By Lynn Walsh
With deadline after deadline in a TV newsroom it can be laughable to think anyone would have time to file a Freedom of Information Act request.
On top of taking the time to file it correctly, there is always the time it takes to find the correct person to send it to, knowing what to ask for and of course waiting and keeping track of the response itself.
While a time crunch is a plausible excuse, it shouldn't be yours. Here are some tips I have learned along the way on how to use the Freedom of Information Act and state-level public information laws to develop enterprise stories and add some spice to dailies.
1. Prepare Early
This may sound like a no-brainer but sometimes it helps to be reminded. There are certain documents that are filed on the same date every year-campaign finance reports, conflict of interest reports, etc. Keep a calendar of when the documents are due and prepare requests ahead of time that can be sent first thing on the due date.
2. Subscribe to e-mail lists
It can be annoying to have a inbox flooded with newsletters--but remember it only takes one click to delete them. Subscribe to what corresponds to your beat. E-mail newsletters will show you reports that are coming out, big trials, etc. Reports often stem from audits-request it. You may have a summary of the trial but why not request the whole court document?
3. Request Databases
Whether it is a salary database or a contract database, the information listed inside can be invaluable time and time again. Once you put in the request make sure you have access to those databases at all times. Details like salary, hire dates, contract totals a company has with a city or other government entity always add to the story and can help set your story a part from the competition.
Was there a little argument at the City Council meeting? Heard rumors about construction bids being approved "in the dark?" Request all communication records: e-mail, written, phone, etc. from the players involved. Don't forget about personal schedules, calendars, personal cell phones, personal e-mails....
Documents hold information that is hard to refute and they are always "on the record" when attained through FOIA or public information laws. Use this to your advantage!
By Lynn Walsh