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CAR training: Stealing story ideas is fine

Editor's note: Brandon Stahl of the Duluth News-Tribune attended an IRE Regional Boot Camp at the University of Minnesota Oct. 6-10, 2008. He recently published his first CAR-driven story, which was about home assessments. Read below to find out how he got the story. (IRE and the City University of New York will be hosting a Regional Boot Camp in New York June 22-26. For more information and to register go here.)

A little bit of background: my editors had long wanted a story on the topic of home assessments as it's a commonly held perception in the city that the assessor's office overvalues homes. Prior to the CAR training, no one here really knew how to address the issue other than report "assessor's office says that's not true. So there. Now go away."

After the CAR training, where we learned that it's OK to steal ideas whenever possible, I noticed that CAR trainer MaryJo Webster had done a similar story for the Pioneer Press. After I told her about my desire to steal, she told me she got the data from the state department of revenue, which was able to send me data specific to our paper's county (and thankfully, free of charge).

Crunching the numbers actually became easy after awhile -- it was essentially just finding the median home sale and estimates for whatever dataset I was looking for (the difficult part was narrowing in on the various cities and towns in the county). It was also easy because CAR instructor Jaimi Dowdell has been forced to serve as my security blanket and answered just about every question I've asked, including "can the data tell me where I put my car keys?" (The answer: no). The hard part was doing the actual reporting, which involved typing in a home sale code into the assessor's Web site to determine who bought/sold a home, and then getting people to talk to me.

Strangely, people whose homes were way undervalued by the city rarely called me back. It was also difficult because the data didn't really show a pattern of government mismanagement. It's hard to report a story that essentially says "save for a few glitches, local government basically doing its job." Hopefully next time I do a CAR story that uncovers corruption, or at least tells me where my keys are. But this felt like a good start.

-Brandon Stahl, Duluth News-Tribune Check out IRE’s training calendar often to see if we’re coming to your area. If you’d like to bring a boot camp to your region, contact Jaimi Dowdell, jaimi@ire.org.

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