united states project

The Top Campaign Finance Tools for Local News Sites

And how can smaller newspapers and TV stations get this info before their audiences?
April 16, 2012

COLORADO — In my post last week on the emerging network of watchdog sites that document the role of money in politics, I suggested that many small and mid-sized media outlets, like local newspapers and TV stations, are not getting as much value as they could out of these specialty sites—and so aren’t serving their readers as well as they might.

A bit of outreach to a few of those outlets here in Colorado confirmed that impression. Political reporters are generally aware of resources like the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org, the Sunlight Foundation’s suite of campaign-finance tools, and National Institute on Money in State Politics’ FollowTheMoney.org, and they do use them in their reporting—if not always as often as they could. But reporters and editors generally aren’t attuned to features like widgets and APIs that would allow local news organizations to bring relevant campaign-finance data directly to their readers.

The digital experts in these newsrooms, meanwhile, aren’t always focused on politics. (One digital content director told me he’d never heard of the widgets available from these sites.) And even when they are, the web folks often have competing concerns in mind. Josh Stephenson, digital director for The Durango Herald and three other papers in the state, told me he and his colleagues “would love to tap into” the information compiled by FollowTheMoney in particular. But they would want to use a customizable API in the interest of “maintaining consistent look and feel across the website,” and so far they haven’t had the resources to do so. (Stephenson didn’t mention it, but the prefab widgets offered at FollowTheMoney are actually just OK; OpenSecrets and the Sunlight Foundation offer better resources on this score.)

To anyone who’s worked in a shrinking newsroom, these hurdles are understandable. But they should also be surmountable. In the interest of encouraging local news organizations to take better advantage of the resources these sites offer—either to inform traditional reporting, or to get information to voters in other ways—here are pointers to some of the most interesting data and most useful features:

● It sounds almost silly to mention it, but the search functions at these sites are all terrific, especially compared to the finicky nature of many government sites. Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, pointed me to the search bar when I asked about the best features at his organization’s campaign-finance website, and he’s right. When Newt Gingrich’s biggest benefactor was in the news, I wanted to see if he’d poured any money into my home state, so I plugged “Sheldon Adelson Colorado” into the search bar at FollowTheMoney.org. I got one hit—a donation in 2004. That year, Adelson gave $100,000 to Coloradans Against a Really Stupid Idea, a group that helped defeat a measure that would have scrapped Colorado’s winner-take-all system electoral system and apportioned its nine electoral votes according to popular vote. (If you’re searching the Sunlight Foundation’s data for a politician or donor, you’ll want to use the foundation’s Influence Explorer page.)

● FollowTheMoney—which looks only at state races and offices, not federal—also offers a smart feature called L-CAT, short for Legislative Committee Analysis Tool. This tool identifies donors to lawmakers who sit on the powerful legislative committees that in most state legislatures decide which bills are introduced. Bender explains why he likes this function: if a lobbyist for a utility company testifies at an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, for example, a reporter covering that hearing might consult L-CAT to find out quickly if that utility has donated to members of the committee, and if so, to add the information to his or her story.

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● How about the federal races in campaign 2012? The story of the year is spending by outside groups like super PACs and nonprofits, which according to the Sunlight Foundation has increased fourfold over comparable expenditures at this point in 2008. Both Sunlight and OpenSecrets allow users to sort super PAC spending in many ways, making it easy to see when money is coming into your state or district. OpenSecrets’s breakdown of outside expenditures by specific race is here; the Sunlight Foundation’s, which is part of its “Follow the Unlimited Money” page, is here. (Perusing this data, I noticed a small difference between the sites in the amount the Democrat-friendly House Majority PAC has spent campaigning against GOP Rep. Scott Tipton here in Colorado. Alerted to the discrepancy, Bill Allison at Sunlight and Viveca Novak at CRP were both responsive, and quickly sussed out that CRP’s OpenSecrets had the right data.)

Tracking super PAC spending at the state level is a different story; see this sidebar for more.

● OpenSecrets has a clever feature called Get Local! that will sort the data almost anyway you can imagine: top donors by state, leading industries for campaign contributions in a particular area, county-by-county breakdowns of giving, how much of a candidate’s money comes from out of state, and much more. You can even break down contributions by Zip code. I learned that here in Colorado, the Zip code doing the most giving so far during the 2012 cycle is in the Denver suburb of Englewood. Most of that money is going to Mitt Romney’s campaign, a pro-Romney super PAC, or the National Republican Congressional Committee. The single biggest donor in that neighborhood? Gregory Maffei, president of Liberty Media, who gave $100,000 to Romney’s friends at Restore our Future.

● Sunlight offers a variety of creative tools; one of the most imaginative is Politigraft, which filters a story to identify connections between candidates and the other people, companies, and organizations mentioned. (Here’s what it looks like for an installment of the Politico Influence newsletter.) The feature is available to the public, but Sunlight’s Bill Allison notes it can also be used by reporters prior to publication. “Say you’re writing about a state contract and there are state lawmakers mentioned,” he says. “You can run that text through Poligraft and just see if any of those companies have contributed to those state legislators or the governor or whomever.”

● How about other ways to get this data in front of local readers? These sites offer a mix of simple widgets and customizable APIs that will present their data on other sites. For example, OpenSecrets offers widgets that can show how much rival candidates in a House or Senate race have raised from a particular industry. And Sunlight offers ten “Politiwidgets,” including a basic “Top 5 Contributors” widget (not yet updated for the 2012 cycle) that lists a candidates’ major supporters. All the widgets are free, easy to build, and easy to embed in stories or blog posts.

News sites that want a greater ability to customize the data can upgrade to APIs, or application program interfaces. Project Votesmart, a voter resource site that is essentially an encyclopedia of elected officials, uses APIs to get its state campaign finance information from FollowTheMoney and federal figures from OpenSecrets. Local media organizations might use the same technology to cull the parts of this mountain of data that are relevant to their readers and stream it directly to their sites.

OpenSecrets offers a variety of public APIs and frequently writes custom APIs for media organizations—it has agreements with several dozen outlets this cycle—though theAPIs are generally free only to non-profit organizations and websites without advertising, said Susan Alger, IT director. You can read about developer tools from OpenSecrets here, and from FollowTheMoney here.

● Of course, another way local news organizations could introduce their readers to this data is simply to link to it. OpenSecrets assembles comprehensive pages summarizing the campaign-finance data for every congressional race in the country. Many traditional news organizations still aren’t in the habit of using outbound links. But if local outlets covering these races don’t have the in-house resources to build campaign pages that compare to the ones the watchdog sites offer, they can—and should—prominently link to them.

Those are a few of my favorites, but these sites offer much, much more that could be of use to journalists at local news organizations—like OpenSecrets’ data on congressmembers’ personal finances, or Sunlight’s Party Time feature, which lists upcoming fundraisers for specific politicians. Got a favorite of your own? Leave it in comments below.

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.