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Project examines patterns of state's biggest campaign donors

Seventeen months ago, I started teaching an investigative reporting class at Stanford University. It would last only 11 weeks. But my 16 Stanford students laid the groundwork for a project that California Watch will unveil just in time for the California primary election.

The project, which goes live Monday, looks at the top 100 political campaign contributors in the state – 50 individuals and 50 interest groups.

In California, major special interests have spent nearly $1.3 billion on election campaigns in the past 11 years. Scores of politicians hold office today thanks to the financial backing they have received from some of the state’s largest special interests and wealthy individuals. These donors represent just a tiny number of the state’s total campaign contributors – but the data indicates that a great deal of the power is concentrated among these major donors.

The list of top individual donors includes wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, investment bankers and venture capitalists as well as some of the state's biggest real estate tycoons.

Working with Chase Davis, our director of technology at the Center for Investigative Reporting, my students reviewed state campaign finance data to identify the top 100 donors. We assigned mini-profiles of all 100 donors or groups. What we couldn’t complete during the winter quarter of 2011, we tackled after the term ended. Stanford students Amy Harris, Daniel Bohm, Ellen Huet and Jamie Hansen joined as interns in the spring and summer. Another Stanford student, Elizabeth Titus, came aboard in January to help finish the profiles. Most of my students have graduated and moved on to their first journalism jobs. I'm betting that all of them probably thought they would not see the day that this project launched.

I hope they agree the wait was worth it.

CIR’s Davis, working with data analyst Coulter Jones and news applications developer Michael Corey, added interactive features and context to the project. Jones, with help from Titus, wrote the main story, which was edited by Robert Salladay. Associate Editor Denise Zapata played an invaluable role editing the interactive profiles. 

The backbone of the project is the donor interactive. Readers will be able to see how successful the campaign contributors have been, something I've not seen other news organizations do with such flair and authority. Our CIR team developed a list of badges to assign to contributors, depending on their giving patterns. The result is illuminating, fresh and fun.

We got a big assist from our California Watch Media Network partners at The Sacramento Bee, which provided several photos of top donors. We have distributed the main story and the interactive to our media partners across the state.

But the project wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the commitment of my students, who got this off the ground and worked hard to bring it all together.

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