Customized Reports on Campaign Spending
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Dwight Morris, 43, a former computer-assisted reporting guru for the Los Angeles Times, once dreamed about quitting his high-paying job to take the greatest risk of his career.
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
Morris' fantasy was undoubtedly shared by many journalists at the Times two summers ago. The paper had endured a hiring freeze, a series of buyouts and layoffs, and a reshuffling of personnel. Morale was at an all-time low.
But Morris turned his fantasy into reality, resigning in February to start his own consulting firm. And the gamble seems to be paying off.
When Morris was an editor for special investigations at the Times' Washington bureau, he could only vaguely imagine realizing his dream of starting a shoestring operation that would specialize in applying cutting-edge computer-assisted reporting techniques to the political process. He envisioned a service by which editors could place requests, just as if ordering from a catalog, for information about campaign spending that would result in customized high-profile projects.
The idea stemmed from what Morris saw as an "information gap" for news organizations that lack the staff, time or investigative and computer expertise to provide audiences with penetrating coverage of campaign spending. The impetus came from the Times' decision to trim Morris' research staff, a staff that had been a mainstay of his work on computer-generated campaign finance projects at the paper. Shortly after the layoffs, Morris and his assistant, Murielle Gamache, were told they would be transferred from Washington to Los Angeles, a move that signaled fewer projects with a national focus. To Morris it was clear that the newspaper was retrenching.
"We were given no choice," says Morris. "It was relocate to Los Angeles or leave. Instead of whining about it, we decided to move forward with our plans."
So after months of agonizing, Morris quit his job and founded the Campaign Study Group, his dream consulting firm that he describes as "the Kelly Girls of American journalism."
"We show up in newsrooms with several kinds of expertise," says Morris. "We are hired guns for the money-in-politics beats."
Morris' firm can provide any newsroom with computer-assisted reporting that targets campaign financing on local or national levels. More important, the firm can also deliver the goods on campaign spending--what happens to money after candidates receive it. Morris says his is the only firm in the country, to his knowledge, that examines the spending angle of campaign finance.
Capitalizing on his national reputation for precision reporting on campaign spending, and on the recognition he had received for coauthoring a book on the topic called the "Handbook of Campaign Spending," Morris visited newsrooms to pitch financial profiles on every congressional delegation member in the country.
Within a few weeks, Morris, who had marketing experience from a year-and-a-half with Louis Harris' polling organization, had sent out notices offering a standard package of pre-
reported material to 150 media outlets. Morris also offered information on how such reporting could be customized to meet a paper's specific needs. Finance data can be broken down into any combination of 160 different categories, for example, or can be key coded by industry. And the information is timely--Morris' firm has the capability to deliver campaign finance figures to newspapers months ahead of the FEC.
Morris says his main concern was whether the fledgling business would "survive or thrive." But after getting positive responses from the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Minneapolis' Star Tribune, CNN and ABC--not to mention the Los Angeles Times--Morris is already comfortable, describing the progress of his business as "astounding." In addition to the impressive list of prestigious papers that have become regular customers, some smaller publications, like the Albuquerque Journal, also have signed contracts. And the group has forged an alliance with Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
Campaign Study Group is certainly operating on the shoestring Morris imagined. Run out of Gamache's townhouse in Centreville, a Northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., the staff consists of three people--Morris, Gamache and Gary Feld, a former Times researcher who joined the team after receiving a pink slip.
Fortunately for Morris, the success of the operation is disproportionate to its size. So far, the group has provided computer analysis for several page-one stories that detailed the spending strategies of the Clinton and Dole campaigns. The group's work also has punched holes in several campaign finance myths, including the widely held belief that campaign costs continue to skyrocket primarily as a result of increased spending for TV advertising. Recently it provided detailed findings on why some Americans don't vote in a project sponsored by Medill and Chicago's WTTW-TV, and more than 35 newspapers picked up the story.
Morris' group has received some key endorsements from people familiar with his work. Former Boston Globe Editor Thomas Winship promoted the Campaign Study Group to Globe editors following a column he wrote for Editor & Publisher in which he referred to Morris as a "powerhouse investigative reporter" and mentioned that, at the L.A. Times, Morris had become "the class of the field on matters of political money."
Another fan is Morris' longtime friend Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Morris worked with Kovach at the New York Times, where he started his journalism career in 1977, and also at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, where Morris coordinated the computer analysis for a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the redlining of African Americans in home mortgage lending practices. Morris recalls that Kovach was "guardedly pessimistic" at first.
"Bill felt that the news business wasn't ready for this," Morris says. "I don't believe anybody would have predicted we would have this kind of success. We actually have turned business away."
While Morris' assistant Gamache may not have predicted the group's success, she says she is not surprised by it. "With Dwight's name and reputation, I figured there would be enough news organizations that would notice we were offering something different," she says. "The L.A. Times gave us a long enough window of opportunity to make a good decision."
As for how the group will fare after the November presidential election, Morris seems confident and says he is currently in the process of expanding the group's staff. "We figure," he says, "there's an election every day somewhere."###