Back to Tracker Summer 1998
New York Newspapers Deliver
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
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
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
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
- 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
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 email@example.com