COLORADO — Students from the University of Colorado are among the first journalists in this state to mine data from the political advertising contracts that many stations must now post online, under a Federal Communications Commission mandate issued earlier this year.

In a Sunday, Sept. 16 article in The Denver Post, the CU News Corps reported that the Denver market is awash in political ads, with 21 different groups spending nearly $20 million on close to 19,000 spots between July 30 and Nov. 6. That echoes research by the Wesleyan Media Project, which shows Denver is the third-largest media market for presidential ads this year, behind only Las Vegas and Cleveland.

Perhaps more interesting was the team’s findings about the distribution of the ads: Obama for America was the largest spender to date on Colorado airwaves, committing $4.6 million for 5,732 ads that will run through election day, while the Romney campaign had spent only about $1.4 million for 1,596 spots, with no funds committed past this week. As for outside groups, the most active super PAC was the pro-Obama Priorities USA. That nugget foreshadowed reporting that showed up on the front page of The New York Times four days later: in several swing states, including Colorado, the incumbent in the White House is enjoying a pronounced ad advantage over his challenger. (As the CU students reported, there’s something closer to partisan ad parity in Colorado’s House races.)

The students journalists’ analysis amounts to a broad overview of ad spending in Colorado, and it is not comprehensive—the research was limited to ad buys at just the four largest TV stations in Denver, and looks at data only since the start of August, when the FCC’s online posting rule took effect.

Still, the CU News Corps and its partner, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, deserve a hale shout-out for the ambitious undertaking. Their hard data about campaign spending is information Colorado readers might not otherwise have received, and the numbers undoubtedly piqued the interest of other journalists, planting seeds for future stories.

The plan to analyze the online ad contracts was hatched over the summer by CU journalism instructor Sandra Fish and Laura Frank, executive director of the I-News Network. Six CU-Boulder students did the legwork, Fish oversaw them, and Frank’s organization provided editing and guidance. “Part of the mission of I-News is to train the next generation of journalists, and we felt this project definitely moved us toward that goal,” said Frank. (Disclosure: I worked with Frank and Fish at the Rocky Mountain News, and edited Fish at PoliticsDaily.com.)

The effort got an assist from the Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation, which created a form and spreadsheets onto which the journalism students transferred data culled from the FCC site.

Sunlight, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in politics, is working to make the FCC files—as well as ad information from TV markets in battleground states that aren’t covered by the FCC order—easily searchable and sortable, managing editor Kathy Kiely wrote in an email.

Even with Sunlight’s help, Fish said, the project entailed “a huge amount of work,” suggesting the reason she doesn’t “see any interest in traditional [local] news outlets doing this.” Uploading the data into the correct formats “has been kind of complicated,” but well-heeled news organizations could probably outsource the work, she added. Ideally, Fish said, journalists from several media outlets would collaborate on such a project. (Steve Waldman offered similar suggestions in CJR when the FCC rule was first announced.)

Fish added that the group would “love to go back and get contracts done before Aug. 2 [when the ad contracts went online], but whether that’s feasible with six students is another question.”

The class does hope to update the figures weekly, she said, and some of the students have identified related stories they plan to pursue, including an analysis of ad buys at Denver’s two Hispanic TV stations and Internet ad buys.

Fish said her ultimate goal is to show students “the importance of doing quantitative work and looking at data—here’s how to put together something and see trends from it and different stories that spin out from it.”

As an example, she pointed to the Romney camp’s decision to buy ads on a week-to-week basis, despite its apparently prodigious fundraising. She said she’d like to understand the strategy better. (This very puzzle was explored in the Sept. 20 NYT article.)

Also, the data show that both the Democratic and Republican congressional committees “are heavily invested” in Colorado’s House races, particularly the Sixth and Seventh Congressional Districts, she said. “That tells me both sides think they have some chance in some of the competitive congressional seats here.”

The insights are solid, if not sexy, and are hopefully just a taste of what the CU/I-News collaboration will produce down the line.

Related posts:

“New rules on political ads: how to mine them”

“ProPublica ‘pulls back the curtain’”

Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.