On public access, I do think it is a real problem in Michigan. The biggest barrier I have run into is governments manipulating the costs of providing FOIA requests to discourage us. It can be a huge deterrent especially with how tight newspaper budgets are today. For example, when we FOIA local government officials’ emails we need to narrow it down to a two-week period and only request emails between specific individuals. Otherwise we really get outrageous bills. I think there needs to be some kind of provision in the law that would prevent governments from overcharging.
What is your advice for other reporters who want to tackle large-scale projects like this, but are backed by publications that aren’t exactly swimming in money?
These days, everyone is asked to do more with less. But the need for strong, public service investigative reporting has never been greater. During the project, I continued beat coverage of several areas, including corruption at Wayne County and the Detroit Public Library system.
Large-scale investigations are best done incrementally. Create a budget for your stories with firm deadlines. Set short-, medium-, and long-range goals for your project and revisit and adjust regularly. Even when you are called away for other assignments, make sure that no week passes without doing at least some work on your project. As a project progresses, create a roadmap of what needs to be done—sources, FOIAs, points to hit in the articles—and systematically revisit. Most importantly, get early buy-in from your peers, team, and supervisors, and meet with them regularly.