by Caitlin Rondino
This summer, I spent 112 hours sending and following up on FOIL requests to 96 incorporated villages across Long Island. The objective was to request the two most recent audited financial statements, adopted budgets and payroll information. Newsday has sent plenty of FOIL requests to towns for the same information and has been doing so for years, but the paper had never requested information from these tiny villages. My fellow intern and now dear friend, Lauren, and I were the guinea pigs.
It was a nerve-wracking initial conversation with our supervisor, Mandy Hofmockel. I had no idea what was expected of me, how to write a FOIL request, where the requests would be sent, the legal time frames or what I would be faced with once the request was sent. We were flat out called the test subjects, but it was exciting because it was so exclusive. This whole project came down to me and one other individual. Now that our participation in that experiment has ended, I’m glad I went without knowing what was expected of me. It made it that much easier to learn and create my own method to conducting my work.
First, I learned that FOIL requests are exhausting. The list of the 96 villages was split into two, and then Lauren and I each sent requests to our halves of the list. The next day, we made follow-up calls confirming that the request had reached the designated contact. A week later, we pushed for “receive acknowledgments.” Under the FOI law, a written acknowledgement must be sent either rejecting the request, agreeing to it or stating a time when we could expect to receive documents within five business days. After that, the village has 20 days to compile and send the material or to request more time. Since we really were requesting a voluminous amount of information, I wasn’t a stickler for timelines. These offices are small and understaffed, but then again, a request can’t be rejected because the work is burdensome. When I say I learned the stipulations of NYS FOI Law, I mean I could recite it in my sleep.
Fast forward through the first five weeks. Ultimately, the work consisted of maintaining call logs, contact sheets and status spreadsheets, and then logingg where these documents had been uploaded to a USB key, other backup folders and Document Cloud. All PDF files, all emails, all information was saved. Programs like Document Cloud, Google Refine and Excel are great, even necessary, tools for cleaning up large amounts of data. Another thing I learned in data journalism is that you can never have enough spreadsheets.
It took patience and l organization to juggle 48 separate individuals while waiting for 48 separate requests. The data hardly ever came in the format requested, but I learned Excel and other programs to format it for Newsday. The audited financial statements and adopted budgets were standard. They are documents every village has to keep and/or submit every year. Under the law, each agency does have to keep a somewhat bare minimum payroll report, but we were looking for much more detailed information about these villages. It was crucial to finesse the villages in hopes of working with them rather than being sent the bare minimum. Date of hire, date of termination, address and date of birth were to add context to payroll information. One employee may have a substantially larger salary because she worked there longer. A home address and date of birth differentiates employees with similar names.
What I found most interesting was not the fact that some villages conspired together to find ways to weasel out of our request, but why they thought Newsday was requesting this info. They believed Newsday was trying to shut villages down. I think if this data were to be put into words the way the Tampa Bay Times did on the overcrowding and abuse of homeless people, ultimately village salary information could shut these villages down, or at least introduce some kind of restriction on how much money these people take home.
I find investigative reporting and data journalism to be more exciting, despite the tedious legwork that goes into it. My advice to any journalism major who might think about participating in this internship is to do it. It may not sound or seem glamorous at first glance, but what you get out of it is incredible. I understand the chance of a byline is more enticing. But this area of journalism wasn’t taught or offered to me in the J-School. There was no data journalism class, no class on FOIL or how to investigate issues through data. Now, having seen what an important role that data plays and how important it is to format it, I think there should be. I was taught directly by the investigative team. The database editor and all-around awesome individual, Tim Healy, helped me anytime I had a question. There were internship lunches that I could attend if ever I wanted to take a break from the task at hand or explore another area of Newsday that my internship didn’t touch on. I met a lot of wonderful, intelligent people and am grateful for the time I got to spend in the heart of that newsroom.