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Back to Tracker Summer 1998
New York Newspapers Deliver
Rose Ciotta
The Buffalo News
What if a governor refuses to give out his database of campaign contributions? Instead, he files paper reports with the names sorted alphabetically by first name.

And, what if a new law requires electronic filings of contributions, but not until after a re-election year when the governor, attorney general, comptroller and 211-member state legislature seek new terms?

The newspapers of New York state had a response -- create their own database.

The project known now as the New York State Campaign Finance Consortium was born out of necessity. With an election looming in 1998, a small group of computer-assisted reporting journalists initiated the idea of the newspapers banding together to create a database of all contributions for all state candidates. (Some articles are available at www.campaignfinance.org/background.html).

As a member of that initial group, which included Ford Fessenden and Bob Tiernan of Newsday, Josh Barbanel of The New York Times, Lew Wheaton and Sam Boyle of Associated Press and Harvey Lipman of the Albany Times-Union, there were many times when we doubted whether the project would happen at all.

We worried whether our newspapers would commit any money and whether we could find a consultant who would take on the task of creating a database that will grow to over 100,000 records by next January.

There were several breaks along the way including the fact that Virginia newspapers had already tested the model by cooperating to create a database of that state's candidate contributions and David Poole, the reporter-turned-consultant had a good track record of delivering that project. Another key was the fact that The New York Times and Newsday were willing to cooperate with each other and with other newspapers in the state. Clearly, The New York Times at least could have gone its own way and created its own database.

Ultimately, the super competitive New York City market also attracted The New York Daily News. Since the project began, WNBC-TV has also joined. The project gained momentum when Wheaton, Albany AP bureau chief, agreed to act as the coordinator and administrator. Modeling his role after the AP in Virginia, Wheaton provided the neutral leadership that allowed newspapers to join in the project. The AP also provided a payment mechanism that the newspapers were already used to.

Wheaton also did whatever selling was needed to get reluctant papers to join in. When necessary, he reminded them that the project was going to happen and they couldn't afford to be left out of it. Among most of the 29 newspapers that eventually signed on, however, Wheaton found real support for the idea. "The people at newspapers who believe in this see this as a free press issue," said Wheaton.

In the end, 29 newspapers agreed to divide a total bill of $100,000 according to circulation. As a result, the New York City area newspapers will pay two-thirds of the cost while the upstate newspapers will cover the rest.

Since the project began in February with the first data release, WNBC in New York City and WNYT in Albany signed on. The project has become historic in New York State because it's the first time that journalists have been able to report in a comprehensive way on the money flooding into the coffers of state leaders.

The data was released in three segments on three consecutive Mondays starting Feb. 9: statewide candidates; state Legislature and state party committees.

From Watertown to New York City, readers across New York learned the role of money in their state government.

In some newspapers, the arrival of the data triggered a scramble for equipment, software and someone to do the analysis. In Watertown, Ed Perkins turned to what he had in the office -- Filemaker Pro on a Mac as his relational database manager. It was enough for him to figure out that Republicans in safe districts were funneling their money to state party committees to elect Republicans in other areas of the state.

At Schenectady, a 60,000-circulation newspaper in the capital area, George Walsh had promised a focused study on what the locals had collected. But, once he started looking at the data, he let his reporting instincts lead him to names associated with a horse racing association (a major interest in that part of the state.) His story -- the only one like it statewide -- told how racing interests had given the governor over $100,000 during a time when the group got a new state franchise to operate race tracks.

Walsh, the day city editor who doubles as the newsroom's CAR guru, also used what he knew and did all of his analysis using the filter and sort functions in Excel spreadsheet. Having the data allowed him to see stories he would have never seen if he was looking through paper records. "But, you have to interpret the data," said Walsh. "It's not going to work miracles for you. You still have to be a reporter and recognize something in the data."

A review of the stories stemming from each release shows how journalists can come up with a variety of stories from the same data. Here's a sampling of the stories published on the first release date, Feb. 15, by newspapers across the state:

- The Buffalo News: "Incumbents Cash In On Campaign Trail," a report of record giving by special interests including out-of-state contributors and companies holding lucrative state contracts.

- Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: "N.Y. political cash comes from afar," a report on big money from states like California, New Jersey and Texas. - The Sunday Gazette, Schenectady: "Fund-raising dollars poured into Gov. campaign coffers," an AP story on overall totals and out-of-state money and "NYRA trustees dig deep into their pockets to help governor," a story on giving by the New York Racing Association.

- Albany Times Union: "Pataki leads big in dash for cash," a package on big money contributors including area builders in line for state work. - Newsday: "Donor's Deep Pockets Secured Jobs," a report on big donors who got jobs and appointments.

- The New York Times: "Led by Pataki, Fund-Raising in Governor's Race Outstrips Past," on record-breaking fundraising.

Other newspapers ran the AP's comprehensive report like the Observer-Dispatch in Utica which ran, "Gov. Pataki rakes in out-of-state donations." And, the Albany Times Union has put the data in a searchable database on its web site at www.timesunion.com/capitol/contributions/

Newspapers continued the competition through the next two releases with stories on money flowing into the 211-member state Legislature and its leaders and the state party committees. Stories continued even after the release deadlines. For example, on April 12, The Buffalo News led the Sunday paper with "Big tobacco gets return on its efforts in Albany," a report on the tobacco money flowing to state leaders and lawmakers.

With new filings expected in July, the newspapers statewide are gearing up to continue their coverage. After the initial flurry, which for some included getting past hardware and software problems, some are planning to make it possible for reporters to use the database on daily stories. Todd Lighty of the Syracuse Post-Standard calls this the "evergreen stage" for the data. "You want it to be a resource," he said. Lighty said the project itself is unique and helps newspapers deliver on its core mission of telling readers about elections and who gives to candidates "This is democracy."

Rose Ciotta can be reached at (716) 849-5548 or by e-mail at ciotta@buffnews.com