(A case in point about those official sites: Four weeks ago, I logged onto the Colorado Secretary of State’s campaign finance disclosure website and was thwarted right out the gate. Clicking “User Instructions” landed me at a page that read, “Firefox doesn’t know how to open this address, because the protocol (mms) isn’t associated with any program.” Even my computer-savvy, post-grad son couldn’t help. When I visited the site again in late March, I found several promising features, including “TRACER Home Page Tour” and “Search Complaints,” but none of the links worked. They didn’t work for my son, either. He said the site may only support Internet Explorer, and suggested I call the secretary’s office in the morning.)

As newsrooms around the country set their sights on political money, the data that these sites are gathering—and the expertise behind it—has helped facilitate coverage. According to Bender, reporters from major newspapers across the country—from The New York Times and The Washington Post to The Miami Herald and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution—regularly use Followthemoney.org.

Sometimes, the flow of knowledge is even more direct. Dave Levinthal, who formerly worked for Opensecrets.org, is now part of a team of five reporters who cover campaign finance, political influence, and lobbying full-time for Politico. Levinthal notes that his current employer is just one of the news outlets that has redoubled its efforts to cover the money story.

“That speaks to the amount of interest news organizations have because so many people are interested in the issues and are concerned about the issues or want to make sense of the issues,” he said. “What we’re seeing is new and often very innovative—coming from some of the usual suspects, the legacy media organizations, but also a lot of new ones like Politico, which started five years ago.”

For all the journalistic activity at specialty sites and major publications, though, the coverage of political money often seems to fall short at smaller media outlets, such as regional newspapers. It’s not that the story goes uncovered—every respectable paper reports on latest fundraising numbers after the filing deadlines pass, and attempts periodic big-deal investigations. Even at mid-sized publications, there are probably more column inches (or screen pixels) devoted to campaign finance than there once were.

But the coverage often misses simple opportunities to explore connections between policies and political giving, to present fund-raising numbers in non-horse race terms, or to point readers on the way to exploring this information themselves. As a result, it doesn’t rise to the standard this story demands.

Consider a few items from The Denver Post, my hometown paper and former employer. In February, the Post reported on U.S. Rep. Douglas Lamborn’s votes on two separate energy bills. One of the measures, which Lamborn sponsored, called for expanding oil-shale exploration on federal land in Colorado; that bill was blasted by both environmentalists and many government officials in the western half of the state. The other bill called for extending a wind energy tax credit, and Lamborn was the lone “no” vote among Colorado’s nine-person delegation.

With a few clicks at Opensecrets.org, a reporter would have found that oil and gas
has been the top industry donor to Lamborn’s campaign committee, giving him $21,750 so far. It’s not a huge sum, and it doesn’t mean the industry is “buying” Lamborn’s vote. (It makes more sense to see the industry donors as trying to help a friendly politician keep his seat.) It’s also not exactly “news.” But it is a bit of context that sheds light on how laws are shaped—and how the people shaping the laws are supported.

Or consider this Feb. 1 post about fundraising by candidates for Congress. It’s good to have this information promptly reported when the data becomes available. But the frame here is strictly horse-race: how much a candidate raised, how much his or her opponent raised, how much cash the campaign has on hand. There’s no sense of where the money is coming from, and no attempt to point readers to where that information might be found.

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.