Reporting budgets are tight. Newsrooms and freelancers don’t always have money for public records requests.
The Society of Professional Journalists has got your back.
Thanks to a grant from the Thornburg Foundation, the Rio Grande Chapter of SPJ has a fund to help SPJ members in New Mexico and El Paso face down daunting record-request fees. It’s good through the end of 2017. (Rio Grande Chapter board members and their partners or relatives aren’t eligible to apply.)
We know how deadlines work and that you need the money fast. So here’s how this works:
1. The fund is available for SPJ Rio Grande Chapter members only. You can join here!
- In fewer than 500 words, tell us who you are, where your story is being published, what the public records are that you need and how much the agency is saying they’re going to cost you. (And don’t worry: We won’t spill your secrets or scoop your story.) Email your letter and request to email@example.com AND firstname.lastname@example.org
- Once we’ve approved your request and you’ve received your documents, send us the original invoice and we’ll cut a check directly to the agency.
- First come, first serve through the end of 2017. Funds are limited.
The Society of Professional Journalists chose the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission for the 2016 Black Hole Award. The award draws attention to “government institutions or agencies for outright contempt of the public’s right to know.”
SPJ Rio Grande board president Laura Paskus nominated the ISC this year:
I’ve been a journalist for almost 15 years and have been covering this particular agency for that entire time. Over the past few years however, the agency has become increasingly secretive, in particular as the state has proposed building a controversial diversion on the Gila River, here in New Mexico.
Most recently, the agency refused to release an unlocked version of a spreadsheet to a citizen … and it took a US senator reading my story to get the citizen the records.
And the city of Hobbs, New Mexico was also a finalist for the 2016 Black Hole Awards. Read the full release from SPJ here.
By: Laura Paskus
Earlier this year, I was trying to get a hold of some information — something really simple, the kind of thing that in the past would usually be handled over the course of a phone call or two.
I was trying to figure out why a local government official had been told by the state that the village’s grant had been cut.
I reached out to the state agency’s communications director, via text, voicemail and email. No one would respond, however. It wasn’t even a controversial story — the village ended up receiving the money they’d been counting on. I just wanted to know why the state had sent that letter and what might be going on with the budget or the grant funding.
Since I couldn’t get a response — even after emailing specific questions and actually getting the communications director on the telephone for a few minutes — I filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request. I asked for emails from a specific time period, with the name of the grant in them, from one bureau within the state agency. I noted in my letter that I would rescind the IPRA request if someone would just answer my questions about the grant funding.
The agency responded that the request was “excessively burdensome and broad” — because there were more than 500 responsive documents that needed to be collected and reviewed before being released. In my response to that letter, I noted that there wouldn’t be a need for the IPRA request and response if someone would answer my questions.
Now, after the agency has complied with my IPRA request–and spent staff time collecting and reviewing the documents–I’ve been able to review the emails. Amid the hundreds of messages, I finally found an email that explains exactly what happened and why. And as I guessed, it could have been explained to me in a short phone call.
It’s Sunshine Week, which is all about your right to know. We’ll be rolling out all kinds of content on this site and on social media. This “Gray Skies” series will look at instances when officials, agencies and public institutions not transparent and evaded the disinfecting power of sunlight.