By Chris Adams
On the money and politics beat, you need to master the numbers – but also remember the numbers are just the start.
Five reporters who cover the ins and outs of campaign finance and lobbying gave NPF Paul Miller fellows an overview of how to cover a beat that gets to the very core of American democracy.
“Money touches everything in politics,” said Michael Beckel, who is manager of research, investigations and policy for the advocacy organization Issue One.
Beckel, a former Paul Miller fellow, gave an overview of the basics of the beat: how much people can give and how often they can do so. He pointed fellows to some common resources, including the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics, both of which offer the granular detail needed to tally how campaigns are raising and spending money.
He also provided a detailed tip sheet with more than two dozen questions reporters should ask as they set out to track politicians and money. (Examples: How much of their itemized receipts came from in-state donors vs. out-of-state donors? Who are the notable donors that gave money? Did any lobbyists bundle money for this politician?)
But as Beckel, Matea Gold of The Washington Post and Fredreka Schouten of USA Today all said, the dollars and cents are just the start.
Schouten, also a former Paul Miller fellow, described the months of work she did to understand the Koch brothers organization, knowing it would be a major player in the 2016 election. “I said to myself, ‘I want to understand more about Charles Koch,’ ” she said. She spent a year – amid her other duties – getting to know the organization, seeing staff members come and go and getting to know people on both its corporate and political sides.
“I almost felt like I was doing a semester’s work on Charles Koch,” she said.
The result: An exclusive interview with the Wichita, Kansas, based billionaire that broke news on Koch’s political plans.
It illustrated one of Schouten’s main themes: Reporters need to build relationships as well as master the numbers. Doing so relies on a personal touch, and Schouten even employs something her mother taught her: She writes handwritten thank you notes to her interview subjects.
“You really do have to persuade people to give you the story,” she said.
Gold, who tracked the big money behind the 2016 presidential candidates, talked about the huge shift in the political mindset and how the power that money represents is all about trying to achieve specific policy outcomes.
One significant story of the election cycle was a herculean effort to track every donor to the network overseen by Bill and Hillary Clinton back to former President Clinton’s first run for political office in Arkansas in 1974. Arkansas does not have a good records-retention policy, and so the effort required searching for records in archives and museums.
Sometimes, reporters in pursuit of the story run into roadblocks that can’t be broken with traditional tools. So Bill Allison of Bloomberg and Derek Willis of ProPublica learned how to build and oversee their own tools – often by teaching themselves the programming skills necessary to do so.
“I kept running into problems I couldn’t solve on my own,” Willis said. Much of that dealt with repetitive tasks, such as retrieving the same kind of data from multiple websites. Willis talked about the tools necessary to scrape that data from the websites in an efficient, automated way.
As for the programs necessary to do so – Perl, Ruby, Python – Willis said reporters shouldn’t get hung up on which is “best”; they all have strengths and weaknesses (a Wiki comparing them is here).
Allison detailed some of the complexities in writing about lobbying, in part because there are different ways to categorize the activities and different ways to calculate how much is being spent. When it comes to lobbying expenditures, for example, there are four different ways to report the totals and none of them are remotely comparable, he said.