Chris Essig

Walkthroughs, tips and tricks from a data journalist in eastern Iowa

Archive for January 2010

Lee’s first multimedia supplement

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Last Friday was the first anniversary of Rod Blagojevich’s historic ousting from the Illinois’ governor’s seat. Like many state newspapers, Lee Enterprises unveiled a story on Blagojevich’s legacy last week that dealt with his lingering presence in the Capitol. We included a timeline of Blagojevich’s life with the story, and I suggested we make it interactive. My bureau chief liked the idea and we used a site called to make an interactive timeline. It was easy as pie to create, and two newspapers linked to it inside the Blagojevich legacy story. They were the Quad-City Times and the Journal Gazette Times-Courier.

As far as I’m aware, this was the first multimedia supplement that the Lee Enterprise Springfield bureau has created.

Take a look:

And the link.

It’s simple but effective. And personally I would rather look at an interactive timeline than a simple list of events. That was the alternative, of course.

Hopefully this is a sign of things to come. I would love to help bump up the level of multimedia content that comes out of the Springfield bureau. Of course, writing will be the focus all session. But every once in a while, multimedia supplements–like timelines, graphs and maps–really help make the story (or sidebar) pop. I think this Blagojevich timeline is a good example of this.

Written by csessig

January 30, 2010 at 9:55 pm

More election coverage

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On Friday, our Statehouse bureau unleashed seven (!) election stories for the weekend. I had my hand in two of them, both related to Congressional elections. And both feature long-shots, either in the general or primary election. Let’s take a quick look:

1. In the 19th Congressional District, incumbent John Shimkus faces his first primary opponent in 14 years. That is quite an impressive run. Veterinarian Mike Firsching of Moro is hoping to do the unpredictable and unseat Shimkus for the first time since he was elected. However, Shimkus is severely out-fundraising him. According to federal records released last week, Shimkus has raised $211,000 between October and mid-January. Firsching hasn’t raised close to that, only saying he’s pitched in $3,000 of his own money.

Here is a quick look at the story:

Firsching said he ran, in part, because he believes the federal government has too much power. He pointed to the Department of Education as an example and said Washington shouldn’t be control of local school districts. As a student of the Constitution for the past four years, he said he would vote against proposals that expand the government’s powers beyond those laid out in the Constitution.

He also cited dysfunction in Congress and a lack of personal freedoms as reasons for running against Shimkus in the southern Illinois district.

And here is the link.

2. In the 18th Congressional District, incumbent Aaron Schock does not face a primary candidate. So instead, I covered the Democratic race, which features Deirdre “DK” Hirner of Springfield and Carl Ray of Washington. While the election could be interesting, the winner will likely have an uphill battle because the central Illinois district hasn’t elected a Democrat for more than 90 years. Think about that for a second: 90 years! Wow. Now that is a strongly GOP district.

But getting back to the Democratic candidates, here is a look at the story I put together for the weekend:

Hirner was critical of Schock for voting against the stimulus package, health care legislation and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Play Act, which gives workers more time to take cases concerning pay discrimination to court.

“The 18th district deserves someone who will work for them in Washington,” she said.

Ray was upset Schock voted against the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP, which provides federal matching funds to states for health care coverage of children. The measure was vetoed by President George W. Bush twice, although it eventually passed and later was expanded by President Obama.

In fact, Schock’s “no” vote was the tipping point for Ray to enter the race. He said the vote hit home because he has an autistic son. He was born around the same time his wife became very sick, which raised the cost of health care for the family.

And the link.

And that is it for this election update. Expect coverage from these races and more as the election nears.

And remember, get out the vote (in just a week)!

Written by csessig

January 26, 2010 at 9:14 pm

First story in the St. Louis Dispatch

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I don’t talk about them much, but the St. Louis Dispatch is actually a Lee Newspaper, along with the five newspapers I intern for. I don’t talk about the newspaper much because they have their own bureau inside the Statehouse and their own PAR intern. So my articles haven’t ran in their newspaper. That, however, changed yesterday. An article I wrote on a proposed law that would, as the newspaper says, “put front license plates on the chopping block” ran online and received a ton of comments. Here is an excerpt:

SPRINGFIELD — Drivers in Illinois would only be required to have only one license plate on their vehicle, under legislation pending in the Illinois House.

The proposed law would require drivers to have one license plate in the rear of their vehicle, changing the current law that requires license plates in both the front and back of a registered vehicle.

State Rep. Jerry Mitchell, R-Sterling, said he is sponsoring the measure because it would save the state $1 million a year.

And an image!

Here’s the link.

While this is by no means a big story, it’s still pretty cool to see my article printed in the newspaper. This is, by far, the largest newspaper I’ve been published in. I have a feeling they will run a few of our articles during the spring legislative session, but it will have to be on subjects they aren’t covering…It should be interesting to see how involved they get. Here’s hoping for the best!

Written by csessig

January 23, 2010 at 11:33 am

Scott Brown’s victory and Groundhog Day (the movie)

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It should be no surprise that the Illinois GOP has been overflowing with excitement after Scott Brown’s unlikely victory in Massachusetts. The state, after all, hasn’t elected a Republican to Senate for more than 35 years. Here in Illinois, many candidates and party affiliates are hoping the seating of Brown will signal a national Democratic dethroning come November. As a result, the list of local GOPers lining up to congratulate Brown grew long last night as the election results came in.

Mark Kirk, a candidate for U.S. Senate, for instance, used the opportunity to solicit supporters. Fellow Senate candidate Patrick Hughes tweeted about the victory, as did Bill Brady and Jim Ryan, candidates for governor. Republicans Kirk Dillard and Dan Proft went a step further and extended their congratulations in an official statement. Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady did as well, proclaiming loud and clear that “Illinois is next.” My bureau chief, consequently, wrote a story on the press release, as many media outlets did.

Adam Andrzejewski, the fifth candidate in the governor’s race to sound off on the Massachusetts’ election, went the furthest by actually releasing a video on YouTube congratulating Brown. Check it out:

It adds a more personal touch, I guess.

But the most bizarre response I saw–by far–came from John Arrington, a little-know candidate for U.S. Senate. In his press release congratulating Brown, he compared the movie Groundhog Day to Illinois. You’ll have to see this to believe it:

If you recall the movie Ground Hog day, Bill Murray had to relive that day over and over again until he got his life right.  Are we going to continue to relive the past here Illinois by electing the same corrupt, self serving, or unprincipled politicians? Or are we finally going to elect a principled servant of the people, who will go to Washington and defend the Constitution and move us past the reliving of Ground Hog day?

Groundhog Day, by the way, is two words, not three. But all kidding aside, what the hell?

Very usual…

Written by csessig

January 20, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Putting the big bucks to use

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1. As I noted yesterday, the family of Jason Plummer, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, has chipped big bucks into his campaign this past month. In all, roughly $700,000 has been loaned to his campaign. That’s some serious dough for a lieutenant governor’s race. So it should be no surprise that Plummer has released two new ads, which is a huge buy. Take a look:

I’m not going to embed the second ad because it’s very similar to the one above. But here is the link.

SPOILER ALERT: It deals with “monkey business” in Illinois!

2. Other ads are coming in, including one for Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democratic candidate for comptroller, who I also wrote about over the weekend in our election coverage. Here is a look at the ad:

What do you think?

Written by csessig

January 19, 2010 at 9:37 pm

This weekend’s election coverage

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A. Elections, elections, elections. With the state in fiscal peril, everybody is looking to the state’s leaders and hoping–and praying–for swift and meaningful action. And with the lawmakers out of town until the election season is finished, it’s no wonder why the primaries are dominating Statehouse coverage as of late. I had a chance to cover some of the lesser-know races last week and the stories appeared in various newspapers over the weekend. And I am happy to report that I received one phone call today regarding my treasurer and comptroller stories that ran in the Herald & Review, which means at least one person is reading them.

But first a story on the incredibly-crowded lieutenant governor’s race. Last Friday, we had some down time in the office so I started browsing the State Board of Election’s web site. And I noticed one candidate for lieutenant governor, Jason Plummer, received $500,000 worth of donations from the plumbing company owned by his family. I thought it was interesting that his family would invest so much money into a race for a position that has relatively few formal responsibilities. I then noticed that he loaned his campaign an additional $150,000 just weeks earlier, meaning him and his family were pumping (no pun intended) serious dough into the race. I also knew that other candidates had pledged to self-fund their campaigns with hundreds of thousands (and sometimes millions) of dollars, meaning Plummer wasn’t alone. I discussed the issue with my bureau chief and he gave me the “thumbs up” on the story. So, I called a few people today, and, wallah, I had my first completely-independent news story that I thought of on my own. Nothing earth-shattering, but I thought it was interesting, in a nerdy, political way. And the mandatory quote:

SPRINGFIELD — The candidates for Illinois lieutenant governor may be vying for a position with few formal responsibilities, but that hasn’t stopped a trio of them from putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race.

Democratic hopeful Scott Cohen has loaned his campaign more than a half million dollars so far this month. Republicans Don Tracy and Jason Plummer are tapping into their own wallets and into their family businesses for cash to bankroll their primary ambitions.

And the link. It will be interesting to see how people react to this story. Some are sympathetic to self-funded candidates and wish it didn’t cost nearly that much to run a viable campaign. But others think it’s ludicrous to spend that much money on a campaign and wish the money would go a better cause, like a charity. If you have an opinion, leave it in the comments.

B. Secondly, I had three election stories run this weekend in our fine Lee Enterprise publications on the comptroller and treasurer races. Each of the three stories dealt with a particular primary race, including the Democratic race for comptroller and treasurer, and the Republican race for comptroller. In the Republican race for treasurer, Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, is running uncontested in the primary, so there was no need for a story.

Basically the question posed to the candidates (eight in all) was: What is your opinion of short-term borrowing? In recent years, the state has made it an annual practice to borrow money, which is usually reimbursed in a year or so, to help pay its bills short-term. Recipients of the borrowed money include human service providers, medical providers and universities. The issue became volatile this year after Gov. Pat Quinn proposed borrowing $500 million to help pay Medicaid bills and other providers. Comptroller Dan Hynes refused to sign off on the plan. Hynes, of course, is running against Quinn in the Democratic gubernatorial race. Quinn cried foul, saying Hynes was playing politics and human service providers were suffering as a result. Hynes said the state simply has too many unpaid bills as it is. Recent estimates put Illinois’ backlog of bills at $5.1 billion. That’s billion with a “B.” Both the treasurer and comptroller have to sign off on all short-term borrowing plans (although the General Assembly did consider a proposal last week that would have allowed the state to borrow money without getting approval from Hynes. The measure, however, wasn’t debated on the Senate floor).

To no surprise, the Republicans largely agreed with Hynes and the Democrats largely didn’t…

Wow, that was a long-winded set up. Anyways, here are the stories:

  1. Democratic candidates for state treasurer agree with short-term borrowing
  2. Republican hopefuls back Hynes’ veto plan to borrow short-term
  3. Democratic hopefuls (for comptroller) agree state should borrow to pay backlog of bills

Look for more election related stories in the coming weeks. And remember, folks, get out the vote on Feb. 2!

This week’s Statehouse buzz phrase: “elephant in the room”

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As I mentioned yesterday, the scene at the Capitol was a bit crazy after Gov. Pat Quinn’s State of the State address on Wednesday. Reporters were scrambling to talk to rank-and-file lawmakers before they left town and candidates in the February primaries were trying everything they could to get their mug on TV.  And many lawmakers had similar complaints about Quinn’s speech:  it was too vague.

That didn’t surprise me that much. But what did surprise me was how many people used the phrase “elephant in the room” to the describe the state’s mounting fiscal crisis. In particular, many lawmakers were upset Quinn didn’t make the “elephant in the room” a focal point of his speech. One lawmaker, in fact, counted the number of minutes it took Quinn to mention it. He said it took roughly 47 minutes.

He didn’t use this week’s Statehouse buzz phrase to describe fiscal calamity. But many did:

1. I first heard the phrase used by State Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, in a story I worked on that previewed the speech. The Southern, subsequently, used the phrase in the headline:

State Sen. David Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, said it will be interesting to see how much emphasis Quinn places on the dismal state budget. The deficit is expected to reach $12 billion by the end of the fiscal year.

“It’s the elephant in the room,” Luechtefeld said.

2. The quote was picked up by radio stations and newspapers, including the Alton Daily News.

3. Illinois Statehouse News also used the phrase in a headline.

4. After the speech, the phrase seemed to pop up even more frequently:

“The longer we continue to ignore the elephant in the room that is a thirteen billion dollar deficit, the more destructive it becomes,” said [State Representative Jil Tracy (R-Mt. Sterling)].

5. Another lawmaker used the phrase after the speech, according to a story from a NBC affiliate in Peoria:

“We did do some work this year, and I think the governor spent a lot of time talking about those things, but the most important thing is the elephant in the room, we have to get a budget passed,” said Jehan Gordon, D-Peoria.

6. I also saw the phrase used in the comment section of a story posted on Capitol Fax.

7. It’s no wonder my bureau chief used the phrase as well in wrap-up of the speech:

It was not until nearly 50 minutes into the speech, however, that he addressed what some lawmakers call the “elephant in the room” — the dismal condition of state finances.

8. And, finally, I heard the phrase on my way to work today being used by Kevan Kavanaugh, president of Mid-West Family Broadcasting, in his daily editorial. He was also critical of Quinn for not addressing the “elephant in the room” sooner and with more force.

(Note: the podcast has not been posted yet)

9. One last comment: It seems that reporters across the country are finding themselves unable to avoid the cliche, according to the lede from a 2009 article in State Net:

Dismal budgets continue to be the elephant in the room in most statehouses, but lawmakers are still making time to address other issues as well.

Have you seen the phrase pop up anywhere else?

Image by Debbie Tomassi.

Written by csessig

January 15, 2010 at 5:38 pm

25 news organizations and their coverage of the Haiti tragedy

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By now, we’ve all heard about the terrible tragedy that unfolded on Tuesday in the country of Haiti. As of now, death toll estimates are reaching 50,000, which is absolutely horrific. As expected, news organizations across the country have been diligently working to cover this calamity. A variety of angles have been used to cover this monumental story; the Chicago Tribune, for instance, focused on Chicago residents with family members in Haiti, while CBS focused on the U.S. response. Some simply called a cry for help.

Last night, I was browsing the Internet, reading various articles on the earthquakes, and decided to capture some screen shots from the news sites. I captured 25 in all. Here is a quick slideshow I put together so you can compare and contrast the coverage:

[NOTE: Click here to view a larger version of the slideshow]

Vodpod videos no longer available.

How to help:

– Text “HAITI” to “90999 and a donation of $10 will be given to the Red Cross to help with relief efforts.

– Visit the Huffington Post’s page by clicking here.

Written by csessig

January 14, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Same speech, three different stories

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One interesting dilemma while working for a newspaper company as opposed to a newspaper is making your coverage meaningful for all of your publications. What that typically means for most stories is getting sources–lawmakers–from every region we cover: the Quad cities, Bloomington, Decatur, Mattoon/Charleston and southern Illinois. The same was true for Gov. Pat Quinn’s State of the State address yesterday. Basically we split our coverage into two parts: a story on the speech, which was compiled by my bureau chief Kurt Erickson, and a reaction piece from local lawmakers, which I worked on with Mike Riopell. Usually when we write a reaction story or a story or a piece of legislation, we put together one article filed with quotes from lawmakers in the five mentioned coverage areas. Well, the SoS address was a little different. Instead of one story, we decided to create separate stories for each coverage area.

Fortunately, The Southern covered the speech on their own, so we didn’t need to worry about talking to those six lawmakers in their area. But getting a hold of the other lawmakers after the speech was mandatory, meaning Mike and I had to talk to roughly 15 lawmakers before they got the hell out of the Capitol. And the result of that was three separate stories (the Quad City Times did not pick up our story). All the stories were set up the same, they just featured different lawmakers. Here’s a quick wrap:

Decatur Herald & Review

State Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, said he assumed the speech would take political tones with Quinn facing a primary election in three weeks.

“The city of Decatur…has 15 percent unemployment,” he said. “What did he talk about putting those people back to work? What did he talk about bring manufacturing back to Illinois? I didn’t hear a lot.”

Budget details will come when Quinn gives lawmakers his proposal in the coming months, said state Rep. Bob Flider, D-Mount Zion.

Bloomington Pantagraph

“I think he’s a nice guy, but certainly the speech didn’t tell us anything,” said state Rep. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga. “It had no meat in it at all.”

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, agreed.

“It was a long speech short on specifics,” Brady said.

Matton Journal Gazette & Times-Courier

State Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said he thought Quinn’s remarks should have focused more on the problems facing Illinois.

“I felt like we were walking through Candy Land,” Rose said. “We’ve got real problems to address.”

Similar criticism came from other Republicans.

“I was disappointed the governor didn’t spend more time on the issues that really trouble the state,” said state Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon. “The speech isn’t about what’s good about the state of Illinois. It’s just the state of Illinois. And there is a lot wrong in Illinois.

Amazingly, almost every lawmaker we talked to basically said the same thing: the speech, despite being 75 minutes long, lacked specifics. But in all fairness, Quinn’s budget address is coming up next month, which will likely include more specific details on how the state is going to get out of this fiscal nightmare. It will be interesting to see how Quinn–whether he’s the Democratic nominee or not–addresses the state then.

If you feel so inclined, the entire budget address is available by clicking here.

Also, a full transcript of the speech is available here.

Controversial cigarette tax hike back on the table

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The American Lung Association and Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Maywood, held a news conference in the Capitol press room yesterday morning to announce they are renewing their efforts to pass a cigarette tax increase this legislative session. This proposal is nothing new; the same bill narrowly passed the Senate last April. But the measure was never voted on in House.

The ALA also released a scant review of Illinois’ tobacco laws. The state received a dismal “D” grade in cigarette taxing, which the association cited in its call for higher taxes. Apparently the higher the taxes, the better the rating. You don’t see that everywhere…

Anyways, I covered the news conference. Here is a quote:

SPRINGFIELD – On the same day the American Lung Association released a report on Illinois’ tobacco control laws, the association said it plans to renew an effort to pass a cigarette tax hike this year.

The association will be teaming up with state Rep. Karen Yarbrough, D-Maywood, to push an increase in the cigarette tax by $1. Currently, the state tax adds 98 cents to the cost of a pack of smokes.

Last year, a tax hike was approved in the state Senate but was not voted on in the House.

And the link.

This is my first “beat,” per say, or first issue to follow throughout the legislative session. If there is big news regarding this piece of legislation, I’ll be reporting on it…Hopefully things will get interesting.

Written by csessig

January 13, 2010 at 9:10 pm