COLORADO—Edwin Bender knows the value of a good follow-the-money story.

Bender is the executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics and its website, named—appropriately enough—Followthemoney.org. He’s also someone with a particular interest in prison-privatization proposals, and a particular suspicion, honed over more than a decade, about the role political donations play in encouraging elected officials to embrace privatization.

So Bender was paying close attention in February, when lawmakers in Florida narrowly killed a controversial, multi-million-dollar bid to privatize state prisons. The bill failed because a group of rogue Republicans defected from a privatization push led by Gov. Rick Scott and state Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

But it also failed in part, Bender believes, because the media followed the money. The Palm Beach Post and The Huffington Post (also here) were among news organizations reporting that private prison companies had poured at least $1.8 million into Florida campaigns, mostly Republican, over the past three election cycles—including $35,000 to Haridopolos and $25,000 to Scott’s inaugural ball in 2011.

Huffington Post writer Chris Kirkham said that shortly before his Feb. 1 article appeared, he read an analysis by the institute documenting campaign contributions during the 2010 cycle. Kirkham contacted Bender, who walked him through the data on the institute’s website. “You could look at contributions by industry, by state, and by election cycle,” said Kirkham. “You could see that Florida had been a real target of donations for the private prison industry.”

While no one suggested a quid pro quo, the story is a textbook illustration of how money buys access to those who set public policy, Bender says. It’s also a good example of how strong coverage of campaign finance can make arcane data compelling and relevant; in this case, the governor and Senate president appeared to be “buying the company line—hook, line and sinker,” Bender said.

And it’s an example, too, of the value of the expansive public-oriented information ecosystem that has emerged to help tackle the money-in-politics story. As campaign finance becomes an ever-trickier minefield of legalese, gray areas, hair-splitting distinctions and moving parts—and as it becomes ever more central to the story of politics—reporters can turn to a wealth of watchdog sites where researchers gather, analyze, and post reams of data about state and federal elected officials.

In addition to Followthemoney.org, these sites include the Center for Responsive Politics’ Opensecrets.org, Maplight.org, and a range of projects sustained by the Sunlight Foundation (which has funded some of CJR’s reporting on transparency). Other valuable resources include Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center, and Votesmart.org, which posts lawmakers’ resumes, voting records, and issue positions.

These sites aren’t magic; they can’t expose “dark money” or remake the post-Citizens United, post-super PAC legal landscape. And knowing how to navigate them isn’t a substitute for independent expertise in this area.

But many of the watchdog sites provide valuable original reporting and useful resource guides, along the lines of what appears in accountability-minded news organizations like ProPublica.

And one of these sites’ greatest virtues is that they make campaign-finance data, at both the state and federal levels, readily accessible and easy to work with. Want to know, for example, which Senate race has seen the most spending by outside super PACs to date in this cycle? Click here, and you’ll see it’s Nebraska’s. Click here and you’ll see which groups are doing the spending. By contrast, official government sites are often still clunky enough to frustrate non-expert reporters and deter even interested members of the public.

(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.

Adding in these details wouldn’t have made the blog post a deep investigative dive, and wouldn’t have eliminated the need for long-term pieces (which the Post does take on). But it would have been a small step toward improving readers’ understanding of the routine operation of money in politics—and small steps, taken often enough, can carry you a long way.

There are also self-interested reasons for local newspapers (and TV stations) to shift their coverage in this direction. The Internet has made it possible for niche publications like Politico to reach a national audience, and for data-miners and watchdogs to reach readers directly. In the competition for a deeply-engaged political audience, few regional outlets can match the obsessive focus of those specialty sources.

What even strapped regional publications might do as a matter of course, though, is take advantage of the campaign finance work the specialty sites have already done, and distill the bits of information that are most pertinent to their readers—while also showing readers how they can seek out the data themselves. That approach would mark a bid for relevance among politics junkies, while also helping to open doors for more casual readers.

So what, exactly, might that look like? I’ll offer some specific suggestions in my next post.

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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.