Previously, the files were kept only in cabinets at television stations, and while they were open to the public, “you had to deal with security guards, waiting around, you’re driving all over creation, you’re seeing misfiled papers…” McNulty said. Now, with the files searchable on the FCC website by call sign, network affiliation, station identification number, and channel number, the information is “at your fingertips,” he says—albeit sometimes incomplete and difficult to interpret. (The reports from Pittsburgh City Paper and PoliticsPA suggest journalists there had inspected files from other stations where Better Pittsburgh made ad buys, without seeing that Ravenstahl was the group’s chairman.)

And with the data on ad buys now in digital form, watchdog groups are slicing and organizing it, making it easier for reporters and citizens to use. McNulty is a fan of the Sunlight Foundation’s Political Ad Sleuth feature, which allows users to sort information on ad purchases by state, television market, and air date. He also praised Sunlight’s Scout tool, a free service that delivers emails or texts every time a political issue or keyword—say, “campaign finance” or “transparency”—shows ups in a bill or regulation or speech in both state and federal government.

Of Ravenstahl’s aggressive online comment, McNulty says, it’s “natural for the city’s paper and mayor to get into fights.” The mayor may be particularly unhappy about the Post-Gazette’s recent reporting on a federal probe into police corruption that has seen the indictment of a former chief, and which has reached the mayor’s office, though Ravenstahl has not been personally implicated.

But as for Ravenstahl’s suggestion that the Post-Gazette was committed to an agenda of opposing him (and, in this case, supporting Peduto)—the paper’s editorial board on Sunday endorsed Jack Wagner, Peduto’s top rival and the presumed beneficiary of the Better Pittsburgh ads. In the end, the endorsement—and the outside group’s advertising campaign—did not carry the day: voters in Tuesday’s election delivered a convincing win for Peduto.

 

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The Guardian, Grantland, and Salon; blogs at Isak; and can be found on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.