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.
With 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.
1. EVEN IF YOU START EARLY, YOU’LL STILL BE A DAY LATE. It’s a joke. Aren’t I hilarious? I didn’t quite understand how much work I would need to put into my first data journalism project to make it successful. I began a month before Election Day, and just barely made my deadline for publication. If there is one thing I learned about any special project, it is the necessity of early planning and work. Give yourself time not only to enter data, but also to recheck that data. This is important stuff, and you should recheck the names and numbers.
2. Because I spent the bulk of my time with data, I was unable to interview BOT members, national experts, faculty or students. I also couldn’t give context to the numbers and compare them to other college officials. What about college administrators? Had Webster University President Elizabeth Stroble given money to a campaign recently (Answer: No). These were all questions left unanswered in our Election Day Issue. I hope it won’t happen the next time.
2. HOW DO YOU WANT THIS DATA TO LOOK? Get everyone involved in this project. What does your multimedia editor have in mind? (Hint: Tableau Public!) How about your graphic artist? Want to use pictures? You’re going to need to coordinate with the photo editor. Be thinking of these things in the early stages, so production night doesn’t turn into production morning.
3. BE TRANSPARENT. Make your data available to the public, so they can learn where you got it. Some may even recheck your work. More power to them. Like you, they are being good citizens.
4. HOW MUCH DEPTH DO YOU WANT WITH YOUR DATA? For this project, I focused just on the direct donations from BOT members to President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney. I also examined donations made by BOT members to Missouri candidates for federal office. As I’ve said before, planning and an early start are essential to a successful project. I had originally planned to track donations made to all Republican candidates during the GOP primary contests. Time made that impossible. Likewise, I also noticed a trend of BOT members supporting candidates in other states. There was probably a story there. And what about donations made by BOT members to SuperPACs, as well as corporate and political PACs. No time left = no data = no story. And don’t even get me started on state elections.
Start early, and understand how much depth you want to go into for the project. More depth = More time.
5. YOU ARE GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES. YOU ARE ALSO GOING TO LEARN FROM THEM. In case you haven’t noticed, I have a lot of regrets about this project. (I am Jack’s wasted life…Fight Club, anyone?) But nothing teaches you like a mistake. You are going to learn a lot about data journalism from this experience, and that will inform you the next time. And, luckily, you are educated in America, where elections are speculated about constantly and fought regularly. Better get ready for the next one.
BTW: In case you were wondering, the data showed BOT members favored Republicans over Democrats. And among Republicans, BOT members backed establishment candidates to Tea Party challengers.