Last week, I was tasked with creating a video about my job for elementary school students. In the video, I tell the kindergartners, “I get information from people and things and then I hit a bunch of keys on the computer and then you read it.” It’s my go-to response whenever I get asked about my job. I’ve always thought it was a funny way to describe what I do in the simplest terms. Also, it’s my way of letting people know that I’m not that important.
Let me clarify: The news is important. I am not.
As much as I enjoy being recognized by my adoring fans at the local ACME, I don’t view the news as a path to stardom. I liken myself to a baseball umpire. The discussion should never be about me—unless I screw up.
After all, when you think about it, we’re basically middlemen. We’re conduits for information. Truly motivational stuff, I know. Try saying that to a young journalist who dreams of “changing the world.”
I’m being a bit facetious to make a point, of course. Sometimes, our persistence pressures people or organizations to be more forthcoming. Or sometimes we tell essential stories that would have remained untold.
But at the end of the day, even in those circumstances, the information is the true star of the show. Not us. Our job is not to create the news, but to deliver it. Some just do it more masterfully than others.
And I’ll let you in on a little secret: The internet has made this job a heck of a lot easier.
I’m not saying that editing two weekly newspapers and managing a dozen reporters and columnists is a walk in the park. What I mean is that information gathering has never been easier. The internet is a nearly endless well of information. In fact, sometimes I’ll write five stories in a week without leaving my house or talking to anyone in person.
I don’t know if I’m breaking any reporter’s code by revealing this, but I don’t have access to super-secret databases with hordes of information. In fact, a lot of my job is corralling publicly available information and helping you make sense of it.
Ultimately, my goal is to make you more informed. To that end, I want to share with you some of the tools I use in my information gathering.
• If you love information as much as I do, you’ll get lost exploring the Westchester County GIS (gis.westchestergov.com). GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems. This website has a whole bunch of tools, but my favorites are the “Interactive Mapping Applications.” These maps are especially handy if you want to see where your property line ends and the town right of way begins. The county GIS also offers a host of other useful data about transportation (which roads does the county own?), demographics, and maps of county trailways. You can even find out where every fire hydrant is located in Westchester County, if you’re into that sort of thing.
• Another favorite of mine, also from the county, is Westchester Records Online (wro.westchesterclerk.com). This website has records of land transactions and legal disputes. So, for all you “fake news” people out there, when I report that a business in town sold its property for X amount of dollars, it’s from a pretty good source—the deed! But I should warn you that these documents are not free. A $20 fee gives you access to as many documents as you can download in one day. But fear not. Most of the legal documents filed with the county are also filed with the New York State Unified Court System (iapps.courts.state.ny.us/nyscef). Unlike the county, all documents are free to view.
• I don’t know who Steve Morse is, but he has one heck of a website (stevemorse.org). In one space, he has compiled decades of immigration and census data, along with other vital information. For me, the most useful tool has been his New York State voter registration search tool. Not that I care what your politics are, but this allows to me precisely report on people’s ages and where they reside. After all, it’s a crime to lie about those things on your voter registration, so it’s usually pretty accurate.
Transparency, in my opinion, is a misunderstood word. Having a lack of transparency does not necessarily mean that a dastardly person or organization is withholding information. It might also mean that they are not proactively disseminating it. Transparency is making something available before I even have to ask for it. It’s about making it easy for people like you or me to find out what’s going on.
In that respect, I have to give credit to the town of Yorktown. Sometimes I have to prod them to give up the goods, but their website (yorktownny.org) is chock-full of information. The town has its own GIS maps for snow-removal districts and parks and rec facilities. The town clerk’s page has a list of pending legislation and projects. And the town comptroller’s page has an archive of vendor activity reports, which I’ve been known to browse on a slow news day. It’s basically a list of invoices given to the town by its vendors or employees for payment or reimbursement. It could be anything from business cards for the town supervisor to boots for highway workers.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the meetings. Almost all government meetings are archived on the town’s website and YouTube. Additionally, the Planning Board meetings are accompanied by a lengthy packet of information that all board members receive. It features correspondence, renderings, and other information about applications. Special kudos go to former supervisor Susan Siegel, an advocate for transparency, who recommended this information be made available. And kudos to the town for quickly agreeing.
Lastly, if you want to brush up on the town code or search the archives of old town meeting minutes, go to ecode360.com/YO1560.
I’m not revealing anything new by telling you how great Wikipedia is, but it blows my mind that it is a free website operated by millions of information-gathering volunteers. I’ll admit that some of the smaller pages are rife with errors, but many pages describing major events or controversies maintain higher editorial standards than most newspapers these days. That’s because they know what I’ve been telling you: Our job is about getting accurate, sourced information out there and staying out of the way. Publishing information does not mean we endorse it or agree with it. We don’t connect dots. We don’t reach conclusions. That’s up to you.
Information is not always easy to get, of course. Press releases are mostly full of information that people and organizations want you to share because it makes them look good. But not all information is flattering, and that stuff is usually more closely guarded. Acquiring it doesn’t always endear me to people. But if somebody has information, and they won’t give it to me, I’ll do what it takes to get it (legally, of course). My fans at ACME expect nothing less.
And after I’ve collected all that information and hit all my keys, all of you consume it in a collective experience, which is pretty cool. But now that I’ve given you the tools to cut out the middleman, you don’t even need me! If you have doubts about what you’re hearing or reading, you have the ability to go verify it yourself. The information is out there if you know where to look.
Of course, not all of you have 50 hours a week to read expense reports, watch meetings, and bug the local town clerk’s office with Freedom of Information requests. So, we’ll keep finding and disseminating that information for as long as you’ll have us. Information is power, and I’m happy to be the middleman who brings it to you.
If you have some databases of your own to share, have trouble finding information, or want to share some interesting stuff, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.