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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1998

    Joint Effort Produces Success and Frustration
    David M. Poole
    Executive Director, Virginia Public Access Project

    This fall, the Virginia press has gained unprecedented insights into the money that fuels Old Dominion politics, with a computer database updated in "real-time" during the campaign for governor.

    The database is the product of a five-newspaper consortium, which concluded that the job of computerizing more than 30,000 records during the heat of a campaign was more than any one paper could handle.

    Fears that the consortium would stifle competition and lead to homogenized coverage have proved baseless. The newspapers have varied greatly in the frequency of their reporting and the types of stories they have written off the database. The newspapers' greatest challenge has been finding reporters who know how to use FoxPro or Access.

    The joint effort was successful in persuading the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor to provide their contribution data in electronic format on a voluntary basis. Candidates for other statewide offices have followed suit, reducing the amount of time it takes to update the database.

    After each reporting deadline, the newspapers have received revised tables -- coded to include contributor' economic interests --within seven days.

    Consortium members -- The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, TheVirginian-Pilot, The Roanoke Times and The (Newport News) Daily Press -- also have agreed to a wider publication by the nonprofit organization that is compiling the database.

    The Virginia Public Access Project Inc. has posted a searchable version of the database on the Internet (http://www.crp.org/vpap) and has made arrangements with the Virginia Press Association to make certain information available to the state's weeklies and small dailies.

    This sudden burst of electronic disclosure has not been lost on lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly, which has been grappling with the issue for several years. The database, and the resulting Web site, have generated momentum for electronic disclosure. Some legislative leaders have contacted the Virginia Public Access Project to learn how they can get on the electronic bandwagon.

    In the Beginning

    The genesis of the Virginia project began two years ago, when The Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Landmark Communications (parent of the Virginian-Pilot and Roanoke Times) built separate statewide campaign contribution databases during the General Assembly campaigns. While the databases helped break new ground in coverage of money in politics, reporters at both newspapers nearly lost their sanity during the massive task of data entry and data cleaning.

    In spring 1996, the two news organizations met and decided to pursue some sort of joint venture. The Washington Post and Daily Press later agreed to join. The Associated Press agreed to play the role of arbitrator.

    The newspapers decided to ship the database to an outside vendor. Having worked on the 1995 Landmark database, I submitted the winning bid, with Robert Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University.

    The contract called for a database of relational tables that would be turned around within seven days for statewide candidates who would provide records electronically. The deadline for contributions to candidates for the 100-seat House of Delegates was set at 15 days, to provide extra time for keypunching contributions from paper reports provided by the State Board of Elections. A Georgia-based programmer provided a front-end system to speed data entry.

    The contract also provided that contributors╣ economic interests would be coded using a system based on the codes developed by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

    The consortium got this for the bargain price of $28,850, which members divided according to their circulation in Virginia (the price was so low because Holsworth estimated he could offset some of his costs by selling summary data to commercial clients and I was still on the Landmark payroll for the first quarter of the year).

    Hurdles Faced

    The project has not been without obstacles. While all 11 statewide candidates agreed to cooperate, not all of them have been able to provide records electronically. Two candidates still compiled their reports on a typewriter and a third used a proprietary software package that was not designed to export in anything other than a printed form.

    The newspapers also had trouble in the past getting copies of candidates╣ reports from the State Board of Elections, which is chronically understaffed and often misplaces documents. Here, the joint effort also proved to be an advantage. I met with the elections board chairman last winter, and received his full cooperation. I also made it a point to maintain good relations with the workers who actually do the photocopying.

    The biggest obstacle, though, has been reporters' unfamiliarity with computer databases. None of the five newspapers had a single reporter assigned to the political beat who knew how to use FoxPro and Access. Front-line reporters were quickly hustled off to training sessions. Still, four of the five papers have left the bulk of data-crunching to CAR specialists. (One newspaper, in fact, still has not been able to use the database because a lack of hardware and software in the newsroom.)

    As a result, the newspapers have done a poor job of weaving the database into the fabric of their daily coverage. The papers generally write big take-outs each Sunday after each update, but then let it lie fallow. For instance, most papers wrote about the Fraternal Order of Police's surprise endorsement of Democrat Donald Beyer over Republican James Gilmore. But no newspaper took note of the fact that the FOP had to that point donated $1,000 to Gilmore, but had shunned Beyer -- a fact that bolstered the surprising nature of the announcement.

    David Poole can be reached by at e-mail at dpoole@richmond.infi.net