Journalists learn how to follow the money in state elections

Following the money in state politics is becoming easier, thanks to more than $47 billion in searchable campaign contributions compiled by the National Institute for Money in State Politics.

About 20 reporters from around the country gathered in Missoula, Montana, last week to learn how to track those contributions, spot patterns and find stories among the data. The Specialized Reporting Institute was funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and hosted by the National Institute for Money in State Politics, also known as, a member of the Investigative News Network.

Reporters learned how to use the new Follow the Money website, which allows anyone to search for contributors to politicians in all 50 states and federal offices. Reporters and members of the public can also search by industry and interest, by politician, by election year and a number of other ways.

The institute’s website contains 51 million records totaling more than $47.5 billion in campaign contributions. It is the only place where all states’ campaign finance data are available as one searchable database. To find the same information elsewhere would require searching individual states’ websites, and in some cases requesting information that isn’t available online. The website is currently in beta testing and will be fully launched this fall.

On the first day of the two-day training, participants also heard from veteran reporters on how to turn data from the website into strong local stories with impact. Ben Wieder of the Center for Public Integrity talked about tracking interests and issue ads in politics. Norberto Santana Jr. and Nick Gerda from the Voice of OC showed how they used patterns in local campaign contributions to write stories about a local politician that led to an official investigation. Denise Malan, director of data services for INN and Investigative Reporters and Editors, gave a presentation on double-checking data stories and avoiding errors.

The second day was devoted to digging into the website and other data, looking for story ideas and working with the trainers on how to take what they’d learned back to their newsrooms.

“From learning how to bulletproof my stories and use data in my everyday reporting, to learning how to use the Institute’s new site and get the data I need to tell the stories important to Montanans, I feel that what I learned gives me great confidence and a much-needed leg-up in tracking the spending habits of the various groups trying to influence the outcome of Montana’s elections,” said Jeremy Knop, executive director of INN member the Montana Center for Investigative Reporting and one of the participants.

Participants from INN member newsrooms also included:

Other newsrooms represented were Northwest Herald near Chicago, Skagit Valley Herald in Washington state, Reno Gazette-Journal, Casper (Wyoming) Star Tribune, Virginia Public Radio,, The Free Press in Minkato, Minnesota; Portland (Maine) Press Herald; MATC Times in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Gannett Wisconsin Media; E&E Daily Greenwire; Community Newspaper Holdings in Oklahoma; and the Montana Television Network.