Tom Warhover is an associate professor and chair of the print and digital news faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism. He also is the executive editor for innovation at the Columbia Missourian, a community newspaper edited by professionals and staffed by student reporters, copy editors, designers and photographers.
Prior to the university, he worked for The Virginian-Pilot, a 200,000 circulation daily newspaper serving southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. At The Pilot, he was a copy editor, designer, wire editor and metro editor. He covered city hall as a beat reporter. As an assigning editor in charge of the “public life team,” he helped the paper create principles and daily practices for the then-fledgling concept of public (or civic) journalism. He helped guide the long-term strategies of the newsroom as deputy managing editor and the fiscal fortunes of part of the newspaper as the North Carolina general manager.
—From the Missouri School of Journalism’s website.
Can you talk about the importance of FOI, open records requests…
It’s hard to imagine a world without them. Given the attempts at keeping information secret with the laws, can you imagine if we didn’t have them. There are two types of people in this world — information providers and information protectors, and unfortunately there are a lot more protectors than there are providers. The laws, the attitude is one that says, ‘in order to have a functioning democracy, you have to have a free flow of information.’ If people are not informed, we must, quote, ‘inform their discretion.’ So sayeth Thomas Jefferson and he was a pretty smart guy.
Are these things important to just journalists or citizens as well?
Well sure, their important to citizens in three or four ways. One, journalists doing the work for them, in essence, in that we get the information and we supply it to them via stories that are written, etcetera. But also the direct way. I know lots of people who have made their own FOIA requests. I know lots of people who have gotten information without ever asking for a formal sunshine or FOIA because that way had already been opened for them. In this day and age, citizens creating their own stories, through databases that may not have told me in an actual article ‘this is what all this data means,’ and enabled me to actually go in and write my own story. If I wanted to know who makes the most money at the University of Missouri, I can go to a database for that. And I as a citizen can use it in a way that I don’t have to know all the complicated programming.
Any instances in the past where sunshine, FOI yielded great stories…
It’s funny you say that, because when you ask that question, the first thing that came to my mind was a failure, not a success. But the information was a success, so I’ll tell it and then think of something a little more salient and to the point. I was a city editor and a reporter and I were trying to get records from the city garage, a place where they charged 120 dollars to other departments for things as routine as oil changes. We had gotten some of the records through sources, but then when we went and made a formal request for all of them we were denied, and the reason we were denied was because in the process of complying with that request, the city discovered potential criminal acts to be investigated. Therefore it was an investigative file, therefore it fell under the exemptions of the Freedom of Information Act and they shut us down. We marched it all the way up to the state supreme court and spent a lot of the Virginian Pilot’s money that year on that, but yet it was a success because in requesting that information, changes to the way government operates were made. And we got the story anyway, by the way. Not the story we wanted perhaps but we got the story we needed.
Tips/tricks for journalists starting out…
First advice would be not to make a sunshine request. Two things happen when you make a sunshine request: One, for some reason, it raises the hackles of public officials. Two, it requires them to do more work. There’s a recording that has to happen, there’s reports to bosses, that sort of thing. So if you can get the information without making a sunshine request… do it. Young journalists often start in like a bull in a China shop thinking, ‘I’ve got the law here and I’m gonna go get it.’ But I would say smooth talkin’ and working the room is going to be the most expedient, cheapest and best way to start. Other advice would be to always take your editor out on a limb with you. Eventually, if there’s a conflict, it’s going to cost somebody money and probably a lot of time and maybe lawyers. So, if you’re making a request, make sure your bosses know it and that they’re part of it and not simply inspecting it.
I guess another one would be, don’t be afraid to negotiate. Sometimes we stop at the ‘can we or can’t we’ get the information and the barrier becomes price. Sometimes we just say, ‘ok’ in thinking we have make a decision in either pay it or don’t, and usually there’s something in between. We had started with a database in the UM system last year, I forget what they originally wanted… 350 or 400 dollars. And then it was 150. Then we went to Spot.us and got funding for that and wound up not needing it all because in the end it was 50 dollars. But sometimes you’re going to run across stuff that costs money and you say hey it’s reasonable. And you’ve got to recognize that too. It’s not just what you want to pay… zero. Here’s the other advice… always think zero.