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Web site outlines information access

March 13, 2005

A newspaper's job is to inform. But why not also help the public inform itself?

That was the reasoning behind The Herald-Mail's Freedom of Information Web site, which debuted in July 2003.

Journalists must know how to get public records. Sometimes, asking is enough. Other times, government requires a Freedom of Information request.

The press quickly becomes familiar with the necessary components of FOI requests. Some citizens teach themselves, too, but many do not.

In February 2003, Herald-Mail Executive Editor Terry Headlee set up a committee to show citizens how to easily get public information from their government.

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The committee created a guide for people in all three states The Herald-Mail covers - Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Federal guidelines were included, too.

The FOI Web site -

www.herald-mail.com/FOI - starts with an overview of why public records matter.

Each of the three states and the federal government has its own page. There is an overview of each law, examples of public records and time limits for governments to respond.

The site directs people to the text of each law and to several other FOI resources. It gives them sample letters they can adapt and use.

Each page has a pithy open-government quote, from sources such as James Madison and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

Several stories the newspaper has done using documents obtained through FOI requests are posted.

First, the committee looked for FOI Web sites that other media outlets have. Committee members knew of one in Maryland, but with a broader scope than The Herald-Mail planned. The committee found no large metro newspapers with an FOI guide.

The committee tracked down laws, created sample letters and decided how the site should be laid out.

The newspaper's Web master polished the sketch plan and made the site attractive and easy to use.

Afterward, the newspaper got good feedback.

A man at the Governor's Center for Local Government Services in Harrisburg, Pa., who helped the paper pinpoint Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law, bookmarked The Herald-Mail's site as a favorite.

The chief executive officer of Search Systems, a voluminous public records guide that only links to databases, made an exception for the newspaper's site because, he said, it's important.

Told about The Herald-Mail's FOI site, the chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' FOI committee at the time was interested. He said he knew of no other like it.

In early January, a woman working for U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said a constituent needed to file an FOI request with his government employer, but didn't know what to do. The staffer didn't know what to tell him.

When we walked her through our site, she was grateful. We hope many others benefit the same way.

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