How One Colorado Reporter’s Struggle Led To A Proposal for New Open Records Laws

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4min 33sec

Earlier this month, Fort Collins Coloradoan reporter Nick Coltrain won the First Amendment Award in the Society for Professional Journalists' Top of the Rockies contest for a battle with Colorado State University. He wanted to know if there were inequities in pay between men and women.  He discovered there were, but only after a lot of work. The school provided him with a printout of all the information—150 pages of an Excel spreadsheet—rather than the files themselves.

Coltrain's struggle to convert the printouts into something he could analyze prompted a battle about the public's right to access data. On April 25, a senate bill to require electronic records be made available where possible advanced by a 7 to 6 vote in the House Finance Committee.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland spoke with Coltrain about his story and the legislation it sparked.

On why legislation to modernize public records is controversial:

Coltrain: The controversy has surrounded things like metadata, which [are] all the things hidden in a file. … It's not just the text on the screen, it's a lot of background information. Probably the easiest example is the date the file was created.

On the potential danger of metadata: 

Coltrain: If somebody is particularly good with computers, would they be able to go into the metadata, or previous file versions for example, and pull information out that would otherwise be protected information under CORA [Colorado Open Records Act]?

On why there is a broad push to move away from paper records:

Coltrain: It's very important to just maintaining the public trust between government entities and the public. It could potentially save us a lot of man-hours, and provide a better window into how our governments are operating.

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.