Digital First Media’s Connecticut newsrooms did some old-school watchdog reporting in their Sunshine Week project this spring. But they took a digital-first approach in planning and executing the project.
This post is mostly going to be a guest post by Viktoria Sundqvist, investigations editor for the Register Citizen and Middletown Press. Vik and Michelle Tuccitto Sullo, investigations editor for the New Haven Register, led the project, published in March. They started planning the project and did the reporting while I was in Connecticut working on Project Unbolt and I made a tiny contribution.
This was a traditional watchdog reporting project in many ways:
- The project held local police accountable, checking how well every police department in Connecticut followed the state’s Freedom of Information law.
- The work involved shoe-leather reporting, with reporters from DFM’s newsrooms visiting every police station in the state to ask for records that should be public (I checked the town of Plymouth).
- The reporters wrote a big newspaper story about their results.
- The project had impact, forcing changes by police departments that were revealed to be violating the law.
Here’s how the project took a different digital-first approach:
- Rather than publishing the story on Sunday, when newspapers with Sunday editions traditionally publish major enterprise stories, this story was published online Wednesday, March 19. Digital engagement is stronger during the week.
- Initial planning of the project focused on digital elements, such as an interactive map and videos shot at each police station. I shared my list of digital enterprise planning questions with the editors and reporters working on the project.
- Reporters working on the project shared the data they gathered in a Google spreadsheet.
Below is an account of the project that Vik shared with DFM colleagues (minor editing from me, including adding links):
What we did
Staff at the New Haven Register, The Middletown Press and The Register Citizen visited all 92 municipal police departments and 11 state police troops in Connecticut and asked for arrest information to see how they complied with the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The resulting stories, map, videos were posted on identical pages for the Middletown Press, Register Citizen and New Haven Register websites).
The project showed that police departments across the state vary widely in terms of what information they release to the public. Five departments and one state troop denied us access to basic arrest information; others willingly gave out full reports or regularly post arrest information directly to their websites.
How we did it
We set up a Google spreadsheet listing each police department and came up with questions: Are arrest logs provided on demand? Are in-depth reports available? Do they charge for copies? Does the department provide arrest information online?
We enlisted almost the entire staff and assigned 4-5 police departments to each reporter based on geographic areas. Reporters were sent to towns they had never covered before, and we specifically asked them not to identify themselves unless they were asked to do so, in which case they made note of this on the spreadsheet. If they were asked to show ID, they wrote that down as well.
On the spreadsheet, we also compiled information like the department address and the contact info for the chief or PIO, and we asked the reporter to find out if a PIO was available after hours. Location info was used to create a map and PIO contact info was used to send out future FOI requests.
We asked reporters to take video at each site and briefly narrate their experience. Videos were gathered internally as we did not want to tip off departments they were being graded until the project was complete.
The grading was done from A to F. The A range was used only for departments who gave out in-depth information in addition to the very basic arrest information like name, age, address, charge and date of arrest. The B range was used for departments who complied with the basic requirements of the law but did not give in-depth reports. A department scored in the C range if there were some more serious FOI issues, such as department staff incorrectly citing the law to refuse part of our request or insisting on IDs. Points were taken off for not having arrests online and for asking who the reporter was or why we were there. Ds were given to departments where a reporter on site was denied access, but information is readily available online, and the Fails were for departments where we got no information at all.
Once we determined the failing departments, we immediately contacted each of them for a chance to comment.
From start to finish, the project took about five weeks.
- Google spreadsheet (created from a personal Gmail account and made public after some clean-up).
- Videos were taken with iPhones and uploaded to YouTube after completion of compliance checks.
- Longer video with voiceover created in Final Cut Pro, summarizing the project.
- Map was created with Google Fusion, combining a shape file with the spreadsheet of departments, then color-coding each grade range.
- We compiled our stories, videos, spreadsheet embed and the map in a Spundge document.
- Leaf pages were created on each of our 3 daily newspaper websites with /sunshineweek URL and we embedded the Spundge directly into it. This let us continuously update all 3 sites at once.
The project received high praise from other journalists and a coalition of open government advocates fighting bad legislation in Connecticut, and praise and reaction from folks throughout the country. The FOI Commission spoke highly of the project and said several police chiefs and records clerks called after the project was published to find out how they can improve their skill to be compliant with FOI law.
One large police department immediately started posting arrests online for the public after our story was published; another department told us they sent out a memo to officers and civilian staff pointing out areas where they’d failed and giving instructions on how to do better. Yet another vowed to do a refresher class for its staff on the Freedom of Information Act.
After receiving a failing grade, the New Haven Police Department has now started providing a daily arrest log in its lobby that is available 24/7.
Some chiefs took less kindly to the project, saying they had been “blindsided” and that our grading was unfair, questioning how we could give them a B or a B- when they are so nice to our reporters on a regular basis — which means nothing for this project if they didn’t provide the information we asked for during the spot check.
In other media:
The AP picked up the story, spreading news of the project around the country.
WNPR featured it on its website and on the radio.
WTNH and other TV stations have been mentioning it frequently on air.
Numerous other sites have linked to it, and one blog post referred to it as “a tremendous investigative reporting project.”
We also offered the main story up for use in print to all daily newspapers in the state, and at least three of them agreed to do so.
What we learned
Comprehensive list: Should have tracked down list of all police departments ahead of time. This was one of the most difficult things to find. One organization we thought might have one claimed it couldn’t release it for “privacy reasons” – we finally found a research report from 2011 on the state’s website that broke down all municipal departments, resident state troopers and towns with only state police jurisdiction. Here, we realized we had missed five departments originally assigned, including in the town of Groton, which has three different police departments. Who knew?
Photos: Should have asked reporter to take a photo outside each department. This would have allowed us a complete database of the entire state’s police force to use in breaking news situations.
Videos: Should have been more specific in giving out video instructions, i.e. hold phone horizontally. Should people shoot B-roll and narrate, or do a stand-up with department in background? We got all variations.
Better instructions: Should have provided more specific instructions to each reporter as to how to ask the questions, when to push for more information and when to walk away. Also, should have specified ahead of time what “in-depth report” meant. At one department, for example there was confusion as to whether we had been denied a request or if the department simply didn’t have any arrests for the time frame requested. We chalked it up to a misunderstanding and even changed the department’s grade, taking their word for it that they would have given out arrest report for a prior week had they just been asked for it.
Checking with an expert: After the project was completed, the FOI Commission spokesman told us that even though a department offers arrest log online (not required), the department must still show records on site upon request. Had we known this ahead of time, and had the reporters checking the departments ahead of time, they could have pushed harder to get the information instead of accepting “it’s all online” as an answer – and we might have failed more departments.
Recording audio: One reporter had a recorder in her bag and recorded an entire encounter with a PIO where PIO told her things like “we keep secrets here” and “you’re never going to get that from us.” It is perfectly legal in CT to record a conversation that you are taking part in without prior consent from the second person, and we realized after the fact how helpful it would have been if all reporters had recorded their interactions. That way, we could have referred to the tape before grading a department if we had any concerns about whether a question was asked “the right way.” (We ended up not publishing the recording we had but used it for quotes that we included in our main story — we also shared the recording with the police chief and PIO of that department and they wanted to have our reporter arrested, even though you can hear on the recording that she did absolutely nothing wrong).
Praise from the editor
That’s the end of Vik’s report on the project. In an email to the Connecticut newsrooms after the project was published, Editor Matt DeRienzo wrote:
The reaction yesterday and today has been incredible, with high praise from other journalists and the coalition of open government advocates currently fighting bad legislation in Connecticut, and praise and reaction from folks throughout the country.
But the best reaction of all, I think, has been the police department who have contacted us vowing to improve after getting less than an A grade. One vowed to do a refresher for its staff on the Freedom of Information Act, and another sent out a memo to its officers and civilian staff pointing out the areas where they’d failed and giving instructions on how to do better. …
Congratulations to all. You won the Internet today, and produced the most significant piece of reporting on the Freedom of Information Act in Connecticut in quite some time, at a moment when it is under attack in the legislature.
The main story drew more than 9,000 views in March on the sites of the three daily newspapers, the New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen, with about 6,000 views on the New Haven Register. Special pages for the project drew another 3,000-plus views in March. By contrast, a project on drunk-driving, published online Saturday and in print Sunday, Feb. 2, drew 1,164 views on the Register’s site in February.
The project had clear impact. Follow-up checks in May showed that the departments that failed were improving. and announcements from police departments showed improvement in respect for the FOI law.
Enterprise reporting can draw more engagement on digital platforms if we publish more projects during the week, when the public is more engaged on our websites and apps. Even if the story runs on Sunday, publish the digital version before the weekend. As I noted in yesterday’s post, the Register published a digital story about the Five Satins musical group on a Monday, six days before the print story appeared (with no complaints from Sunday print readers).
Digital elements need to be part of our initial planning of an enterprise story, not an afterthought added at the end. The Sunshine Week is a good step toward digital-first enterprise in both respects.
I’m interested in sharing how-we-did-it stories of other digital-first enterprise projects. Let me know what you did and how it worked: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.
Tweets about Sunshine Week project
— Michelle T. Sullo (@nhrinvestigate) March 28, 2014
— Cara Rubinsky (@crubinsky) March 20, 2014
— Nick Rondinone (@nickrondinone) March 19, 2014