NEWSLETTER

April 1999

Disclosure time is here again

By Frank Aukofer
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

This is the time of the year that most regionals get prepped to go through those ridiculous financial statements that members of Congress have to file with the Senate and the House.

Because everything is listed by category, there's no way to get at real numbers. About the only thing you can maybe determine is conflicts of interest.

What we do every year is to send letters to all the members of our delegation, reminding them of Wisconsin's wonderful tradition of open government. Then we ask them for copies of their income tax returns and net worth statements.

Cooperation varies from a few members who give us everything to a few who only will tell us what they have paid in federal and state income taxes. In any case, it's more than what the official forms show.

The information obtained can be cross-checked with the official forms. But in the case of those who cooperate, you have real numbers and an easier story to write.

After awhile, you can even get some of the members trained to sit up and give you the stuff without complaint. For example, one of our members, for many years, has scribbled his net worth statement in longhand on a legal pad. He sends it directly to us in a plain envelope, bypassing even members of his own staff. But he knows that only a part of the info will be used in the story and that we don't share it with anyone else.

You can also do the same thing on stories about staff salaries. Instead of gleaning the info from the reports of the Secretary of the Senate and Clerk of the House, ask the members directly to provide it. The information then is more accurate, nobody gripes, and the story is easier to put together.




Make sense of Census funds report

By Onell R. Soto
The Riverside Press-Enterprise

It's easy to complain about taxes, especially this time of year, but a recently released Census Bureau report will help you show your readers the other side of the balance sheet.

The annual Consolidated Federal Funds Report breaks down most of the federal budget geographically - interest payments and other small expenditures are not included.

Here's a chance to write about the billions of dollars flowing back.

You can see how your area compares to the rest of the country and to years past. For areas without large federal installations - military bases or research institutions - the bulk of the money is spent on Social Security, Medicare and federal pensions.

Not only can you find out how your state is doing, but the report also gives you a county-by-county breakdown, which you can download and then analyze using a spreadsheet.

Data from earlier years is also available on the Web site, so you can ferret out trends.

On the other side of the equation are the taxes readers in your area pay. While the Census Bureau report does not have those, the Northeast-Midwest Institute comes up with a state-by-state estimate, as does the Tax Foundation. Both are in Washington.

The key, of course, is to try to make it all relevant to your readers. One place to start making sense of the numbers is with regional economists familiar with your area. If you don't have a name, your business desk should.

They can help shed light on events that will affect spending figures -- events such as farm crises requiring insurance payouts, defense industry mergers and shutdowns and federal efforts to reduce payrolls.

You can also see the local impact of federal policies - and see whether they're reflected in your area - including efforts to reduce food stamps and homeless assistance.

Once you've identified a trend or two to spotlight, you'll want to find the people on the street, whether it's real estate agents talking about changes in federal mortgage assistance, business people about the decline of defense contracts or a farmer who has received assistance.

If you've got the time and have a local reporter back home you can hook up with, you might try taking this as far as it will go.

In 1995, the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Sharon Schmickle and Mike Kaszuba used the report - along with on-the-spot reporting and captivating writing - to illustrate how federal spending spread through one small town. The federal government spent more there than its citizens paid in taxes.

In their story, they showed how the federal government helped pay for the high school football stadium, the primary bridge in town, meals for students and seniors, college educations, health care for the poor and the elderly.

Their feature-length story won them the National Press Club's 1996 Washington Correspondence Award. RRA reprinted it last year in its 10th anniversary collection of regional reporting.

You can find the consolidated funds report at www.census.gov. If you need help, you may contact Census public relations at (301) 457-3030.




Tax chief meets with RRA on new IRS

By Carl Weiser
Gannett News Service

The Regional Reporters Association reached a major milestone April 5: We made it into an official agency press release.

That was the day of our newsmaker session with Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti.

"Rossotti outlined his vision for the IRS during a gathering of members of Washington's Regional Reporters Association," the press release says.

Credit regional reporter-turned-IRS flack Terry Lemons. For the 12 RRA members who attended, this was one of the most helpful and timely newsmaker sessions, coming as it did 10 days before the filing deadline.

Rossotti answered questions about IRS reforms, the Oklahoma-Arkansas district, pensions and his weekend reading. He even told Christine Dorsey that he hadn't done his taxes yet.

The reporters who attended also got a valuable IRS fact book with district-by-district numbers, as well as several other fact packets.

The main thrust of Rossotti's spiel was that the IRS is becoming a kinder, gentler, more customer-friendly place. But it will take a couple years to finish the job. So get your taxes in.




Miller fellows selected for 1999-2000

Fifteen Washington-based reporters have been chosen to participate in the 13th year of the Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellowship program at the Freedom Forum.

The program is designed to help reporters better cover the nation's capital for hometown readers. Participants meet twice a month for a year with veteran journalists and government officials and visit agency reading rooms and other locales.

    The participants are:

  • Mary Boyle, The Colorado Springs Gazette
  • Michelle R. Davis, The State, Columbia, S.C.
  • Frederic J. Frommer, freelance
  • Angela Greiling, Small Newspaper Group
  • Mark Helm, Hearst Newspapers
  • Catherine Hollingsworth, The New York Times Regional Newspapers
  • Rob Hotakainen, Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • Anne E. Kornblut, Boston Globe
  • Rafael Lorente, Sun Sentinel, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
  • Jeff Miller, Scripps Howard News Service
  • Kevin Murphy, Kansas City Star
  • Susan Roth, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
  • Jacqueline Soteropoulos, The Tampa Tribune
  • Dana M. Wilkie, Copley News Service
  • John Yaukey, Gannett News Service




President's Report

The pluses of sharing your ideas

By Christine Dorsey

Last month, I called on RRA members to help me out and submit story ideas for The Regional Reporter, which has become an excellent tool used by regionals to share information and suggestions for the beat.

Kudos to Frank Aukofer of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for stepping up to the plate. He e-mailed me a great suggestion about contacting your members of Congress to get them to give you their annual income tax filings and net worth statements.

It seems simple, but as many of us know, lawmakers vary and some take a lot more "training" than others, so the more often you can get them to make information available to you, the better. Frank's suggestion was a good one, and we've included it in The Regional Reporter so others might try it.

But I know he's not the only person out there with a good idea. I harp on this a lot, but hey, this is why we're here, isn't it? The RRA board does its best to come up with good ideas for newsmakers, seminars and story suggestions. But we're a fraction of the membership. Every day, dozens of regionals write stories that could probably translate well for others who are not direct competitors. Why not share?

Our clipbook, "Ten Years of Regional Reporting," was an excellent example of how sharing information can invigorate the beat. All of you who received a copy probably got 10 solid story ideas. Most of them were not necessarily timely. You can recreate them today.

I don't believe pursuing a story that another reporter came up with is a bad idea. In fact, it's usually a good idea. You have the luxury of studying someone else's work and improving on it. And, if the story was A-1, there was probably good reason for it. Why not give the story new life for a different audience?

Unlike our counterparts in the national press, we rarely compete directly with one another. We have countless experts among our ranks who have written about everything from agriculture to impeachment. It's crazy that we don't work together more.

In my last two months as president, I encourage you all to e-mail me as Frank did with your ideas that you are willing to share with your colleagues. You never know when one small piece of advice will lead to an award-winning series.




RESTIVE REGIONS

David Haase, longtime correspondent for The Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News, has left the paper but not Washington. He has been named executive editor of National Journal's Greenwire, the environmental daily. His position will not be filled. Christopher Tollefson of the Casper Star-Tribune has left to take a public affairs job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The paper will be sending out a reporter to replace him in May.

-- Pat Howe,
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Got news? call Pat Howe at (202)662-7690 or send it to pat_howe@adg.ardemgaz.com




WWWeblink

More and more search engines are popping up on the Web, giving those of us who need to find something quickly a few better places to go.

Margot Williams from The Washington Post listed a few new specialized search engines in a recent column and - in case you missed it - here are some suggestions.

If you're looking for legal information, try www.lawcrawler.com. Law Crawler searches only sites that offer legal information - thus limiting your search and trimming the sometimes lengthy list of hits that include Web sites you're not interested in.

A similar site for business information is: www.financewise.com. On Finance Wise you can search for sites that cover business and financial information.

Finally, you can search for information related to a particular industry on: pinstripe.opentext.com. The site provides access to more than 20 industries.

The Center for Responsive Politics has renamed its Web site, which now will be known as opensecrets.org.

The site still includes detailed campaign finance profiles for every member of Congress, searchable databases of federal campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures, weekly Money in Politics Alerts and bimonthly Capital Eye newsletters, growing bank of data on the 2000 presidential contenders, links to state money-in-politics resources, and more.

Anyone interested in IRS data ought to check out new information from TRAC, Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. On the World Wide Web, TRAC offers comprehensive information about the agency's enforcement efforts - individual audits, corporate audits, criminal tax enforcement - and staffing.

Go to http://trac.syr.edu/media/news

-- Lolita Baldor,
New Haven Register

Have a link to share? E-mail it to Lolita Baldor lbaldor@aol.com




Board meeting minutes -- April 5, 1999

Treasurer Maureen Groppe said over 58 percent of RRA dues have been collected - from about 100 members - leaving RRA about 50 members short of its goal. More members have since paid, but not all checks had been deposited by the board meeting.

Groppe explained that the RRA's certificate of deposit, which started at $1,000 and had earned $68, would mature April 15. The CD currently has a 4.02 percent interest rate. The board agreed to continue that CD. Groppe said RRA has $4,500 in its checking account. The board unanimously approved a resolution to allow Groppe to deposit another $1,000 from that checking account into a CD in June.

Vice President Carl Weiser discussed the successful Apr. 5 event with IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti, organized by the RRA's Newsmaker Committee. Weiser said about 12 people attended. In addition, Weiser has been working to organize an upcoming event with the Sea Grant program within NOAA, and board member Jim Specht has been organizing an event with the INS.

The board also discussed setting up an RRA event with House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Hastert has been reluctant to do any media events. President Christine Dorsey planned to see whether any RRA members have close ties with the Speaker's Office and may be able to assist.

Secretary Brett Lieberman, president of the Regional Reporters Educational Foundation, updated the board on RREF's plans to hold a computer training program. Pete Leffler, an RRA board member and former RRA president, was elected last month to fill a vacancy on the RREF board. Leffler writes for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. Lieberman later notified RRA officers that RREF plans to co-sponsor an employment seminar with the National Press Club. A tentative date of June 7 at 1 p.m. was set.




Knight Ridder chief Blonston dies

By Robert S. Boyd
Knight Ridder Newspapers

Gary Blonston, chief of the Knight Ridder Washington news bureau and one of journalism's most gifted practitioners, has died at his home after a long battle with cancer. He was 56.

In almost 36 years with Knight Ridder, Blonston starred in many roles - reporter, writer, editor and writing coach. Among his co-workers at the Miami Herald, Detroit Free Press, San Jose Mercury News and the Washington Bureau, his story ideas and writing skills were legendary.

"Oh, how this guy could write," said one of his Detroit editors, Jennie Buckner, now editor of The Ch arlotte Observer. "Sometimes I'd re-read his stuff just for the joy of it."

Blonston's interests ranged widely, from government and politics to art, wine, jazz, travel and science. As much sociologist as newspaperman, he knew how to bring the feats and follies of fallible human beings to life on a news page - and to teach others to do the same.

He was a principal writer on two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects: The Detroit Free Press' coverage of that city's devastating riots in 1967, in which he came under gunfire, and the San Jose Mercury News' reporting on the disastrous 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area.

John Epperheimer, a Mercury News colleague, said Blonston "literally shouldered all the Bay Area's emotions - grieving, worry and relief -and distilled it into words. His work was a key reason that the Mercury News won the Pulitzer Prize."

"Knight Ridder has lost a great talent and friend way too soon," said Tony Ridder, Knight Ridder's chairman and chief executive officer. "We were fortunate that he gave so much of himself to our readers as a superb writer and clear-thinking editor. I know that for countless Knight Ridder colleagues he was a great mentor and friend. We will miss him."

Blonston was born May 14, 1942, in Cleveland, Ohio, but spent most of his childhood in central Florida.

He showed such promise in high school that he was granted a full five-year scholarship to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where he earned a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1963 and a master's degree in 1964. He was the first in his family to go to college.

He began his newspaper career as a reporter with the Miami Herald on July 1, 1964, and moved to the Detroit Free Press in September of 1966. In late 1981, Blonston persuaded his editors to let him create a Western beat based in Colorado, covering the vast territory from Texas to California.

In 1987, he moved to the San Jose Mercury News. In addition to turning out his own stories, he roamed the Knight Ridder circuit as a writing coach, tutoring hundreds of writers and editors.

Blonston moved to the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau in 1989, first as a national correspondent specializing in social and economic trends, and later as news editor, the number two job in the bureau.

As Washington bureau chief since August of 1995, he supervised a staff of 60 national, international and regional correspondents and editors from offices in the National Press Building, covering subjects from war and peace to the federal budget, Social Security, economics, health, science, presidential politics and impeachment.

He was a distinctive figure in Washington, with silver hair and a black eye patch that dated to 1983, when Blonston lost the vision in his left eye to ocular melanoma, the cancer that eventually spread and overcame him.

After radiation to treat the melanoma, he seemed to have conquered the cancer. But 14 years later, it reappeared in his liver, and it spread to his brain in 1999.

Blonston is survived by his wife, Susan Goldberg, a deputy managing editor at USA Today; two children from a previous marriage, Scott Blonston of Charlotte, N.C., and Nancy Blonston Goodman of Golden, Colo.; and a sister, Gayle Davis of Wichita, Kan.




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