A laurel to Denver’s Westword

Alt-weekly scours TV stations' public files for details on political spending

For months now, CJR has been urging the FCC to improve public access to the “public inspection files” maintained by TV stations, which include up-to-date records of political ad buys—and also encouraging journalists to make more use of the files.

So we were excited to see that Westword, Denver’s alt-weekly, has been digging into the files at its local stations. Reporter Sam Levin has penned a series of posts over the past week and a half, finding that—so far, at least—the Obama campaign is outspending Romney; the leading Obama-aligned super PAC is outspending Romney’s; and Joe Coors, the beer scion-turned-Congressional-candidate, is really targeting the viewers of The Big Bang Theory.

Levin also helpfully concludes each post with a breakdown of the relevant spending at each Denver station on a week-by-week basis. These are snapshots in time, but they lay the foundation for future reporting and analysis. (Caveat: Levin notes that he collected data only from broadcast stations, which means that organization like Crossroads GPS, a conservative group that’s focused on cable buys in Colorado, didn’t show up in his search.)

To get these numbers, Levin had to actually go to the stations in question and look at physical files. But at some point in the not-too-distant future, reporters in many markets will be able to look up this data online. That’s thanks to a recent FCC ruling which, the Sunlight Foundation reported this week, has now been approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget. (Hat tip for the Sunlight link to Politico’s campaign-finance reporter Ken Vogel, who has a story of his own today that’s worth a read.)

That’s encouraging news. Still, as Steve Waldman has written for CJR, even once they’re in digital form finding the hidden journalistic gold in the ad buy records may require a group effort—and here’s how we can get started.

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Liz Cox Barrett and Greg Marx are CJR staff writers and co-editors of The Swing States Project.