Sunshine Week Roundtable

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by Aimee Edmondson, NFOIC contributing writer

The fourth annual Sunshine Week has come and gone and advocates of access can start planning ahead to No. 5 with lots of bright ideas posted on sunshineweek.org.

Debra Gersh Hernandez, Sunshine Week coordinator for the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), inspired the crowd at the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s 2008 FOI Summit with some of those ideas.

  • Free Press Newspapers in Wilmington, Ill., carried a flashy Sunshine Week banner at the top of the front page all week.
  • The Roanoke (Va.) Times publish a redacted text of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to show the evils of censorship. Average readers could relate to the zany, but sad public example of how information can be lost thanks to secretive public officials.
  • The Dallas Morning News showed examples of what the newspaper’s front page would look like without access to government information and meetings. There were huge chunks of black where stories were missing.
  • Gannett News Service asked Washington D.C. tourists questions about open government and made the video and quiz available for its newspapers and TV stations.

“Next year, look for a major project on digital records,” Gersh Hernandez said.

James Brady, executive editor and vice president of WashingtonPost.com, is most interested in the online format of public information. He noticed that there has been no coordinated effort to bring viewers to news websites through online public records. ASNE and the Online News Association are working on that.

“We are trying with this partnership to figure out how to make available as many databases as possible,” said Brady, who in 1996 helped build and launch WashingtonPost.com, a leader in the industry.

A great deal of public information is online, of course, but the public often doesn’t know how to find the stuff. Databases linked to newspaper websites can boost traffic, especially repeat traffic, so this could be a major boon for the industry.

“We want everybody to be able to dig through this information, not just reporters,” Brady said.

At the state level, Susan Schwartz, staff writer for the Press Enterprise Online, also talked about Sunshine week efforts of the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Journalists’ Project Sunshine.

The national effort is wonderful, Schwartz said, but she is more interested in the grassroots work on open records advocacy. She contacted every newspaper in the state to spread the Sunshine Week word and to offer editorials for newspapers to run. In turn, those newspapers, especially the weeklies, ran stories, editorials and PSAs highlighting Sunshine Week, pointing out instances of secretive government practices in their own backyards.

“We got lots of response,” Schwartz said. “We collected that response and asked angry people to write their lawmakers.”

Pete Weitzel, coordinator of the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government and former managing editor of the Miami Herald, moderated the Sunshine Week panel.

“There is something in the air out there. One of the goals of [Sunshine Week] is to get people talking and stir up that breeze a little bit,” Weitzel said.

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