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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Readers can help keep records requests alive

By Tom Warhover
December 17, 2010 | 3:53 p.m. CST

Dear reader:

I skipped through the newsroom Thursday, hollering senselessly and ringing a tiny bell.

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It was 10 a. m.

I was sober.

Overnight, the Missourian had raised $100 to help its quest for public records on liquor law violations at MU.

David Cohn and the 12 people who donated made it happen. David is a West Coast guy spending a year here in Columbia as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

David created Spot.Us as a way to support community journalism. More on the incredible Mr. Cohn in a moment.

First, the case with campus:

On Oct. 8, Missourian reporter Michelle Markelz made a Sunshine Law request to Kathy Miller, custodian of records for the University of Missouri system.

Markelz wanted to know why liquor law violations doubled on the MU campus between 2008 and 2009. According to the Clery Report, which all universities with campus police are required to file annually, the number of violations increased from about 430 to almost 900.

Possibilities abound. Perhaps enforcement stepped up on existing rules, or new policies for dorms were enacted. Perhaps students just drank a heckuva lot more.

MU officials with Residential Life (think dormitories here) were unable to explain why.

So Markelz tried to go to the records.

More than two months later, she’s still trying.

The Sunshine Law defines for Missouri what public records the citizenry has a right to see and what public meetings it must be allowed to attend. The presumption is that secrecy in governance should be the exception and that most information gathered by the government belongs to the people. Many people know these rules more commonly by the federal version, the Freedom of Information Act.

The university maintained that complying with the request would mean building a separate report from an existing database, which is not required under the law. The Missourian disagreed.

That’s one battle.

The other comes down to money.

The law allows government agencies to seek reimbursement for the expense involved in finding information and making copies. It also stipulates that those fees can be waived if the request is “in the public interest” and not for commercial purposes, something the university has declined to do.

A November e-mail from Miller gave an early estimate of $150 in programming time to separate private information – stuff that would personally identify students – from the data that’s public.

Markelz, Missourian attorney Sandy Davidson and I met with Miller and others this week. I’m waiting for a final estimate, even while maintaining that another piece of the law says that data is supposed to be kept in a way that makes it easy to redact the private elements.

That’s where Cohn comes in.

He created Spot.Us, which is described on the site as “an open source project to pioneer ‘community powered reporting.’ Through Spot.Us the public can commission and participate with journalists to do reporting on important and perhaps overlooked topics.”

In other words, if you like a story idea, you can help fund it.

Donations are limited to $20 per person so no fat cat can control a single story.  The money is used to hire a reporter or for other expenses.

One very cool development in the Spot.Us story: You don’t even need to contribute cash now. Take a sponsored survey (from, say, AARP) and $5 is credited in your name. Good for the sponsor, good for you and good for journalism.

I've known about Cohn’s work for some time and think it’s a great idea for a community to directly fund journalism that’s not otherwise being done.

Two weeks ago, I heard Cohn mention to editors that Spot.Us had begun funding requests for records.

Bingo.

The Missourian has a budget for Sunshine requests. But we make a lot of requests, and the budget is very small. Spot.Us can help us.

Thursday morning, I found myself checking the site every couple of minutes. I was amazed how quickly the tally grew. Former Missourian staffers and people I don’t know gave. My old college roommate, a Chicago-based lawyer who is passionate about freedom of information issues, gave.

This is really exciting. By spotting us here, the Missourian can afford another request somewhere else.

Tom