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Campaign Ads: How To Free the Files at Your TV Station

Whether you work for a news organization or not, we’re asking for help posting public data detailing what super PACs are spending on political ads. Here’s how to do it.

(Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images)

Television stations are required by the Federal Communications Commission to keep a list of political ad buys and to make it available on request. Stations don’t post this data on the Internet, however, so the only way to get the records is to go in person.

We think this data is vitally important, and can reveal how big money influences elections. So to make it accessible to everyone, we started a project last month named “Free the Files” to recruit citizens and local journalists to visit TV stations and post these “Public File” documents online.

So far, more than 180 people in 37 states and the District of Columbia have volunteered to make copies of the files, then scan and e-mail them to us. We’ve heard from news organizations that are sending reporters (see files gathered by the Cincinnati Enquirer and by the Wisconsin State Journal), universities that are sending students (Northwestern University students checked the Chicago market), and from people with some spare time who want to help.

But with hundreds of TV stations and untold millions in political ad spending expected this year, we still need you! The process takes between 15-30 minutes at your TV station, plus however long it takes to scan and e-mail us the files. 

Before you set out, please let us know you’re interested by signing up on this form. We’ll make sure you aren’t grabbing files that someone else has already checked, and we’ll help coordinate so this takes as little of your time as possible.

How to Gather and Submit the Files

What you’ll need: Some free time, access to a scanner, e-mail and good manners.

1) Go to the front desk of the television studio during business hours. Politely ask to see "the Public File." They should know what you're talking about, but if not, you can ask to speak to whoever handles political ads. It’s likely that a staff member will be summoned to escort you to the file.

2) The files are paper records, probably in manila file folders or binders. They should be organized by advertiser and client name. It would be great if you could copy everything, but ProPublica is primarily interested in spending by outside groups (super PACs and nonprofits), so if your time is limited please pull whatever files are there on these:

3) There may not be any files on some of these groups if they have not been advertising in your market. For reference, our PAC Track news application lists the major super PACs that may have run ads in your state.

4) Ask for a photocopy of the selected files. Most stations will do this for free, but some will charge a small fee per page. Some may point you to the photocopy machine and ask you to do it.

5) Once you have all the copies, scan and e-mail them to tv.transparency@propublica.org (some stations may do this for you, but don’t count on it). We will post the files and credit you for your work. If you are from a news organization with a DocumentCloud account and want to submit the files that way, see the extra steps below.

A Few Things to Remember

Always treat the station’s staff with courtesy and respect — they are likely to be more helpful. In the course of small talk, they may ask you why you are there. There is no need to be secretive. Your forms may look different from our sample forms. That’s OK. You should bring a small amount of cash in case you are charged for photocopies. It’s OK to say you’re helping ProPublica, but to avoid confusion, please do not identify yourself as a “ProPublica reporter.”

Thank you for helping. What you’re doing will make a real difference.

If you have questions before, during or after your visit to the station, please contact us for help. Here’s how:

Blair Hickman, ProPublica social media producer

E-mail: tv.transparency@propublica.org

Phone: 917-512-0234

Twitter: @amandablair

If You’re Using DocumentCloud

DocumentCloud is a tool used by news organizations and others to post, annotate and embed the documents online. News organizations can request an account here. For those who already have a DocumentCloud account, here’s how to submit your Public Files:

1)    While logged in, upload your files by clicking the “New Documents” button on the left rail. Make sure they are set to “public” (as always, make sure there is no sensitive information like credit card numbers in the documents before publishing).

2)    Once the files are processed, highlight them under “Your Documents.” Click on “Edit”, then “Edit Document Data.”

3)    In the first field before the colon, type “contributedto” (case-sensitive). In the second field after the colon, type “freethefiles” (case-sensitive). This will allow all Free the Files contributors to easily find each other’s files.

Why not just photograph the sheets with your iPhone (or equivalent) and email the photos? Would that do as well at your end?

E. Ardelle Allen

April 12, 2012, 2:33 p.m.

What kind of a scanner is needed?  I would love to do this.  I also have a digital camera that I have used to film historical documents.  What say?
E. A. Allen

E. Ardelle Allen

April 27, 2012, 8:04 p.m.

In answer to my own question about the scanner:  Your scanner needs OCR software.  (OCR stands for “Optical Character Recognition” and is used by computers to translate text from typed physical page to a computer file.) 

However, if you photocopy the files at the TV station you can then take the copies to copy/print businesses such as Staples and the UPS store and have them copied to a CD (using the OCR).  Then you can send them in from your home computer from the CD. 

The charge for scanning these files to a CD is around $0.89 each, less for bulk files to same CD

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Free the Files

Free the Files

Outside groups are spending hundreds of millions to influence the coming elections. Help unlock outside spending by "freeing" political ad buys from television stations in swing markets.

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