Chasing Political Fat Cats: 29 Papers Create Database; Tired of Waiting for the State to Do It, Newspapers across New York Have Banded Together to Fund the Creation of a Massive Campaign-Funds-Tracking Database

Article excerpt

Tired of waiting for the state to do it, newspapers across New York have banded together to fund the creation of a massive campaign-funds-tracking database

After years of frustration at New York state's failure to computerize campaign finance records, 29 state newspapers have joined together to create their own massive database for tracking and analyzing campaign contributions.

Members of the ambitious collaboration -- from the New York Times to the small Daily Mail in Catskill -- have kicked in an initial $100,000 to fund the undertaking designed to computerize the campaign funding records of top state officials, lawmakers and political party committees. The 29 newspapers have a combined statewide daily circulation of roughly 2.6 million.

The project, the New York State Campaign Finance Consortium, got underway last year when the newspapers collectively agreed to hire an outside consultant to set up a system for gathering documents and entering information into a database. So far, more than 67,000 documents have been compiled. The records go back to 1995 for the statewide candidates and to 1997 for state lawmakers.

LOCALIZED POLITICAL STORIES

The first round of stories based on the new data began appearing across the state in mid-February. Newsrooms participating in ongoing project receive base files of raw finance information detailing how much each candidate received in campaign contributions and from whom.

Data can be analyzed in a variety of ways that allow reporters to study the funding patterns, trends and connections relevant to their own region's politicians. The ultimate result is localized stories that bring a new depth and factual insight to the individual newspaper's political coverage.

For instance:

* The Buffalo News used the database to write "Incumbents Cash In On Campaign Trail" a story that reported, among other things, how hundreds of companies that have lucrative non-bid government contracts are heavy political contributors.

* Newsday used the data to prepare the story, "Donor's Deep Pockets Secured Jobs." It detailed how big contributors to state races were systematically rewarded with appointments to influential state boards, councils and other government positions.

* The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester used the data for the story, "N.Y. Political Cash Comes From Afar." It documented how 20% of the campaign funds received by local politicians comes from donors outside of New York state -- a situation that suggests that big-money donors from California or Texas could exert as much or more influence over regional government affairs as groups of local citizens.

In addition, the Albany Times Union has made the database accessible for free in fully searchable format on its Web site at www.timesunion.com/ capitol/contributions/.

OPENS NEW ERA FOR REPORTERS

"I think it's newspapers doing the right thing for the right reasons and it's been very gratifying," said Ford Fessenden, database team leader for the project at Newsday and one of the organizers of the project. "In the first round of data there have been stories and stories and stories. It's kind of created its own momentum. Everybody is writing tons of stuff off it"

"The historic element of this is that this is the first time anyone has been able to look at (New York) campaign contributions in a comprehensive, statewide way," said Rose Ciotta, computer-assisted reporting editor at the Buffalo News. "We're hoping that the collective impact of this project is going to be pretty significant"

"It would have been really hard to do it without the database" concurred Rochester Democrat and Chronicle political reporter Gary Craig. "A lot of papers would not be doing these kinds of stories if not for the consortium. …