COLORADO SPRINGS, CO — On a recent Thursday, journalist Sandra Fish was on the campus of Colorado State University in Pueblo giving a talk she’s been presenting around the state. Its title: “Tools for Journalists: Following the Colorado Money.” There’s a lot of money in politics to follow here, and during the campaign season, those dollars fund a lot of ads.
The state has one of the key Senate races in this fall’s midterm election, pitting Democratic incumbent Mark Udall against GOP challenger Cory Gardner and drawing heavy spending from outside groups on both sides. Meanwhile, incumbent Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is in a close re-election campaign against Bob Beauprez, and the contest in the state’s 6th Congressional District, between Republican incumbent Mike Coffman and challenger Andrew Romanoff, is being watched as a marker of the Latino vote nationwide.
With so many high-profile races, and a red-blue divide that closely parallels the broader nationwide split, Colorado has become a key bellwether state. What that means on the ground, says Fish, who runs the blog COPolitics, is “a barrage of TV ads”—$43 million in ad buys in Colorado, she says, or almost 18 full days’ worth of commercials, as of August 15.
But with local-level ad buys widely available online for the first time since July 1 thanks to a 2012 FCC ruling, Fish sees journalistic opportunity, a chance to track how campaigns are targeting voters and where the money’s coming from. So far, though, a lack of consistency in file formats and reluctance by TV stations to clarify or expand on information has likely deterred most mainstream reporters at big newspapers or TV stations from tackling the beat.
Fish is one of the few journalists who is consistently covering the issue, for Colorado Public Radio. In a recent piece, she used the new online data to show how few political ads—only two at the time—were aimed at Latino voters on Colorado’s Spanish-language broadcast stations. That’s newsworthy, given that Colorado is really the only key state with a sizable Latino electorate (15 percent), and immigration reform is a significant issue in this fall’s races. (This week, the Udall campaign released a Spanish language attack ad against Gardner to air on Univision and Telemundo in Denver.)
At The Denver Post, the task of going through the online records fell to a summer intern. Thad Moore wrote a solid piece last week after analyzing hundreds of TV contracts for ad spending in the Denver market, where almost $20 million had been committed to pay for 120 hours of 30-second spots for the final few weeks of the campaign. Moore reported on the ins and outs of buying campaign ads, pointed out how and why candidates and political groups are given different rates, and also illustrated how some TV stations don’t seem all that willing to talk about the issue. The general manager of Denver’s KUSA and KTVD, for instance, “said he wouldn’t discuss campaign spending,” and “his counterparts at KDVR, KCNC and KMGH didn’t return interview requests.”
Now back at school at the University of South Carolina, Moore told me his piece, which he began after doing a webinar with the Sunlight Foundation, took two or three weeks to complete. Data entry alone took four days, he said; stations don’t use a standardized form, so he had to make his own database out of many PDFs.
“It’s a really intensive process, and I think that’s probably why more people aren’t doing it,” he says. “The FCC isn’t making it really easy.”
And even with the new disclosure rules, some loopholes, gaps, and mysteries remain. Consider what happened in April after Fish analyzed ad-buy contracts at several Colorado TV stations for the online news site Colorado Independent. Her piece reported on the single largest ad buy in the state: reserved airtime on KHMG Channel 7, Denver’s ABC affiliate, for 1,300 spots over a three-month period at a cost of more than $740,000. The order was placed by Target Enterprises, a Los Angeles-based media firm with a conservative client list.
When the group reserved the air time, KHMG uploaded a document to its public political file. But the contract didn’t say who the group’s client was, and the company didn’t respond when Fish tried to find out. The TV station wasn’t any more helpful in the matter; its sales director told Fish she wouldn’t ID the buyer, because “they are not candidates and are not of national importance.” Soon after, the contract disappeared from the FCC’s site. To date, the beneficiary of Colorado’s largest ad buy is still unknown, Fish says.