January 10, 2014

Following months of reporting, The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record broke the news Wednesday that a senior member of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s staff ordered lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, and they had the emails to prove it.

Record staff writer Shawn Boburg obtained those emails through a source, but the paper started things rolling with public records requests. On Friday, the New Jersey legislature released thousands more pages of documents.

Dan Sforza, associate director of assignments for the Record, spoke with Poynter via phone about how the Record uses public records, and what other newsrooms can learn from it. Let’s sum it up in three words: file, file, file.

“We do an awful lot of public records requests,” Sforza said. “They are the go-to tool for us on virtually anything of substance.”

And the Record, Sforza said, has a robust legal department that follows up and challenges when those requests are denied.

“They are not averse to suing to get documents,” he said.

In May, the Record reported on New Jersey Transit’s preparedness plan for Hurricane Sandy, running the agency’s 3 1/2 page, fully redacted plan on their own front page. Then, they sued and got the full plan, which they wrote about in May as well. It showed the agency’s plan was, as the headline put it, sparse.

In July 2013, Poynter’s Ellyn Angelotti wrote about the kind of information available through FOIAs, how to file a request, how long it might take and what to do if that request is denied.

In August 2012, Sarah Larimer wrote for Poynter about four types of FOIAs.

If you want to learn more about filing FOIAs, Poynter’s News University has a free, self-guided training, which also includes Public Records Laws and Open Meetings Laws. You can find that here.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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