Is charging for data a threat to the press?

In recent years, the volume of information stored in public and private databases has grown almost inconceivably. In a matter of seconds, a computer can sift through millions of documents to find a specific fact — a tedious task that would take a lifetime if done by hand. But as computers have grown ever-smarter and speedier, serious questions about exactly how accessible public information should be in a democracy have been raised.
In February, Gov. Arne Carlson sent a memo to state agencies telling them to start charging for the time and labor spent by state employees to locate requested public records. The policy, based on the state Data Practices Act, allows the state to recoup for time spent on information searches. Although the policy’s basic premise is to make government more efficient and less expensive, the most disturbing part of Carlson’s action is that it directly targets news organizations. Certainly, a reasonable surcharge to cover the cost of labor and copying is justified; but these are not nominal fees. The Associated Press was recently charged $235 for salary data it had requested. The charges are applied to larger searches (such as those done by journalists) and based on the hourly wage and benefits of the employee working on the search plus five cents a page. While major players in the news business, like the AP, may be able to pay hundreds of dollars for access to public information, for smaller news organizations, like the Daily or City Pages, these charges are prohibitive.
Digging into public records isn’t always a fruitful search for journalists; it’s often a long and unrewarding process. But access to those records should nonetheless be reasonably affordable for the press. Charging fees limits the ability of reporters to follow a hunch and discover how government is operating. Smaller news organizations will certainly be the first to feel the pinch, but even well-heeled media corporations will grow more selective in their investigations as they rack up charges.
In part, the charges for information were intended to put a stop to “frivolous” activities. A spokesman for Carlson characterized media requests for information as “fishing expeditions.” But the practice may wind up hurting the public in the end. By charging, the state is changing the definition of public information. Unlike a California law limiting access to certain records, which was passed after actress Rebecca Schaefer was murdered by an obsessive fan who found her address through driver’s license records, Minnesota’s new policy is not intended to protect the privacy or rights of citizens. Instead, the policy limits the press’ access to public information that directly concerns broader governmental issues. Private citizens do not have the time to sort through or follow all of the operations of government. The press serves as a source of communication between representatives and their constituents, but fees limit this communication.
Relations between Carlson and the media have often been tense. In fact, the memo was sent while Carlson was involved in another battle with the media concerning his resistance to a request for records of cellular phone use by his office, and what constitutes public information. Carlson’s action will not help this relationship at all, and may wind up damaging the general public’s knowledge of governmental workings.