Friday, September 26, 2008

Contact Info for Legislative Candidates

Those of you looking for contact information on Montana legislative candidates can find it here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Paper Trail: A Guide to Backgrounding People

You'll be surprised at what you can find that's readily available: news clips, business directories, phone and criss-cross directors. You'll find much of that and more online from your local university library. Google, Lexis-Nexis, social networking sites -- of that can help, but don't overlook public records when you're investigating an individual. Not all of them are online, but many are.

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 written, dissertations. No grades. No school disciplinary action.)

PROPERTY RECORDS (Counties have this stuff: Who owns what, property assessments, taxes paid and unpaid, improvements, even a map.)

MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE RECORDS (You can see a marriage license but not the application. Divorces are civil actions.)

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

DRIVERS' LICENSES, 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 licensed for these activities. It will cost you a couple of bucks, but you can check with the Montana Highway Patrol to see if someone has speeding tickets.)

PROFESSIONAL LICENSES (Most states keep these records for doctors, nurses, lawyers, public school teachers, pilots, cosmetologists -- anyone who needs a license to do their job. You can find out what the qualifications are for different jobs, or if someone is, in fact, licensed.)

COURT RECORDS (Criminal and civil histories -- convictions, judgments, complaints, depositions, affadavits for probable cause, affadavits for warrants, etc. Sometimes private records -- health, income, etc -- will show in a civil or criminal court case if they are offered in evidence. Much of this is on file at the court house, although some things are online. Check out Missoula District Court dockets.)

PRISON RECORDS (Who's there? Why? In Montana, you can find that stuff on CONWEB. Yep. That's what they call it.)

MILITARY RECORDS (It's not online, and it takes a while, but you can verify of service, rank, medals and commendations.)

CONCEALED WEAPONS PERMITS (Check with the Sheriff's Department.)

LENDING INFORMATION (UCC filings document some loans. Check with the county clerk and recorder, Secretary of State.)

PUBLIC EMPLOYEE SALARIES (Check with the human services officer in the agency that employs them.)

VOTER REGISTRATION INFO (You can find out if someone voted but not how they voted.)

VOTING RECORDS (Local government minutes, legislative and congressional journals, vote-tracking sites, Project Vote Smart, etc.)

CAMPAIGN CASH (Check the Federal Election Commission's database for donations to candidates for federal office. Another place to go for federal campaign cash is . For campaign finance infomation on local legislators, check with the county election officials. For statewide candidates, cheick with the Montana's Commissioner of Political Practices. For contributions from previous Montana election cycles, check


For state-by-state laws on access to public records, check with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.


Take the Net Tour offered by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Monday Sept. 15 Assignments

Remember that we'll meet Monday at the regular time BUT in Room 316 to hear from Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Maurice Possley. Please see his work that I linked to on the Sept. 4 post. BRING THREE QUESTIONS, and I'll expect to hear you ask them.

Also, I'm giving you your choice Monday night:

1. You can cover the City Council meeting for a midnight deadline. (Planning and zoning issues)

Or ...

2.You can cover the gubernatorial debate on campus for the same deadline. That event starts at 7 p.m. in the Montana Theatre, PAR/TV Center. Candidates Republican Roy Brown, Democrat Brian Schweitzer and Libertarian Stan Jones will be there. Will you?

If you choose the debate, focus your story on the exhanges that show their differences on the issues and in style. Hit the highlights. Don't speculate on who won or lost, but you can report about the crowd an its responses to the answers. (Rememeber, this will be on TV too.)

Here's some background on Gov. Schweitzer:

Here's some background on his Republican challenger:

Here's some background on third-party candidate, Stan Jones, a Libertarian:

Monday, September 08, 2008

Tonight's Agenda

For those of you who couldn't find it over the weekend, here you go.

Tips for Writing on Deadline

1. Have a good idea of what the story might be before you begin your reporting. That way you're thinking about potential ledes from the start.

2. As you're taking notes, mark passages or quotations that support the potential ledes rolling around in your head.

3. When you start to write, see how far you can get without looking at your notes. Then go through the notes to fill in the blanks for quotes, examples, etc.

Ask Tax Man: What are Property Taxes?

I'm so glad you asked. It’s important to understand how property taxes work because they’re the biggest source of tax revenue for local governments (cities, counties and school districts). The state and feds rely more in income taxes.


Property taxes are based on a property’s value. Once the value is determined, local governments assess – or levy – something called a mill. Think of one mill as $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. (Another way to express it would be $.001 for every $1 of taxable value.)

Here’s how it works: If my home has a taxable value of $3,000 and the city decided to levy 100 mills, then my tax bill would be $300, or $100 for each thousand dollars of taxable value.

You can also see why actual tax bills vary around the city, though every pays the same 100 mills. Property values vary. The state calculates taxable values by looking at sale prices and then applying various deductions and tax rates that vary based on the type of property. For instance, in Montana homes and most businesses pay the same tax rate. Farmland and property owned by nonprofits pay a different rate.


First, the city adds up the taxable values of every piece of property within the city limits. Let’s say it’s $100, 000, 000. (That’s called the city’s tax base.) Then the city multiplies the tax base by the value of one mill ($.001). The result is how much city would raise for each mill it levies:

Our example:

$100,000,000 (total taxable value in the city) X .001(one mill’s value) = $100,000 (what one mill in taxes will raise citywide)

Let’s say the city decides it needs to raise $60 million. If you divide $60,000,000 by $100,000 (what one mill would raise) you get 600 mills. That means each property owner in the city would have to pay $600 for every $1,000 of their property’s taxable value.


1. More government spending. (New bond issues, inflation in the cost of services, shifts in state and federal spending.)
2. Higher property values. (Every few years the state reassesses all the property in Montana. It’s a nervous time.)


A person’s property tax bill includes mill levies from the city, the county, local school districts and even state government (mostly for education). We even pay special property taxes in our individual neighborhoods for things like street repairs, sidewalks, street lighting, etc. They call these SIDs, or Special Improvement Districts.


It's a public record.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Coming Soon: Justice Reporter Maurice Possley

Mark your calendars. On Monday, Sept. 15, we will meet from 2:10 to 3:30 p.m. in Room 316 to have a discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning criminal justice reporter Maurice Possley, formerly of the Chicago Tribune. Please click on the links at this site to read his work. Your assignment: Prepare at least three questions for him and post them as comments to this blog entry.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


For this week:

Your first beat stories are due to me by 5 p.m. Friday. Send them as WORD e-mail attachments, and follow the copy preparation rules (double-spaced body copy, white space at the top of the first page, etc.)

Also, this weekend, please check the City Council's agenda for Monday night. Click the links. Get as familiar as you can with the issues. Bring your questions to Monday's class.

Next week:

We're covering Monday night's City Council meeting for a midnight deadline.

You'll also be expected to write a story from your chosen beat.

Covering the City Beat

For the next few weeks we’ll be covering the City Beat and its most important institution, city government, which is responsible for:

Protecting the public – It enacts ordinances to control public behavior; funds, hires and manages police and fire departments; monitors local air and water quality; provides sanitary sewer service; identifies and fights health threats, oversees the building of roads, streets, sidewalks and street lighting; monitors and inspects building construction.

Planning for growth – It reviews and approves new subdivisions and the extension of city services; establishes what type of buildings can go where (zoning).

Enhancing the quality of life – Establishes and maintains parks; funds and directs recreation programs; sponsors and oversees public events (farmers’ markets, festivals and concerts).

Raising money to pay for all that – Plans for spending (builds a yearly budget), raises money through general property taxes (those everyone pays), special property taxes (those paid by a few for a special purpose like sidewalks), fees (building permits, business licenses, development fees), and grants or loans from state or federal governments.


The city hires professionals and lumps them into departments to oversee all of these activities.

Voters also elect a mayor to ensure that the departments are doing their jobs. In Missoula the mayor also presides over City Council meetings.

Voters two people from each of six districts, or wards, to sit on the City Council. The 12-member council makes the big decisions on services, growth and taxes. The council consists of several committees that study different needs and make recommendations to the full council.

The council meets every Monday (except for holidays and fifth Mondays of each month) to conduct public hearings and make decisions on items brought to it by its committees, the mayor and residents. An agenda is posted at least two days before each meeting so residents and city officials alike can prepare to participate.


Give residents information they need to understand and participate in decisions that could affect their well-being. Be watching for impacts on services and taxes