I hate losing things. My husband got me a beautiful necklace for our one-year wedding anniversary and I lost it about a year later. It broke my heart, not only because of the sentimental value but because of the monetary value. I’m not sure how much he paid for it, but I felt bad that I lost something he had spent his hard-earned money on.
The government loses things, too, from time to time and when it does, that’s our money that’s lost. If you want to do a great public records story that’s sure to impress your bosses, ask your local government for a spreadsheet of all the items it has lost in the last five years. In addition to the lost items, make sure you also request that the list include items that were damaged, stolen, embezzled, etc.
I first did this story at The Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Md., when I was covering the education beat. It was amazing to read through the spreadsheet and see the crazy things the school system had lost. One of the most memorable things on the list was a $10,000 John Deere tractor!
I did the story again as an education reporter at The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C. In both cases, the school systems seemed surprised at the long list of lost items, and they promised to a better job keeping track of their equipment.
When I started working at WRAL in Raleigh as a Web news editor, I wanted to do this story yet again, but this time on a state-wide level. The hardest part was trying to figure out who had the records. Turns out, the State Bureau of Investigation keeps tabs on North Carolina’s lost equipment. I requested the records and our WRAL Investigates team did a story about the findings yesterday.
Once again, state officials promised to keep better track of their taxpayer-funded equipment. As a journalist, this is a very rewarding story to do and a great way to incorporate public records into your reporting.