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Public Files? Not On A Student Budget

Students checking public files at TV stations in Cleveland encountered unaffordable fees and camera-shy employees.

On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on a proposal that would require broadcasters to post political ad data online. While law currently requires the files to be public, the only way to access them now is to physically visit the stations.

As a broadcast journalism class at Kent State University demonstrated, it's sometimes not the smoothest process.

Of four Cleveland stations the students visited, only one would allow them to take footage, they reported, and only one official commented when asked if the files should be posted online. The stations also said copying the documents would cost 50 cents per page (over four times what FedEx Office charges), so the students couldn't afford to copy them all.

Diana Pollock, the WKYC Channel 3 (NBC) research director who showed the students the files, said she objected to the students filming her in the lobby and hallway, but they did not ask to take footage of the files. Sam Rosenwasser, vice president and general manager at WEWS Channel 5 (ABC), said "we don't allow anybody to bring cameras into the station," and that the students would have to seek comment from Scripps Howard, which owns the station. Suzy Gigante, an executive assistant at WJW Channel 8 (FOX) who dealt with the students, declined to comment, and Station Manager Greg Easterly was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

The files, which must be accessible to the public during business hours, reveal who bought political advertisements, how much they cost, and at what times the ads aired. Since we started our Free the Files project in March, almost 300 people have signed up to visit their local stations and help us post the files online. We've worked with news organizations (Wisconsin State Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer), universities (Northwestern) and everyday citizens to make the data more accessible. See more examples below, or sign up here if you'd like to contribute in your city.

Karl Idsvoog, the Kent State journalism professor who assigned his students to visit the Cleveland stations, contacted ProPublica after hearing Bill Moyers talk about our Free the Files project on Moyers & Company.

Several other organizations and individual contributors have jumped onboard the effort. Some new arrivals:

Pennsylvania: Taryn Luna, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, grabbed ad buy records from Restore Our Future from WTAE and WPGH. Ed Mahon from the York Daily Record got files from each station in the York-Harrisburg-Lancaster market, while Jenny DeHuff of The (Norristown) Times-Heraldvisited Fox 29 in Philadelphia.

Public Source, a nonprofit news site dedicated to investigative journalism in western Pennsylvania, made copies of the files from Erie. Reporter Halle Stockton visited four stations in her hometown, and said the station employees were consistently friendly and helpful. The visits took about 15 minutes apiece, and each station charged her 25 cents per copy.

"I left the stations really wondering what the big deal would be if they had just posted the orders online so they would save some paper and everyone a trip," she said.

Each of the contributors found similar results: An initial burst of spending from Mitt Romney and the Romney-supporting super PAC Restore Our Future, then a quick retreat from the airwaves after Rick Santorum dropped out of the race.

Wisconsin: Students in Herbert Lowe's class at Marquette University gathered pre-primaryfiles from Milwaukee. Thanks to Tessa Fox, Heather Ronaldson, Diana Voigt, Eric Oliver, Benjamin Sheehan, Mark Strotman, Caroline Campbell, Erin Caughey, Kelly White, Allison Kruschke, and Sara Torres.

New York: Katrina Tulloch of The (Syracuse) Post-Standard found two super PACs that have advertised in the market. She also discovered that YNN, a cable channel, already has its political file online. (Cable TV channels also have to keep political files, but won't be subject to the FCC's proposal requiring them to be posted.)

Please sign up here if you'd like to contribute. You do not need to be part of an organization or university to participate. Here's what the process consists of.

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