“It’s a huge deal.”
That’s what Lisa Reijula told me after a call a few weeks ago to talk about the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, which will channel $350 billion specifically to state, local and tribal governments. Across the country. Reijula is associate director of outreach and engagement for the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, an independent federal watchdog group.
When she found out that Poynter and IRE were training journalists to cover how and where that money is going, she reached out. (The PRAC has a similar mission and was created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as CARES, to promote transparency in how pandemic dollars are spent.)
How big is a deal?
Reijula said it like that.
In the stimulus act of 2009, there was an $800 billion stimulus package.
ARPA, which was enacted a year ago, provides a total of $1.9 trillion.
“There’s just unprecedented complexity, scale and scope here.”
“It’s really federal revenue sharing,” said Alan Berube, senior researcher and deputy director of Brookings Metro. “We got money in Washington and we basically redistribute it to states and cities and towns, and we haven’t done anything like that in almost 40 years.”
It basically means that journalists haven’t covered something like this in a generation. Our three trainings will include experts in the specific topics and time to dive deep into the data in small groups with IRE.
One of the journalists I’m learning about right now is from MLive Taylor DesOrmeau. He’s a data journalist who covers how Michigan communities spend ARPA money. (And he is one of two trainers in the first workshop.)
I asked DesOrmeau what he wanted journalists preparing to cover ARPA to know.
“Two things,” he said. “First, there is hard data on your community’s income, regardless of size. Leverage this and let it guide reporting – you know how far $1 goes in your city/township/village and how it compares to the annual budget. Second, be aware of the recent change in the US Treasury, which essentially allows communities to use the first $10 million for whatever they want (instead of having to use it for specific purposes). Most communities received less than $10 million, which means it’s just free money they can use as they see fit.
For our first workshop on public health and the pandemic, we will also be joined by The Associated Press’ Kat Staffordwhich will teach us how to go beyond data and combine it with fair reporting and sourcing.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see: too much focus on data alone,” she said. “It’s easy to rely on data (and often it’s necessary!) to tell a health story, but we need to push ourselves to dig deeper as journalists. Some of the best advice I ever got was to interview the data. You can’t just take it literally and run with it. It’s a tool and an aspect of your reporting that should be used to tell the larger story at hand.
So where should journalists start? I have a few answers.
On March 29, Poynter and IRE will host the first of three free online workshops to help you cover ARPA and three specific topics: public health, public safety, and infrastructure/environment. I will share what we have learned in this newsletter.
Here are some places to find information about your community:
Pandemicoversight.gov, from PRAC, includes state and local reports, an interactive map, and comprehensive datasets you can download.
Local Government ARPA Investment Tracker from Brookings, tracks major cities and counties with at least a quarter of a million people who are required to report to the Treasury Department. The site also includes an expert index.
USAspending.gov has a breakdown of states and total awarded amounts to explore.
Depending on your state, you can also find sources to help you track the money by exploring the work of economic development partnerships such as Greater MSP in Minneapolis-St. Paul, who built a federal funding center. (Disclosure: Greater MSP is also a recipient of a Joyce Foundation grant.)
Journalists will play a vital role in holding local governments accountable for how and where this money is spent, Reijula said.
“The scale and scope of this is so significant that we really need the press and the public to step in.”
This series of free data journalism workshops, in partnership with the IRE, is designed to help local journalists track and analyze how the US bailout and other federal stimulus funds are being used in their communities.
Join us for:
– Public Health and Pandemics: Tuesday, March 29, 2-3:30 p.m. ET
– Public Safety, Policing and Beyond: Tuesday, April 12, 2-3:30 p.m. ET
– Infrastructure and Environment: Tuesday, April 26, 2-3:30 p.m. ET