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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1999

    Battling for space and Time
    By Chris Williams
    San Antonio Express-News


    It doesn't take three months, a supercomputer and an army of clerks to produce a high-impact story about the role of money in local politics, despite what you might have heard.

    It does take a bit of planning, some long hours and a couple pots of strong coffee, but three people can turn out a pretty good package on the influence of campaign contributions on local politics in three weeks.

    We at the San Antonio Express-News have learned a few tricks to building and analyzing a database of campaign contributions during the past two years. These might help reporters just starting out.

    First, about the Express-News. We are a large newspaper in the Hearst Corp. chain with just enough reporters on the city desk to cover a city of 1 million people but not enough for beat reporters like myself to regularly disappear from the daily paper while working on projects.

    That makes planning before the release of the campaign finance disclosure forms crucial.

    A Chat With the Editors
    In Texas, all officeholders must disclose contributions greater than $50, including the name and address of the contributors. At the city level, those forms are filed with the city clerk at least every six months.

    When the forms are nearly due, the other city hall reporter and I tell our boss what we are doing and that we hope to cut back on the daily stories for two weeks while we work the story. This sometimes actually works.

    We also tell the Sunday editor well in advance how much space we will need for graphics and copy usually about a third of page for graphics and 40 to 50 inches of copy.

    Typically, the graphics are:

  • A list of the top 10 contributors
  • Summaries of how much the council members took in and spent
  • A map showing where the money came from by ZIP code.
  • For the narrative, we also brainstorm which issues we want to look at more closely. Specifically, we want to check out any influx of campaign contributions that came in right before or after an important vote.

    Finally, we line up extra help from our news research department. At least one researcher helps with the data entry at the beginning of the project and helps us background contributors once the database is built.

    We enter and analyze all the data with Microsoft Access, the database program that comes with the popular Microsoft Office software bundle. We later export tables from Access to MapInfo for geographic analysis.

    Fun With Data Analysis
    Once the data is in the database and cleaned, the fun begins. While I am pumping out reports and maps from the database, the researcher is checking out contributors and my partner is hitting the pavement.

    The results can be gratifying.

    In August, we reported on how the local land developer's political action committee was spreading money around to get back into the good graces of the council after it backed the losing candidate in the recent mayor's race.

    Our story also noted the developers were successful in their push to boot one of San Antonio's most militant environmentalists off the board of the powerful, city-owned water utility.

    Our thematic map of where the contributions came from showed that one councilman raised $18,000, almost none of which came from people in his own district.

    When confronted with the facts, he said residents of his inner-city district could not afford to support him. He then vowed to redouble his efforts to revitalize the area because:

    "I would like to build an economic base in the district that can afford to make political contributions."

    I did not make that up.

    The Pitfalls of Data Stories
    For the successes we have had covering money in local politics, we have also learned a few things through trial and error.

    Our most important lesson for writing the story: Don't get lost in the numbers. Graphics are your friend. Use them to get the boring figures out of the copy.

    Another lesson: Always look for the links between political contributions and improper actions. The mere existence of campaign contributions is not the story.

    Finally, as with any story that involves computer-assisted reporting, always, always, always back up your data on a floppy disk and keep that disk safe.

    The latest on-line version of our campaign contribution coverage is on the Express-News website at: htttp://www.expressnews.com/citycouncil. We will post a new campaign finance story by mid-February.

    Chris Williams covers City Hall for the San Antonio Express-News. He can be reached at cwilliams@express-news.net