This one comes with a shout-out to former Half Moon Bay Review intern and current badass investigative reporter Amy Julia Harris of the Center for Investigative Reporting. She turned me on to this guy named David Fahrenthold at the Washington Post. Holy moly is he good.
Amy posted the link to this 2-year-old story on Facebook and it’s a marvel, all about how Congress continues to pay “temporary” subsidies for things like small farms and small airports, often for decades after they were supposed to end. For instance, this farm aid program that was supposed to end in 2003? It’s now paid out $46 billion – with a “B” – to people who include absentee landowners who have never farmed a day in their lives.
It’s just the sort of story that Fahrenthold craves. Government largess run amok in ways real people just can’t understand. He’s great because he tells great stories in just the right way.
Amy points out that most investigative journalism is grave, somber and sort of like eating vegetables. But it doesn’t have to be.
I can virtually guarantee that these kinds of stories are waiting to be plucked in your neighborhood. Some ideas: …
- Government salaries. Are they in line with what real people might expect? In Palo Alto, Calif., last week, the city hired an assistant city manager. The annual salary? $232,000. Oh, and there are two such assistant city manager positions in this city of about 60,000 residents. (The San Jose Mercury-News reports that he received $125,000 in severance when he quit his job for the city of San Jose days before a vote to terminate him.) …
- Legal fees. You are likely to be surprised how much your municipality pays to defend itself against all manner of stuff. Ask for the warrants. Look at the bills. Are there instances in which your city or county is paying astronomical legal fees to make dubious stands?
- Athletic budgets. Who pays for your local college or high school sports? Even if it’s entirely funded by private donors, you might ask if that money could be better spent on other educational endeavors. Does your school district find itself kicking in big money for new athletic fields in order to leverage private donations?
- Travel expenses. Want to make friends at City Hall? Then don’t ask anyone inside to cough up his expenses from that trip to the state alliance of cities. You might also look for ways that lobbyists ingratiate themselves with lawmakers. Here in San Mateo County, the big waste hauler routinely foots the bill for a dinner/bacchanal for all the local elected officials. All you can do is point to the obvious conflict of interest, and it helps if you make the story funny.
Learn from one of the best. Read David Fahrenthold.