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.
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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.

HWDI: Housing Benefits for Administrators

Hello all. Hope everyone is well. My apologies. I haven’t posted here in awhile. Lucky for me, it’s fall break at Webster University. I’m hopped up on gas station coffee and ready to write.

Let’s talk about where and how your university administrators live. Some colleges pull out all of the stops for their top employees: free housing, maid service and security guards. It’s doubtful your university wants this information on the front page of the campus newspaper, so you can’t expect much help the PR office. But a simple check of your university’s 990 Form can tell you about these benefits and which administrators are receiving them.

Be careful, though, because the information will not be current. At Webster, 2011 pay data was only released last May, per government filing. So how did we cover a breaking story about our provost moving into a university house? First, non-Gorloks, follow me into the time machine.

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Okay, maybe not that far back.

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Public Records: Form 990s

A fundraiser that bombed. A steady climb in legal fees each year. A significant increase in pay for an administrator. If you’re a student journalist at a private university or college, these are all possible stories that could be uncovered with a Form 990.

The document, filed annually with the IRS, allows the government and the public to evaluate the operations of non-profits across the country. The government uses the form to determine if a non-profit is fulfilling its mission and still deserves its tax-exempt status.

As news editor, the story pitch process with staff reporters can be like pulling teeth. S0 instead of clearly stealing ideas from the university blog, I urge reporters to take a look at the 990. If you’re creative and read it carefully, you can have great story ideas at every pitch session for the rest of the semester.
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