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October 7, 2006

Spouse on Campaign Payroll? Sunlight's New Tool

"It takes less than five minutes to investigate whether a given member of Congress has a wife or husband on the payroll. This is because the relevant data bases have been combined and adapted to make it extremely simple to check for spouses as payees in campaign expenditures."

Don’t miss Sunlight’s latest adventure in networked journalism: “a new distributed research and reporting project that will enable citizen journalists to find out how many members of the House of Representatives have their spouses on the payroll.” The campaign payroll, that is.

The practice is not illegal. It is questionable, but it can’t be questioned unless the public knows about it. “Members who hire spouses to work on their campaigns pay them from the campaign contributions they raise from special interests— in effect, allowing their political fundraising to add to their personal income,” said the press release from Sunlight.

Ease-of-use is the innovation. It takes less than five minutes to investigate whether a given member of Congress has a wife or husband on the payroll. This is because the relevant data bases have been combined and adapted to make it extremely simple to check for spouses as payees in campaign expenditures. I checked into my Congressman, Jerrold Nadler, and his wife, Joyce Miller. They appear clean. Thus I did my part.

Sunlight—a funder of NewAssignment.Net—is going to add a Senate spouse project soon. Bill Allison explains:

It would take a single reporter weeks to amass that kind of information, but with a distributed reporting model, if we have enough volunteers taking on a handful of members each, we can get this done in a matter of days. At the end of the process, we’ll have a sentence that reads, “Of 435 Members of the House of Representatives, 63 have hired their spouses to work their campaigns, paying them $1.5 million from campaign contributions in the 2006 campaign cycle.” We’ll be able to point to those members who pay their spouses the most money, uncovering information that right now isn’t available to the public. We might even find some outrageous excesses.

Without the combined databases and easy interfaces it would take a single reporter weeks, that’s true. But if a single reporter had the tool that Sunlight Labs developed it would take about three days (21 hours) of work. Not impossible, but perhaps unlikely. Plus journalism has never had that kind of R & D capacity.

Micah Sifrey, a consultant to Sunlight, told me that two hours after the tool launched, 77 members had been checked out. As I write this (Saturday morning) the project page shows that it’s up to 265 members of the 435. (Update: the work finished on Sunday. See “After Matter” below.)

“Future projects will investigate children of members who work for political campaigns, relatives of members who work for political action committees and for fundraising firms, and relatives of members who are registered to lobby Congress,” writes Allison. “Working together, I’m hoping we can develop a citizen journalist news room of volunteers digging into members and thinking about how to do it better—how to use the Web to bring greater accountability to members of Congress.”

A few observations of my own:

It’s called Find out if Congress is a Family Business. Try the tool yourself and let me know what you think in the comments.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Bill Allison updates on Oct. 8, two days after launch:

Incredible!—in less than two days, a virtual investigative team dug through campaign finance records for 435 current members of Congress, trying to find out of they paid their spouses from campaign funds. There were 24 of us (myself included—I looked up six members) who left our names, and 83 members investigated by anonymous researchers. I’m not sure whether that’s actually 83 individual researchers, or one very industrious but bashful person, or some total in between, but our tech folksshould be able to give us some idea of what the actual number of participants was.

Of those who did leave their names, our huge thanks go out to KCinDC who investigated 155 House members, Beezling who looked into 116, VaAntirepublican who did 24, Cosmo with 10, Rybesh with 9, plus a bunch who chipped in with five or fewer…

Ellen Miller, executive ditrector of Sunlight: “Anyone who believes that citizens don’t want to get involved in monitoring what their representiatives do here in Washington has just been proven wrong.”

Bill Allison in the comments:

With more arduous research, maybe the solution is to split up the work: Some people could track down the names of, say, the sons- and daughters-in-law of members of Congress, while others cross check those names against lobbyist registrations, while a third group of volunteers contacts the firms and verifies the information, all of which is updated and filled in on a grid that anyone can visit to see how research is progressing. Of course there’d be overlap—people doing tasks one and two or two and three or all three—but there’d also be the opportunity for someone who just wanted to do something relatively simple, like searching for names in a lobbying database, to make an important and crucial contribution.

I think that’s the way to go. Make it easy for a lot to contribute a little, and a few to contribute a lot.

More Sunlight: A Red Letter Day for Transparency. New searchable database for all government contracts and for what members of Congress own, including what stock they own.

Janet Eden, who hangs out at Daniel Conover’s Xark site, in comments: “Look no further than World of Warcraft to be convinced that people will spend hours on activitities that overcome obstacles and test skills. Hours. That could be beneficial for both the gathering and dissemination of data.”

Dan Gillmor and I have worked with Lisa Williams to give birth to, which Lisa (author of H20Town) will operate. It was her idea. Check out her post about it here, and Poynter’s E-media blog on it here. Hasn’t launched yet, but I think it’s going to be a kick-ass site and all the placebloggers around the U.S. will love it. Lisa writes:

Placeblogs reveal a fiercely non-generic America that’s not about national big-box retailers, and they don’t feature the kind of broad, blunt coverage that results from driving by communities at highway speed, or flying overhead. There’s little Red vs. Blue America or fad coverage here. They show America at the level of detail you get at a walking pace.

Jakob Nielsen on Participation Inequality: “In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.”

Why does Wall Street hate newspapers so much? asks Doc Seals. “Simple: Because newspapers are a rusty industry. They have tail fins. They print lists of readers every day on the obituary page. Worse, as a class they are resolutely clueless about how to adapt to a world that is increasingly networked and self-informing. And Wall Street knows that.” Doc goes on to list ten things newspapers should do to get with it. They’re all dead on, in my opinion.

Sean Coon reports on my visit to the Greensboro News & Record to discuss NewAssignment.Net with bloggers and journalists in town. Part of my fall swing through North Carolina.

Aaron Barlow at Daily Kos… Journalists: Look to Your Future.

n the 1990s, when people like “Buzz” Merritt and Jay Rosen tried to develop another model for the news business, they were shot down by many of the people within, people who cried that “civic journalism” transgressed on the ethical integrity (among other things) of journalists….

Merritt and Rosen are right when they say that journalism must find a new model-or one will be found for it and the older news media entities will go the way of the dinosaur. The problem is that few people inside journalism are willing to put in the work, the study, necessary to finding a way to redesign their profession.

There are some; and I do hear from them. According to reports from Jeff Jarvis, who is at the Online News Association annual conference, they’re starting to get it.

Daniel Conover: It’s the tools, stupid. “Don’t tell me how the media needs to change: Tell me what tool you can build that will give people the power to bring order to data in credible, meaningful, real-time ways.”

Tish Grier at the Constant Observer says we should extend our sense of hyperlocal journalism. “My sense of neighborhood and of friends is one more of affinity and expertise than of geography. Therefore, I am committing an act of ‘hyperlocal’ journalism (citizen or professional) when I am writing about the places/spaces/sensibilities on the Internet that I know just as well as I know the shortest route to the Chicopee Wal-Mart and my neighbor’s first name.”

Brent Cunningham at CJR Daily: “More than ever we need the press to lead the debate.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 7, 2006 11:28 AM