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Jan. 12, 2023, 10:28 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“Canada’s ProPublica” is sharing the databases behind its hard-hitting stories

The Investigative Journalism Foundation hopes to follow the money — and leave the door wide open for other journalists.

“Think of us like ProPublica meets OpenSecrets.” That’s how editor-in-chief Zane Schwartz describes Canada’s newly launched Investigative Journalism Foundation.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan news startup aims to “expand the breadth, depth, and long-term financial sustainability of investigative journalism in Canada” by building public interest databases, collaborating with other newsrooms, and publishing its own investigations. A week after launching, IJF has shown some political leaders have been breaking their party’s pledge to stop allowing lobbyists to attend cash-for-access fundraisers, taken a sobering look at the country’s public-housing system in partnership with The Walrus, and cataloged, alongside the National Observer, a lobbying blitz by Canada’s largest oil and gas group.

The IJF mission is fairly simple. They hope to follow the money — and leave the door wide open for other journalists. But that doesn’t mean compiling this amount of data into useful, searchable databases has been easy.

In the United States, public records can be frustrating to access and analyze, with information siloed across federal, state, county, and local websites. Schwartz said journalists face a similar situation in Canada.

“Before [launch], all of this data was required by law to be public, but you might literally need to go to a government archive to access it,” Schwarz said. “You almost certainly would have had to go to a government website where the data will be stored, let’s say, alphabetically by politician name. Really simple things like, ‘Who’s the biggest donor?’ or ‘How many people donated to x party in y year?’ were all but impossible to answer.”

The IJF staff (and more than 80 volunteers) spent two years collecting, cleaning, and analyzing nearly 9 million rows of data from government websites so they could launch with eight public interest databases:

  • Lobbying Registrations: We have data on the laws lobbyists want changed and government funding they’re asking for at the federal and provincial levels. Users will be able to search by lobbyist name and keyword (e.g. electric school bus, pipelines, solar panels, wealth inequality, etc.)
  • Revolving Door: Every lobbyist who used to work for the government at the federal level and in Saskatchewan, Ontario and British Columbia. Users can search by company (e.g. Suncor or TD Bank), by department (e.g. Environment, Finance), or by individual lobbyist name.
  • Lobbyist Meetings: Which lobbyists are meeting with which politicians.
  • Government Funding: All money received by lobbyists from provincial, territorial, municipal, federal and international governments. Users can search by company, dollar amount, and government program.
  • Political Donations: All donations to politicians at the federal level and in every province and territory from 1993 to the present. Users can search by donor name and recipient name. They can also refine the search by location, amount, political party and donor type (e.g. Union, Corporation, Individual).
  • Charity Tax Returns: The tax returns for all Canadian charities from 1990 to the present, searchable by revenue, expenses and programs of interest. Users can compare charities on revenue increases or expense-to-revenue ratios.
  • Grant Recipients: How much money foundations give to each charity they support. Users can search by donor, recipient, amount, region, and topic area (e.g. the largest funders of environmental charities, the largest funders of poverty-alleviation charities, etc.)
  • Charity Employee Salaries: The salary ranges for senior charity staff throughout time. This will show how much top-paid employees make.

The IJF currently has a staff of 12, including eight who are full-time employees. The reporters, developers, and editors are scattered across the country — though IJF recently began to rent co-working space a couple of days a week in Toronto, where roughly half of the team lives.

Before launch, Schwartz worked at the National Post, Maclean’s, The Logic, and the Calgary Herald. He currently serves as the national chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists (a volunteer position) and launched that organization’s annual diversity survey.

In an introductory post, Schwartz wrote that Canada has lost hundreds of media outlets and thousands of full-time journalism jobs in the past 15 years. The total number of newspaper articles published annually has been cut in half, with the number of articles on civic affairs down by a third.

To help resource-strapped outlets, IJF wants to provide reporting power — alongside the data — to partnering publications. “We don’t just say, ‘Here’s the database.’ We assign a reporter, they assign a reporter, and they work together to dig in,” Schwartz said.

Since 2021, the nonprofit has raised nearly 800,000 Canadian dollars ($596,024) from 10 donors.

“I’m incredibly grateful to the funders we have because they funded an idea, right? We came to them and we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if any Canadian could see who the largest donor to their politicians are?’” Schwartz said. “And they said, ‘Yes, that would be amazing. Let me give you money to go out and make it happen.’”

Still, Schwartz hopes to grow additional revenue streams, starting with reader support. “I would be a lot more comfortable if we had more funders,” he said. “You never want to be in a position where there’s the potential for conflict of interest.”

Though the databases will be free for “simple searches,” the IJF also plans to sell data access. Organizations “seeking to make money off the databases” and those interested in complex searches or real-time alerts will be charged a subscription fee. The four subscription plans cost between CA$10 and CA$60 per month.

Looking ahead, the IJF has its eyes on building more databases that would be of interest to journalists and the public, including compiling financial disclosure forms (including stock ownership) filed by politicians. And as more journalists discover their free resources, Schwartz also hopes to unlock more stories hidden in the data by teaming up with local reporters.

“We know that we don’t know everything about Canada,” Schwartz said. “There are reporters all across this country who would see a name and say, ‘Oh, that’s a huge real estate developer in my town. The fact that they donated is really significant.’ Then they can use the data to ask pointed questions.”

POSTED     Jan. 12, 2023, 10:28 a.m.
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