Backgrounders: Finding the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

HT_cook_registry_full_jef_141028_4x3_992Credit: ABC News

We’re talking about backgrounding today — tracking the public record history of anyone and everyone who matters. But before we get to that, a story

A registered sex offender has emerged as a star player on a top tier college football team, resuming his athletic career after being expelled from the Air Force Academy where he was court-martialed for sexual assault.

No NCAA rule prevents a person with a criminal conviction from playing college athletics, a spokesperson told ABC News. It is left up to the individual college or conference to determine eligibility.

Jamil Cooks, 23, enrolled at Alcorn State in Mississippi, a Division One NCAA school, after being found guilty in April 2013 of abusive sexual contact in a court martial proceeding at the Air Force Academy, which required him to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Cooks’ lawyer, Richard Stevens, says he is appealing the conviction.

via ABC News

Now, I’m not sure how ABC News learned about Cooks’s alleged crime. Maybe it was a tip. Maybe it was a records check. What I do know is how you can get records like this on anyone you want.

Continue reading Backgrounders: Finding the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Fun with FCC Complaints and The Simpsons

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The “Nerd News” website Dorkly complied a list of FCC complaints lobbed against the Simpsons. If your looking for a laugh and possibly a story idea, head on over. And hat tip to Government Attic, the open records website which originally published the complaints. Government Attic is a great place to find story ideas and other records to request. Be sure to check out Inspector General reports for the government agency that pertains to your beat.

Public Records: Contracts

Credit: kennymiller, Flickr

Contractor agreements are a great place to find quick-hit business stories.  For a state university, a list of contractors can be obtained with a simple open records request. Obviously private, not-for-profit colleges are under no such disclosure requirement. But with a bit more digging, you can get those contract details as well.
Continue reading Public Records: Contracts

This place looks familiar…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on the blog. Well, I’ve graduated college, finished my internship with the Chronicle and have a little more time on my hands. Expect more posts about tools, tricks and other stuff. Talk to you soon…

Also, take the time to watch this clip from the folks over at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It’s good piece of journalism and great piece of comedy.

Public Records: Embezzlement and Fraud in the 990

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Want to learn if your university is the victim of fraud or embezzlement? There is a box on the Form 990 to track this crime. More more information, check out the fantastic reporting by the Washington Post by clicking the links below:

The most intriguing check box on a nonprofit’s disclosure form

Inside the hidden world of thefts, scams and phantom purchases at the nation’s nonprofits

HDWI: Board of Trustees and campaign donations

Who oversees the activities at your university? Is it the president? Provost? Dean? It’s actually the Board of Trustees (or for some colleges, the Board of Regents). These individuals make all of the major decisions for your university, such as construction plans, fundraising goals and top personnel changes. When a president and other top administrator are hired or fired, it’s because of the Board of Trustees (BOT).

Most college students are unaware of the people who direct life on their campus. As Election Day 2012 approached, I wanted to learn the political leanings of the men and women who run Webster University. First, I had to obtain a list of board members to begin my search. Today, most colleges publish the names of their BOT members on the web. However, if you are unable to find the names, ask your college to provide them to you. If you are at a state college or university, the names can be obtained through FOIA or Sunshine Law. At a private college, take a look at the Form 990, published on Guidestar, to learn about top brass.

imagesWith over 40 names in hand, I began a search of the Federal Election Commission’s campaign donation database. In the initial stages, I used a bulletin board to track the donations of BOT members. Soon, I ran out of bulletin boards. I quickly learned an Excel Spreadsheet was better-suited for the project. I learned a lot from the experience. So, to save you time and reduce stress, here are some tips garnered from my mistakes.
Continue reading HDWI: Board of Trustees and campaign donations

6 Ways You Can Use ChangeDetection.com to report

1. Form 990s on GuidestarMonitor your university’s Guidestar page. When a new 990 filing becomes available, ChangeDetection will send you an alert.

2. Home purchases with BlockShopperBlockShopper can track home purchases by buyer, such as a university. Monitor your university’s search result page to learn when the institution buys or sells property in the area.

3. Credit ratings with Moody’s. Rating agency reports on your institution’s debt can hold information about university financials. Track the search results page on Moody’s by typing in your institution’s name.

4. Your college or university’s financial audit. Some institutions post their financial audits online for donors to review. They’re less specific than 990s, but have more recent information than the tax filing.

5. Yearly Board of Trustees changes. ChangeDetection will alert you when members are added or dropped from your university’s board. Background the new members and learn about who is running your university. You can also speak with former members to learn why they separated from the university. They might also provide insight on how business is conducted behind closed doors.

6. Your university’s academic programs. Universities aren’t likely to announce a program or certificate is being discontinued. They will, however, remove it from the website. Monitor these changes to stay up to date on the programs and instruction your institution offers. They alert can also tell you when new programs are added to the curriculum.

HOPE AND CHANGEDETECTION: One way to stay on top of stories

Let’s face it: college journalists aren’t the best at following up on stories. I’ve been guilty of publishing an article, then proceeding to cover a different area of the university system. Months later, I’d remember an update to the original story was required, but find I had missed an important news event. When your college newspaper publishes three-week-old news because you weren’t doing your job, the embarrassment alone will convince you to get your act together.

Screenshot of changedetection.com
Screenshot of changedetection.com

It can also be difficult to keep track the release of news from outside sources. For example, our university has a habit of releasing university data and information to the web without informing the campus of its availability. Very important stories are sitting out on the Internet, but no one knows when or where to look.

There are tactics to counter these shortcomings. I’ve become better at time management and organization, a must for any journalist before they enter the “real world.”

College journalists should also create a network of sources who can alert them when news happens or something newsworthy becomes available. Working in concert with these strategies, the subject of today’s post has significantly helped me keep an eye on news at Webster University.

It’s called ChangeDetection.com, a web service which monitors text changes on websites. While that may sound boring, creative reporters can use ChangeDetection and be alerted when their college or university makes news. The Journal has broken news stories thanks to alerts from ChangeDetection, including articles on bonuses, endowment figures and enrollment data.

Check out how you can use changedetection.com to stay up on the news in your community. Leave a comment if you can think of other ways the tool can help student media.

A blog about public records, data journalism and other stuff