Story behind the story: ‘Earmarks to Nowhere’

by Gregory Korte on January 10, 2011

Earmarks to nowhere

USA TODAY front page, January 5, 2011

Last week, USA TODAY published an investigation into orphan earmarks — the $13 billion in highway spending directed by members of Congress to pet projects but never spent. In all, we found that nearly a third of highway earmarks over the past 20 years have gone unspent.

First, let me give to Cezar what is Cezar’s: The genesis of the story — and the initial reporting and data gathering — came from Cezary Podkul, a financial journalist based in New York City and a fellow at the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University. Cezary worked on the story for four months before coming to USA TODAY with the gist of the story almost fully developed; we did two more months of reporting and rewrote it to fit the newspaper’s format.

Cezary did a daunting amount of work to gather and analyze the earmark data. When the Federal Highway Administration denied his Freedom of Information Act request, he embarked on a 50-state strategy. He eventually got data from 41 states and the District of Columbia. (USA TODAY added three more states.) Because each state gave the data in a different format — some in PDFs, the bane of every database journalist — Cezary then spent untold hours cleaning and entering the data into a database.

I should also acknowledge the work the Sunlight Foundation, which did a short series of blog entries last year on what they called “Disappearmarks.” Sunlight identified the problem of unspent earmarks, focusing on the $23 billion SAFETEA-LU Act of 2005. But USA TODAY took the story further by looking at 20 years of earmarks.

And, more to the point, Cezary identified a key issue early in his reporting: Because lawmakers often take highway earmarks out of their state’s allotment of federal highway aid, unspent earmarks actually end up costing their states money.

Just as we partnered with the Stabile Center on the front end, USA TODAY partnered with NBC News once we had the story nailed. The NBC Nightly News ran Tom Costello’s report on January 4:

And here I am explaining orphan earmarks for an online video on (generously edited to make me sound moderately coherent):

(To recap: Cezary did all the hard work. I get to go on national television and take all the credit.)

The story has already inspired editorials across the country. (Tampa Tribune: “Abandon Orphan Earmarks.” Jackson Clarion-Ledger: “Roads: Account for ‘Orphan’ Earmarks.“, Sheboyban Press: “Congress Should at Least Put Expiration Date on Earmarks“). And it’s gotten the attention of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, who has called on “orphaned” earmarks to be reunited with their states.

Because of the scope of the issue, we had to narrowly focus our story on a specific problem with earmarks. But we learned some other interesting things along the way, and we’re already planning some follow up stories. Stay tuned.

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