You have to make it worth their time.

Make readers join you in solving a mystery, in sharing a vicitim's pain, in exposing an outrage, in puzzling over what makes the powerful tick. Make them wonder if there isn't a better way to solve problems that threaten their safety, lighten their wallets or disturb their peace.

Show rather than tell.

Make readers sense the mystery, feel the outrage, smell the danger, hear the disturbance, sting from loss. It's not easy to write pictures into readers heads. It take just the right words, and less is usually more. It takes pacing (short sentences, like short breaths, shows tension) and a deft hand on the zoom lens (zoom in to focus closely on an individual example; zoom out to show a problem's widespread effect). It takes an ear for the sounds of words that click together to make an emotional effect.

You'll probably never do it well unless you read journalists who do it well, journalists like Jim Sheeler, Julia Keller, Kim Murphy, Walt Bogdanich, Abigail Goldman and Nancy Cleeland.

They'll make it worth your while.

Profiles: Portraits in Words

Profiles can round out good beat coverage. But doing them well takes time and an artist's eye for telling detail.You also need a good reason -- a news peg -- to do them.

Good profile subjects are often people wielding great power or those about to wield it. Sometimes they're about quiet people doing remarkable things behind-the-scenes. Other times, they're about ordinary people whose stories illuminate great public problems.

Good profiles put their subjects in the context of the news and reveal their passions or motives. The best ones look at their subjects from lots of perspectives and aren't shy about focusing on flaws as well as strengths.

Poor profiles are superficial, vague and distant. The worst are hero-worshipping puff pieces that seem as if the subject paid the reporter to write them. Nobody's perfect, as they say. And in public affairs, it's a rare leader who climbs to prominence without making enemies as well as friends.

Complexity is what makes people truly interesting, anyway. Capturing it requires intelligence and flair -- and lots of sources.

You're not a judge; you're not the jury

Believe it or not, some of the people arrested and charged with committing crimes are not guilty.

So play it straight in police stories. Dont' write that a Missoula man has been arrested for robbing the bank. If he's yet to be charged, say he's been arrested in connection with the robbery at the bank.

If prosecutors decide to charge him, then lead with that: A Missoula man has been charged with robbing the bank.

I'd be wary even after a judge or jury had decided the case. For instance, I wouldn't write that a bank robber has decided to appeal his sentence. Unless he's confessed to the crime, or the evidence is overwhelming, I'd say a man convicted of robbing the bank has decided to appeal his sentence.

It's a sublte but imporant point.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Good Election Coverage

You'll find some good stories on ballot issues and candidates at Montana Votes, a Web site professor John Saul and I have put together to feature good student work on the election.

The Seattle Times has an especially good profile today on the Burns-Tester race.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Resources on the Justice Beat

State and Local Resources

Montana law gives you access to:

Daily incident reports – They’re often skimpy and filled with code. But they’re a start.

Daily arrest reports – Name, DOB, charge.

Jail logs – Who’s in jail, arresting agency.

Other Local and State Web resources

Missoula Police Department

Missoula County Sheriff’s Department

Missoula County Detention Facility.

Montana’s court system. Find links to various branches and resources of Montana’s judicial system, from the state Supreme Court down to Municipal and Justice of the Peace courts.

Montana’s laws. It’s all here, but Title 45 is the state criminal code. You’ll find descriptions of different crimes and any sentencing guidelines.

Montana Supreme Court decisions. You can read them yourself.

Montana State Law Library. Look up old court decisions. Contacts here can help you research a case.

Montana Department of Justice. We elected a state attorney general, who acts as Montana’s top prosecutor. He also represents the state in lawsuits. His department covers everything from law enforcement and forensics (State Crime Lab) to gambling regulation. It also keeps state crime stats.

Montana Department of Corrections. Officials here track everyone convicted of felonies. They have databases of violent and sexual offenders and everyone currently in the state prison system.

Federal Resources

The U.S. Attorney for Montana. The federal Department of Justice picks a top prosecutor to handle federal crimes in every state.

Federal Criminal Code. Here are the crimes that could land you in U.S. District Court and the federal prison system

U.S. Department of Justice. The U.S. Attorney General runs this huge department. It’s responsible for enforcing federal law.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. The federal government’s chief law enforcement agency. There are others: the Drug Enforcement Agency; the Border Patrol; Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Bureau of Indian Affairs, etc.

Federal courts in Montana. The U.S. District Court is the main trial court from crimes and civil suits in the federal system. But there are other federal courts: Federal Bankruptcy Court, U.S. Tax Court, etc.

Federal Prisons. If you’re convict of federal crimes, you go here.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Appeals from U.S. District Court are heard here, in San Francisco.

U.S. Supreme Court. The high court, the court of last resort in the federal system.

Resources for Journalists

Covering Crime and Justice: A Guide for Journalists. Great primer on how to cover various aspects of the justice system. It’s written by top criminal justice reporters.

Powerreporting.com. A wonderful guide to resources on crime and justice issues.

Harmful Error: Investigating America’s Local Prosecutors. Here’s an example of reporting on the system itself. How well does it work?

The Innocence Project. Sometimes the system fails, as these folks know only too well.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Hit the Campaign Trail

One way to get to know your candidate or subject is to tag along on a campaign trip. You'll get to see how well they handle the people, the pressure and the questions. For a good example of this kind of story, check out Gwen Florio's recent trip to the Hi-Line with Jon Tester.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

How to 'Truth Check' a Campaign Ad

Stories sifting fact from fantasy in campaign ads are becoming more frequent as checking them becomes easier to do. Here are some examples in print and broadcast.

Some pointers for doing your own 'Truth Check' story:

1. Insist that candidates provide sources to back up their advertising allegations. Most will. In fact, check the sponsor's Web site first. If they refuse to offer proof, you've got a story they're really going to hate.

2. Most often, candidates will point to their opponents' voting records. Look up the bills and votes yourself. Don't rely on their opponents' "spin."

If we're talking about state legislation, go to the Montana's Legislature's site. Click on "bills" for the right session. You can search by bill number, sponsor or general topic. It's easy to verify a vote or see what a bill would do, but often the bill's costs are the issue, so be sure to look at the "fiscal note," which is the state's best guess at costs for taxpapers.

If we're talking about federal legislation, go to the Library of Congress' Web site.

3. After you've seen the facts, bounce your finding off of both candidates or their people. You can include their reaction in your story. They may offer you more context or sources, too.

Some pitfalls:

1. Make sure you're reporting a candidate's final vote on the issue at hand. Legislators may vote many times on a single bill: at the committee stage, on amendments to a bill and finally on the bill as amended.

Here's an example: In 1997, state Sen. Mike Taylor initially voted to deregulate the wholesale price of electricity, a highly controversial idea in Montana. But he changed his mind on the third and final vote, making him one of the few Republicans to ultimately reject the idea. He's running this year for the state's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

2. The questions legislators face are not always black and white. For example, a legislator could support a sale tax as an additional tax or as a substitue for eliminating or cutting other taxes. The effect on taxpayers could vary enormously.

3. Beware of singling out a lawmaker's vote as his or her only vote on some controversial issue. Often Democrats and Republicans will offer similar solutions to some problem. A Republican legislator who votes against a Democratic version may vote for his party's solution instead.

Friday, October 06, 2006

See How They Run

Here are the election assignments. If you want to switch with someone, I need to know quickly.

Amber – Karen Townsend, district judge’s race.
Karen – Dusty Deschamps, district judge’s race.
Emma – Jon Tester, U.S. Senate
Jessica – Conrad Burns, U.S. Senate
Oriana – Open-space bond issue, Missoula County
Colin – County charter, Missoula County
Patrick – Enforcement of marijuana offenses
Katie – Jean Curtiss, county commissioner
Leslie – Jim Edwards, county commissioner
Mike – Mike McMeekin, Missoula County sheriff
Alex – Don Mormon, Missoula County sheriff
Brian – Frenchtown schools bond issue
Dillon – Casey Gunter, justice of the peace
James – Karen Orzech, justice of the peace
Sean – Shrinking the City Council.
Miller – Nonpartisan City Council elections

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Covering Elections

Before the Election

POSTURING – Who’s thinking about re-election? Who’s considering a challenge?

FILING STORIES – Who are they? Why are they running? Who's behind them?

Covering the Campaign

SEE HOW THEY RUN – Events (picnics, appearances), debates and forums. What are they saying? Is it consistent? What aren’t they talking about?

SELLING THE CANDIDATE – What’s true? What’s misleading? What does it say about style and integrity? What kind of advertising works? Truth-in-advertising stories are more common these days.

FOLLOW THE MONEY & SUPPORT – Who's giving it and why? It’s an important gauge of strength in big races. In lesser races, it’s at least window into who’s supporting a candidate, which can be telling.

WHO ARE THESE PEOPE? – Good profiles take time, but they can give readers a peek into a candidate’s head and heart. What makes a candidate tick? What were his or her formative experiences? Who are their friends and enemies? How are they perceived?

THE POLLS – Beware. At best, they’re only snapshots of voters’ leanings. At worst, they’re campaign devices themselves. Who’s doing the poll? How are the questions phrased? What’s the margin of error?

THE ISSUES – What are they? What's at stake? Are the candidates talking about issues voters want discussed? Are they ducking others? Some news organizations sponsor town halls or focus groups to help guide their coverage.

OTHER FACTORS – What about those third-party candidates? What effect are bloggers having on the race? What steps are the parties taking to ensure that their supporters actually vote? Are their problems with registration?

Election Night

WINNERS AND LOSERS – Reaction? Difficulties in voting or counting the vote. Where will the candidates be? Got cell phones?

After the Vote

HOW DID THEY WIN? -- How did a candidate win? What part of the city, county or state gave him or her the margin of victory? What do candidates, voters, expert observers say were the factors?

FOLLOWING THROUTH – Are they making good on campaign promises? Are donors with vested interests getting special treatment?

More Election Resources

1. Missoula County Election Officials : You'll find sample ballots and voting rules. Go to their office at the county courthouse and you'll find campaign finance reports for legislative and local races. This is the place to be Election Night for results. After an election, you can find out who voted.

2. Secretary of State: Oversees state voting process. They publish an voters guide too.

3. Federal Campaign Cash and Donors: The Center For Responsive Politics` tracks donations in races for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Watch the dates, though. You could go straight to the Federal Election Commission too.

4. 527 Committees: These organizations produce advertising apart from the campaigns. The messages are clearly slanted , but they're careful not to tell you how to vote. An outfit called Source Watch tracks them. So does opensecrets.org.

5. State Campaign Contributions: Records for donation to statewide races and ballot issues are kept by Montana's commissioner for political practices. Nothing on-line yet.

6. Project Vote Smart: Lots of information here. You'll find candidate bios, links for campaign finance info, voting records, positions on issues. You'll need to verify this stuff, though.

Backgrounding Candidates: Who Are These People?

Before you interview your candidates, make sure you know something about them. You'll ask better questions. You won't get snowed quite so much. Here's some tips on researching a candidate's background.

1. Read all about them. Many candidates these days will include links to favorable news coverage on their Web sites. A better strategy is to newspaper archives or check with Lexis-Nexis or Newsbank. Look for clashes in d substance and style. Build your story around the differences.

2. Visit Project Vote Smart. You'll be glad you did. The nonprofit, nonpartisan site tracks all sorts of information about candidates. You'll find biographical details, links to how much money they've raised, their positions on major issues of the day, their voting records or better yet, how their voting records look to various special interest groups. Has your candidate voted with or against education most of the time? That sort of thing.

3. Check the candidates' Web sites (all serious candidates have them now). See if the information matches what you know to be true about them. See what the political blogs are saying. (Most of them are hightly partisan, so put them in context.)

4. Check the political advertising on You.tube.com. How are the candidates portraying each other on television? It might be fun to ask them to react to the commercials. Which one bugs them the most? Is the tenor of the campaign nasty or civil? Are the commercials informative or vague and fluffy?

5. Check in the candidate's home counties to see if they've been convicted of a crime or the subject of lawsuits.

Only after you done these things should you site down and write a list of questions you'd like to ask your candidates. Craft them carefully. Make candidates response to specific points with specific answers.

If you've read the clips, you'll know that stuff cold. Toss in some odd but revealing questions such as "Who's your political role model?" or "What mistake have you learned the most from?" or "What's the one thing people would be surprised to know about you that hasn't been reported?" (Montana's Lee State Bureau reporters ask candidates what's the latest book they've read -- other than the Bible, of course.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Let the Sunshine In

Montana has strong open meeting and open records laws and a constitutional "right to know," but enforcing them is an endless fight.

It's not just a Montana problem. Reporters in other state are making the fight too.

And then there's federal government, which has become increasingly stingy with information since 9-11.

Stay abreast of these battles. Every reporter who caves in makes it harder for those who follow.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Writing a Council Story

If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know what might be newsworthy before you ever get to City Hall. Be alert, and take lots of notes. Get the best quotes. Get correct spellings. Be thinking of leads as the meeting rolls along.

Generally, two kinds of stories come out of a local government meeting:

1. The council takes action on some controversial proposal.

Missoula dog owners, be warned. The city has raised the penalties for letting Fido roam without a leash.

The City Council voted Monday to ….

2. The council debates some controversial idea or listens to arguments from residents. Action will come later.

Dog owners by the dozens told the City Council Monday that the fines in its proposed new leash law – some as high as $5,000 – are way too harsh.

“I try hard to keep Fido under control, but dogs being dogs, they just get away sometimes,” resident Larry Labradoodle told council members at last night’s hearing on the proposed ordinance. “Cut us some slack, will you?”

The writing gets straight to the point. It doesn’t mess around. It’s conversational and easy to understand. It doesn’t wallow in “governmentese” or bog down in “procedure,'' as in this poor lead:

After listening to canine owners’ complaints for more than three hours, the City Council voted 7-5 Monday night in favor of substitute amendments to the proposed animal control ordinance that emerged earlier in the week from the council’s Public Safety and Health Committee. (That’s nice. So what did they do?)

Or in this awful concoction:

The City Council listened patiently as residents argued for hours Monday about the topic of leash laws.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sniffing for News on the City Beat

Stories are everywhere on the City Beat, once you know what to look for. The City Council’s weekly agenda is good place to start.

The first thing you see are minutes of the most recent council meeting, which can help you figure out the history of some recent controversy. Next, the council will schedule its committee meetings for the week. Makes some notes. Could be that the story you’re interested in is being discussed in one of the committees. At the very least, it tells you when and where you’ll find council members during the week.

The next stop is the consent agenda, containing items for council approval that received unanimous consent from various committees during the week. You might find news here. For example, take a look at Item No. 6 and follow the link.

Public hearings can sometimes be very newsy, especially if what the council is considering has the potential to affect a lot of people in some serious way. If you quote speakers during hearings, make sure you get their names. If you’re really into the beat, you’ll know which public hearings are likely to be controversial Monday. Chances are, council members argued about it earlier that week in a committee. If you can’t make it to the committee meeting, at least read committee minutes before Monday night. You’ll have a leg up on any discussion. If you read Sunday’s Missoulian, you’ll see that city beat reporter Bob Struckman has already written a backgrounder on the issue at stake in Monday night’s second public hearing.

Committee reports can be newsy too. They usually contain recommendations on various ordinances or resolutions. And because they’re not on the consent agenda, it means the committee couldn’t agree entirely on whatever it is they discussed.

Items to be referred are problems that council members or city staffers want the council to discuss. Think of it as “coming attractions.” You’ll get your first look at future controversies here. If you see something interesting here, make a note of which committee it was referred to. You’ll want to cover that meeting for sure.

The agenda also includes lot opportunities for council members, city staffers and the public to sound off on anything. Sometimes its news. Sometimes it might be news to more legwork. Sometimes is hot air.

The bottom line is that the more time you spend with the agenda, and following the links to background information, the better you’ll perform on Monday night.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Virtual Trip to City Hall

The City of Missoula has a pretty good Web site. You'll find links to the city's laws (Municipal Code) and agendas for City Council meetings and meetings of council committees. You'll also find a good FAQ with answers to such burning questions as "How do I find out who's on the council and what ward they represent?" and, an oldie but a goodie, "How do I go about getting copies of records such as minutes, ordinances, resolutions, contracts, etc.?" Heck, you can even get daily police reports on this site.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Handy Guide to Missoula Government

Missoula's League of Women Voters has put together a pretty good site with links to lots of Missoula-area public agencies. Check it out for contacts and phone numbers of agencies near and dear to your beat.

And speaking of beat coverage, here are some great tips from those wonderful folks at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based think tank devoted to doing great journalism.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your Beats!

Here's how the assignments worked out. If anyone would rather cover the local economy or K-12 schools, I'll accept requests for changes there.

Local economy – Brian Gaul
Missoula’s K-12 schools – Amber Kuehn
Higher education – Sean Breslin
Missoula police and Missoula County sheriff’s dept. – Anne Pastore, Dillon Tabish
Local and federal courts – Colin O’Keefe, Karen Plant
City and County government – Katie Michel, Leslie Brown
Public health – Pat Carey, Miller Resor, Stacey Davis
Natural resources, energy, environment – James Laber, Alexandra Brosh, Oriana Turley
Transportation – Mike Handford
Diversity, minorities – Jessica Mayrer, Emma Schmautz

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Welcome to Public Affairs Reporting

This is newzhound, my incredibly hip class blog. Visit it often to find assignments, discussion items and useful links.

Here's your first assignment:

By 9 a.m. Tuesday (Aug. 29), along with your first story, send me an e-mail with your top three choices for a beat to cover. I’ll let you know your assigned beat by the day’s end. (Make sure the e-mail address is the one you intend to use all semester.) My e-mail address? dennis.swibold@umontana.edu.

The choices are:

1. The local economy
2. Missoula’s K-12 schools
3. Higher education
4. Missoula police and the Missoula County sheriff’s department
5. Local and federal courts
6. Local government
7. Public health
8. Natural resources, energy and the environment
9. Transportation
10. Minorities