Roads Scholar how to be a
Wendy Norris [email_address] @wendynorris Roads Scholar yes! you can be a
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TransparencyCamp: How to be a Roads Scholar


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Wendy Norris is a watchdog blogger and organizer who's been around the block. With this slidedeck, Wendy taught the crowd at TransparencyCamp 2011 about her successful DIY watchdog venture and how it can be replicated.

Slides courtesy of creator, Wendy Norris.

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  • Hi, I’m Wendy and I’m here to tell you transportation stories are smart and sexy. Investigation on a public-private toll road that rocked Colorado, changed state laws, saved people’s homes.
  • What’s missing? Simple question: Why doesn’t anybody drive on this toll road?
  • Here come the bloggers. None of us were journalists: Lawyer, computer programmer, environmental activist and a social worker. We had never met. We didn’t even know each other’s real names.
  • Two of four of us lived in Colorado. But we were all really intrigued by the question: Why doesn’t anybody drive on this road? So we started to investigate.
  • Requested non-compete contract between E470 and local communities. We knew to ask for that because of earlier blogging on government privatization schemes. Treasure trove of information.
  • Non-compete clause: make the public road experience as miserable as possible. Protect the financial interests of the toll road investors.
  • Discovered 15 year contract. Lower speed limits. Limited maintenance. New stop signs. No new roads. Financial penalties against cities for breach of contract.
  • Testified before state transportation committee. Bottom line: Cities blackmailed into lending taxpayer dollars to the build road. Ponied up $20 million. Back of line repayment schedule after investors.
  • Result of our reporting: Re-energized community groups fighting new toll road projects. 1,000 people showed up at state capitol. Laws changed to protect land owners. 2 new toll roads back-burnered.
  • Request specific documents -- don’t go on a fishing expedition. Follow the law and be really nice. Ask for help attending meetings, recording them and reporting back.
  • Make a research librarian your very best friend. Open records and open meetings laws can be confusing. Even public entities get confused. Esp murky for public-private partnerships.
  • Pay attention to the big picture. Don’t get stuck in the weeds. Use sidebars not body copy. Write explainers on complex parts and link back to posts to keep the length manageable.
  • Decide upfront how to tell the story. Serialize. Visualizations. Video. Mobile. Social media. Uninterrupted story arc -- decided not to post extraneous stories during the week-long series.
  • Timing is everything. Find a news hook: Bush signed federal highway bill with tons of money for public-private partnerships Make it as easy as possible for the media to pick up the story -- link to source material, use DocumentCloud. Reuters. Rocky Mountain News. Denver Post. Local papers.
  • Collective intelligence: help each other by copy editing, sharing documents and researching issues. Have an internal naysayer for fact-checking and testing your theories to prevent rabbit holes.
  • As important as story itself: Distribution strategy to get this information into the realm of community and advocates. Build guest blogger network of experts and those personally affected. Crosspost everywhere. Reach out to like-minded folk.
  • Have a strategy for getting your investigation into the political realm. Set up an RSS feed for tech-phobic communication staff. Get your site into the daily clips sent to legislators by internal communication staff.
  • Take a victory lap. Put your work under a Creative Commons license to help distribute it far and wide.
  • TransparencyCamp: How to be a Roads Scholar

    1. 1. Roads Scholar how to be a
    2. 19. Wendy Norris [email_address] @wendynorris Roads Scholar yes! you can be a