Kate Martin (right) of the Skagit Valley Herald, in Mt. Vernon, Wash., was the inaugural recipient of the Fund for Rural Computer Assisted Reporting fellowship. She attended the Investigative Reporters and Editors‘ six-day boot camp in March of 2011. Below is her testimony.
Though the Skagit Valley Herald is a rural newspaper, our readers expect top-notch reporting on local issues. The Fund for Rural Computer Assisted Reporting allowed me to attend the six-day boot camp by Investigative Reporters and Editors last March.
The skills I learned will help me analyze trends and seek data that will help inform our Skagit Valley readers. I am no longer at the mercy of my sources to look up a figure or fact for me. I can have them send me the source file and work with it on my own. I have also helped analyze census information, school testing results, crime data and business statistics for the other four reporters in our newsroom.
Before even attending the boot camp, I had been investigating a local assessor’s office. The elected assessor had repeatedly said that he did not have enough staff to do their state-mandated job. I learned that the state had written a report that said the assessor was not following its own plan to revalue property within the county. As a result, I discovered that some taxpayers were not paying as much taxes as they should have been — and the cities, county and state were not receiving the tax revenue they were supposed to be getting.
After I returned from the boot camp, I wanted to write a follow-up story to find out how much tax revenue cities and other jurisdictions had missed out on. Using the knowledge I learned at boot camp, I was able to convince the office to give me the building permit database they used to assign work to appraisers in the office. I was able to cross reference the properties with the county property tax database. From there, I could determine how much money each agency would theoretically be owed. I also double-checked my work with city building departments to see if the permit database corresponded with actual buildings.
The analysis showed that the county had missed more than $70 million of new construction in 2010 — which corresponded to about $350,000 in tax revenue. This is a lot of money for rural towns, the county and area special districts.
As a result of my reporting, the county commissioners asked for reviews of the assessor’s office. One review showed that employees of the office were reading books on the clock. Another review suggested that the office could not record all of the county’s new construction with its current staffing levels.
This is not the only story in which I used my new-found data skills.
Recently, a local mayor denied the application of a proposed taco and tequila restaurant because he said too many 911 calls had been made to that address in the past. The year before he had denied another liquor license to a couple who also wanted to open a Mexican restaurant.
I sent records requests to the Mount Vernon Police Department and the Skagit 911 center for all calls for assistance to that location. I examined the spreadsheet of call data, which proved the mayor wrong — that location had only had 16 calls since the beginning of 2000. However, police responded to the bar across the street 417 times in that same time period.
The resulting story generated a lot of talk among residents in the city (which included comments from the mayor, who had also wanted to make English the official language of the city).
Unfortunately most rural newsrooms do not have the budget to send a reporter to a six-day workshop. But the knowledge you can gain from the CAR boot camp should not belong only to big-city news organizations. Rural residents deserve high-quality reporting, too. Without these skills, rural journalists have less access to data and less ability to dig deep into the issues that matter most to their readers.
If you are on the fence about attending the boot camp or applying for the fellowship, I urge you to reconsider. Since I had to pay my own way, the fellowship I earned from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues was the tipping point. The fellowship and the boot camp has changed my career forever.