Creating a records-driven newsroom

filecabinetLearn your way around public records and you’ll find more story ideas than you could ever wish for. And that’s not all. Joe Adams of the Florida Times Union says a records search can turn up personal cell phone numbers, internal documents and even home video. But first, you have to know where to look.

“You can’t use a record unless you know it exists,” Adams says. “Get your hands on every single blank form you can.” Most agencies now have forms available online, so you can see what information is requested on business licenses, zoning applications and so on. “Applications for pet adoptions are great sources of home phone numbers and cell phone numbers,” Adams says.

State and local governments also maintain what are called retention schedules–documents listing the records kept by each individual agency keeps what records–that sometimes include a schedule for updates. They’re usually kept by the state archives. Here’s an example from Minnesota and another from Georgia.

Public records are not just documents, of course. Videos, training tapes, voice recordings, emails–all can be considered public under certain circumstances. For example, information the state turns over to defense attorneys in a criminal case can be publicly released.

Adams says every journalist should know the public records laws and file requests for records on a regular basis. “Ask for records long before you are going to need them,” he advises. And always pick up the records you requested, even if your deadline has passed. “Custodians won’t take you or your news organization serious if you don’t,” he says. “And they won’t go out of their way to help you next time.”