Patterico's Pontifications


Citizen Journalists

Filed under: General — JRM @ 9:01 am

The print press is dying. The press folks say this will lead to less governmental oversight.

And, for all the bias, all the mistakes, all the populism, and all of the cash-driven behavior, they’re absolutely right.

What can be done?

Here’s what can be done: Citizens can find, and find ways to publish, on government malfeasance. It’s not as hard as you might think.

Go to your government offices and get their itemized budget. If they won’t just give it to you, file a Freedom of Information Act request (assuming your state has one; most do, as does the federal government). You can inspect them free and get copies, usually at statutory non-awful rates. There’s good advice for California residents here.

If you think there’s something more interesting than budget, go get it. If there’s a subject you have expertise in that government does, look at what they are doing. If you have questions, call people who work on that project and ask them what it is. If you have no idea where to start, look at construction change orders. And ask why that change was needed, and whether that cost was justified.

Tell them you’re an interested citizen. You might have to go up the supervisory chain. Be nice.

You’ll probably get blown off some. The percentage of successful inquiries – inquiries that show malfeasance – will not be high. But if 10% of the readership of this blog does one such inquiry every year, we can make changes. The blogosphere is doing some first-hand journalism (Patterico’s done some great stuff himself) and the readership here is more politically savvy and more interested than the average citizen.

If you try this, and succeed or fail, leave a comment. If you’re looking for a place to get the information out, leave a comment here or on one of my posts The Jury Talks Back (it’s the button on the right of this blog).

I know it’s a lot. I know it’s impractical for a lot of reasons for a lot of people. But I was a newspaper reporter, and it’s not that rough. And the newspapers are going to continue to shrink to the Puppies section, comics section, and Britney section. For those of us who care, this is one way to help society and stop governmental overreaching.

Who’s in?

37 Responses to “Citizen Journalists”

  1. I think the government is scary and I don’t want them mad at me. I sure don’t want to get on the dirty socialists’ radar. You saw what they did to that poor plumber guy.

    happyfeet (71f55e)

  2. Happyfeet is one of my all-time favorites.

    JD (2aa114)

  3. They’re called boobs, Ed.

    John Hitchcock (fb941d)

  4. I’d like to see citizen journalists work with newspapers. Our print sections may be downsized, but there’s plenty of room on the Web. The more enlightened newspapers will welcome the help. The others . . .

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R., who wishes DRJ well, here and everywhere else! (0ea407)

  5. Hi, JD and Happy New Year… but honestly I almost don’t know what to say anymore. Big big trouble is what we’re all in. A trillion dollars of dirty socialist graft in just the first month? In four years this won’t be America no mores, and you’d think people would be alarmed. Not so much really from what I can tell. I almost don’t know what to say.

    happyfeet (71f55e)

  6. For-profit print journalism produced by professionals is dying. Got it. There’s no reason that the decline of institutions like the LA Times will necessarily result in less information circulating about local government. The Times does a crummy job covering Los Angeles anyway. The internet allows free publishing. Thousands can publish away to their heart’s content, and smart people like Patterico and Roderick can aggregate and edit, and the result will be more knowledge and information, not less.

    That said, our Democracy is in decline, and newspapers have nothing to do with the reasons. California does not practice Democracy as anyone ever envisioned it (a near complete lack of competitive elections is not consistent with representative Democracy). Vote against every incumbent in every election. They are all part of the problem.

    red sox nation (eb4531)

  7. There are small groups doing this now. They fight the entrenched politicians and get small credit. What is even more discouraging, when they throw out the old pols and get new people elected, most of them soon adopt the habits of the people they replaced. We have lived this in Mission Viejo, in Orange County, CA for the past eight years. Here is one example that focuses on local issues and provides an alternative viewpoint to the city.

    The topic of that post, the Kaleidoscope, was a poorly planned commercial center, approved by the city in spite of multiple problems. The city allowed the center to place the entrance on the most heavily traveled arterial highway in the city and place a stoplight for the entrance. That stoplight backs up commuter traffic every rush hour.

    The city became a participant in the project and subsidized it, as they have a number of car dealerships in the city. A lot of this is due to the constant search for sales tax revenue by the small cities. Democrats blame proposition 13 in 1978 that capped property taxes, ignoring the fact that property values in California have risen by 1000% since 1978 and probably would not have risen as much if the taxes were unchecked.

    The city was supposed to get, in return, an ownership interest in the center but it has been sold three times that I know of in the 15 years it has existed, each time for less than the previous sale price. It is now close to complete collapse as a commercial enterprise. Another bad project by local politicians who know nothing about business or city planning.

    And you won’t read about it in the newspapers.

    Other small cities have modeled similar citizen organizations on the Mission Viejo “Committee for Responsible Government” although the CRG has lost some steam since we saw city council members we supported turn out to be no better, or smarter, than those they replaced.

    Civic activism is time consuming and can be discouraging.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  8. Comment by Mike K — 2/1/2009 @ 9:35 am

    You’ve got a partial handle on what the problem is, and it’s not that politicians, and city planners, are (per se) stupid, it is just that they do stupid things that government has no business doing.
    They attempt to construct a local economy that will generate what they believe are the revenues needed to fund government, instead of matching the size of government to the available revenue streams.
    We need more members of the “Daddy Party” at the local level to get in the face of City Managers and their Staff, and just say: NO!
    In my community they have been arguing and planning and remodeling and re-whatever for almost fifty years on the subject of “revitalizing” downtown, a downtown that has, commercially, been moribund since the first mall opened (Lakewood Center – 1952?) and local shop owners saw the handwriting on the wall.
    They keep cycling through City Hall, new planners each with his vision of where the City needs to go. Of course, none of them are from here, or live here, and this is just a lay-over on their way to a bigger, and better paying, planning job somewhere else.
    They move on, and the residents are stuck with the remnants of “their vision”.

    AD (7c0940)

  9. Mike K.
    There are two complementary problems. One, newspapers are detached from the public they supposedly serve, and so are losing readers. Two, the frustrated public has trouble getting its voice heeded. The disconnect between the two hurts both.

    Newspapers can ally with citizen journalists and not only get reporting, but get those news-hungry readers they need. The newspapers might even hire some of the CJs. Survival might yet prove more important than ideology for some newspapers. Of course, the LAT, which values dishonest political shills like Hiltzik over honest reporting, is beyond saving.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R., who wishes DRJ well, here and everywhere else! (0ea407)

  10. I got the committee name wrong if you go to the link I included. Sorry.

    We did manage to get the city manager fired and I have lots of stories about what went on, and still goes on, like the city council voting themselves lifetime medical benefits for any members elected three times. That howler passed a month ago. They also raised their salaries by 100% last month. Like I said, it can be discouraging.

    It’s Committee for Integrity in Government. CIG, not CRG.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  11. We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.
    John Adams
    US diplomat & politician (1735 – 1826)

    John Hitchcock (fb941d)

  12. Comment by Mike K — 2/1/2009 @ 9:55 am
    When does the recall start?
    And, will you need help in circulating the petitions?

    AD (7c0940)

  13. The death of newspapers like LA Times is scary. Even when they spin things to the far left, usually you can get at the basic information to laugh at their spin.

    Okay, how do I get information about the Stem Cell and Rob Reiner’s First Five boondoggle? Apparently, First Five is running a billion dollar surplus. I’d like to get information on all the office party spending and all their OfficeMax credit card charges.

    I’m with happyfeet. I’m a coward and don’t want to be Joe The Plumbered either.

    Wesson (3ab0b8)

  14. Wesson, there are a few blogs that cover California’s stem cell program extensively. Here is one, that’s critical of it.

    Here’s another source on stem cells, also critical.

    Here is a general blog on stem cells, from a man interested because of his disability.

    And of course, CIRM has its own extensive Web presence.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R., who wishes DRJ well, here and everywhere else! (0ea407)

  15. Here is one possible solution – this site was started by the same guy who developed, which is an innovative and timely site for local residents trying to keep track of crime problems within their neighborhoods:

    This is just an aggregator right now for the most part, but it will be seeking more citizen journalism during it’s continued evolution. BTW, it’s also a non – profit.

    Dmac (2fab96)

  16. Dmac,
    Everyblock may not continue unless it gets more funding once its current grant runs out. Any millionaires reading this who want to help journalism, here’s a cause for your consideration.

    Brother Bradley J. Fikes, C.O.R., who wishes DRJ well, here and everywhere else! (0ea407)

  17. I heard that he was out and about town recently, seeking new funding. Where’s George Soros when you really need him?

    Dmac (2fab96)

  18. The time commitment and the constant annoyance of being either ignored or attacked by the insiders makes it a thankless task. Back early in the local process, I attended a city council meeting to hear myself denounced by three council members for being rude to a receptionist who told me that an escort was necessary for me to enter the new city hall even though I was a city commissioner.

    I recounted the experience to the local newspaper and got an out-of-control call from the city manager threatening me. I let him run on for a while and stopped him by telling him I was recording the call. I wasn’t but he hung up. He was telling me, in no uncertain terms, that I was not a “team player.” I made no new friend when I informed him I didn’t work for him.

    He was later forced out but sued the city accusing the one good councilwoman we had of sexually harassing him. He alleged that she had spread a rumor, true or not (I had never heard it until then), was not the issue. She wanted to go to trial but the city, egged on by his old council friends , settled with him for 500,000 dollars. Thus we see how hard it is to get rid of deadwood.

    The city hall story would make a book. Locally, it is referred to as the “Taj Mahal.” It and the library are beautiful but inappropriate for a small city of 100,000. This is what you get when delusions of grandeur take over with other people’s money. Anyway, there is still a guerilla campaign going on but it was discouraging to see two of our candidates turn into what we were opposing once they were elected. Power corrupts.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  19. Some friends and I have already been doing this, for years. Some interesting stuff of local interest, so far.

    Joel Rosenberg (677e59)

  20. My pet peeve is Rob Reiner’s Prop 10 which continues to collect $600 million a year from cigarette taxes. You can view the salaries of all state workers at -> News -> Investigation Center -> State employee salaries. (I’m not sure why peoples’ full names need to be there, but they are.)

    Here is a page of excel spreadsheets of contracts and procurements:

    On the 2008 “All IT Contract Types” document, lines 6737 through 6754 are from this department.

    Line 6743 is $1.9 million to WestEd for “Technical Assistance – Special Needs”. How do we get a copy of that contract? Line 6749 is somebody’s new Blackberry. Who is using that? Line 6752 is a $150,000 non-competitive charge for “PEDS data recovery”. What is that?

    The “Non-IT” spreadsheet has a $4 million payment to KCET to produce a video, and $6169 to Allied Network Solutions for “TV’s and mounting units”.

    [Wesson: This is exactly what I’m talking about: Using the available records to ask questions. Great post! Why not call up some people and ask? I think KCET is PBS in LA, right? –JRM]

    Wesson (3ab0b8)

  21. This is a very good suggestion, but the problem is, how many amateur citizen-journalist/reporters have the time and interest to pursue lengthy investigation? The MSM print reporters are paid for their time and expenses.

    jack (1f4d17)

  22. I once tried to read a local government budget. But I cried so much it got all soggy and hard to read.

    Ken Hahn (f7f228)

  23. Bradley, we had the cooperation of the Register for a while but they have their own problems and have drifted off. A few months ago, I was contacted by them and asked to write letters to the editor. I thought that was interesting. Some years ago, I had contributed a couple of columns about issues they were interested in but they never printed any. They do have one favorite MD who follows the radical libertarian line that is still around the Register from the old days.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  24. 101. Terrye:


    I like Jeff at PW, but when was he not having a fit about something? It is his default. In fact he has been threatening to quit forever.

    Feb 1, 2009 – 1:03 pm [Reader Comment at Roger Simon’s PJM Explaination]

    “A society that gets rid of all its troublemakers goes downhill.” Robert Heinlein

    Joe (17aeff)

  25. The biggest thing killing papers across the country, plain and simple, is that the ad model no longer works. Advertisers have taken their dollars elsewhere and businesses such as department stores that used to be bread and butter for newspapers have consolidated and no longer advertise in the same way.
    I join you in your disdain for the tenor of the L.A. Times and other such “holier than thou” papers. But let’s not confuse the top reoprters and editors with those papers with the hard working, low paid folks at most dailies across the country. The majority of them are libs too, but they’re not evil.
    I am still a working journalist, and I have to say that I very rarely see any member of the actual “public” at the open meetings that take place in my city nearly every day. If you care, don’t stop at FOIA-ing a public document here and there. That’s bush league, and frankly you may not have all the information to write about it intelligently. Go out and actually get involved. Meet people, ask questions, actually report instead of just spouting opinion. The minority of bloggers who already actually do that have been enormously important to our public discourse and knowledge in recent years.

    Journo (43b596)

  26. If you care, don’t stop at FOIA-ing a public document here and there. That’s bush league, and frankly you may not have all the information to write about it intelligently. Go out and actually get involved. Meet people, ask questions, actually report instead of just spouting opinion. The minority of bloggers who already actually do that have been enormously important to our public discourse and knowledge in recent years.

    Comment by Journo

    Sorry but that sounds like the Times reporters who are going away, but not fast enough. You just got elected as an honorary Times loser.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  27. Here’s an idea for a citizen journalist. (As I am a government employee, it probably wouldn’t be appropriate for me.) Get a list of all the million dollar plus homes sold in Florida in recent years. Find out how many are in the names of congresspersons and high government officials or their close relatives. Find out how many of those are claimed as “primary residences”. Find out how many of those are actually occupied by their owners. Ask the remaining owners if they expect to be jailed, fined, sued, or bankrupt in the near future.

    Neil F (5d541f)

  28. The Los Angeles City Council is making a mockery of and stomping on the Brown Act. When I went to a City Council Meeting to protest a proposed ordinance, a Sunland-Tujunga zoning matter, and after presenting a petition of 21 signers opposing the proposed ordinance, I was provided less than one minute to speak. I was fillibustered by the Council Presiding Officer, Councilmember Dennis Zine, for about 30 seconds of the provided one minute speaking time, as he fumbled about identifying the location of the petition. After that one minute time span elapsed, he allowed me no futher time to speak by stating that “the time was up, thank you”.

    After protesting this matter in writing to the L.A. Mayor and also submitting the protest to the Los Angeles County District Attorney Office’s Public Integrity Division, the District Attorney’s office replys and says that I was given the one minue of speaking time and they see no violation. Apparently, the District Attorney’s Office believes that the public doesn’t deserve a minimum of one minute of speaking time to comment on Los Angeles City public business. They believe that by fillibustering much of that one minute of time that that is a valid interpretation of the Brown Act.

    Here is a link to the response by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office which exonerates the Los Angeles City Council preceeding and which details the situation.
    Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Response

    stan (4b149f)

  29. THis was a common problem with the Mission Viejo city council, too, but, of course, the LA city council are far more important people and you should be grateful they allowed you to attend.

    There was Brown Act violation in Mission Viejo about 10 years ago that went to court, pressed by the activist group, and the city council got bitten hard on the ass by the judge. They had to tape all closed meeting for five years. That would be a useful tool if you have proof of secret meetings. The problem is that you need one honest council member to rat them out.

    Today provides us another example of how the Register has caved in to the politicians. The Mission Viejo activist group got a petition signed by 11,000 residents (11% of the city and about 25% of the registered voters) that requires a referendum on major zoning changes. The city put out a press release complaining about the cost of the petition signature checking. THis is a small city that spent 12 million dollars more than it took in last year. The Register an article indistinguishable from the city press release.

    The initiative would require voter approval on zoning changes made by the city. This includes changes to residential, recreational or open space.

    Opponents to the initiative include the Building Association of Orange County. Officials have said taking the vote out of the hands of elected officials and professional staff caters to special interest groups when it’s city officials who have an overall picture of what’s good for the community.

    The Register’s libertarian founder is spinning in his grave.

    Mike K (8df289)

  30. The Register printed an article. I have a new MacBook with a touchpad that is so sensitive, it deletes text if I just look at it. I may have to go back to a mouse.

    Mike K (f89cb3)

  31. Mike K…
    Why not contact Steven Greenhut (sgreenhut at ocregister dot com) about this.
    This is just the type of local corruption that seems to light his fire.
    If that “article” had a by-line, perhaps he can interface with the reporter.

    AD (b72706)

  32. Greenhut used to be interested and even attended our annual dinners. I don’t know what has happened at the Register but a lot of this may be reporters that use city press releases in lieu of actually, you know, reporting.

    Mike K (8df289)

  33. Well, now that Carona is old-news, he just might find the time.

    AD (b72706)

  34. Sorry but that sounds like the Times reporters who are going away, but not fast enough. You just got elected as an honorary Times loser.

    Comment by Mike K

    Mike, I’m with you, not against you. I’m not a Times reporter. You’re letting your hatred of the
    Times blind you to a legitimate comment, just as many in the MSM can’t even see their own liberal slant.

    I’m just someone who’s done my job reasonably well for a number of years, and I know, as another commenter said, that there’s a lot more work involved in good reporting than most people with other jobs and lives have time for. Believe me, I’d love to see more Pattericos. Most bloggers are no Patterico.

    Journo (faece3)

  35. I don’t hate the Times. I just avoid it. If I misunderstood you, I apologize. Usually, that statement about amateur bloggers usually precedes a slam at blogs.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  36. This is the kind of citizen activism we need to be involved in. A commenter pointed out it takes time, you’re right, but if you can make the time you can make the difference. You’re not connected to any interest other than truth. I have been putting off going back to school to get my law degree solely so I could fight the good fight. This reminds me that I don’t have to be a member of the bar before I start. Brian Marchant-Calsyn

    Brian Marchant-Calsyn (260ded)

  37. The government can’t intimidate you with a lawsuit (SLAPP), but sometimes “they” try by taking the route as an individual

    (Heads up to Patterico about direct email coming in)

    MD in Philly (3d3f72)

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