FOIA Fest returns for 10th annual conference

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FOIA Fest takes place virtually Feb. 24-26

FOIA Fest is back and bigger than ever. The Chicago Headline Club will host its 10th annual conference devoted to public records-driven journalism, taking place virtually Feb. 24-26.

Tickets sales closed Thursday, Feb. 24 at noon CT. Sessions will be recorded for registered attendees and will be available for replay for a limited time during and after the conference.

If you registered for FOIA Fest, please check your email for instructions to log into our conference platform, Hopin. Having issues? Email foiafestchicago@gmail.com.

From cub reporters to seasoned vets, community organizers to everyday residents, FOIA Fest helps equip attendees with the tools needed to better understand and use public records for impactful investigations and everyday life.

FOIA Fest will kick off with a keynote address by Pulitzer Center Executive Editor Marina Walker Guevara on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 24. This will be followed by two full days of programming on Friday, Feb. 25 and Saturday, Feb. 26. 

FOIA Fest is the Chicago Headline Club’s signature training event. The conference is designed to help reporters, community organizers and everyday people learn about freedom of information requests — from the basics to finishing long-term investigative projects. The conference helps equip attendees with the tools needed to better understand and use public records for impactful investigations and everyday life. 

Last year, the Midwest conference expanded from a one-day conference to three days. Due to the ongoing pandemic, FOIA Fest also moved to a virtual platform. This change allowed the conference to welcome more than 400 attendees — triple FOIA Fest’s typical capacity. While the conference focuses on Illinois’s state Freedom of Information Act, sessions will also touch on federal FOIA and best practices for public records research.

Have questions about this year’s FOIA Fest? Contact the organizers.

Panels and hands-on training

This year’s FOIA Fest will include nearly 30 panels and workshops, featuring award-winning investigative journalists, FOIA attorneys and community groups. Programming will include how to leverage FOIA when reporting on various topics like the environment, housing, education and LGBTQ+ issues. A “data demonstrations” track will offer skills training with technical walk-throughs on using spreadsheets, databases and visualizations for reporting on public records.

Keynote

Keynote speaker Marina Walker Guevara

Guevara’s keynote address will highlight trends of innovation and collaboration throughout Chicago and the broader journalism industry. Guevara managed two of the largest reporting collaborations in journalism history: The Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. Her work has been recognized by more than four dozen international and national awards, including the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. She is a co-founder of the Latin American Center for Investigative Reporting and sits on the board of directors for the Global Investigative Journalism Network. 

Boot Camp

The FOIA Fest Boot Camp will also return this year, following its inaugural training program in 2021. The two-week mentorship opportunity partners early career reporters with experienced journalists for guidance on a FOIA-driven project.

Networking

Organizers are also planning networking opportunities. Some optional in-person social events may be possible, pending local public health guidance. 

FOIA Fest is made possible by the support of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and the Chicago Headline Club Foundation. Additional sponsors will be named during the conference. Please email foia@headlineclub.org to inquire about sponsorship opportunities.

Session line-up

Exact times and dates to be determined. FOIA Fest programming will take place in one-hour time slots at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on both Friday, Feb. 25 and Saturday, Feb. 26.

The FOIA strategy

A panel of investigative journalists share their best tips for creating a FOIA strategy for each project.

Investigating LGBTQ+ issues with public records

A panel discussion focusing on how to investigate issues impacting LGBTQ+ people using documents, data and other investigative reporting tools.

  • Lucas Waldron — Visual Investigations Producer, ProPublica
  • Kae Petrin — Data & Graphics Reporter, Chalkbeat
  • Moderator: Adam Rhodes — Social Justice Reporter, Chicago Reader

How to win an appeal with the PAC

This session will cover how to file an appeal with the Public Access Counselor and what binding opinions issued in 2021 mean for FOIA filers going forward. Why are binding opinions so rare? And, even if a binding opinion is issued — do agencies always comply?

  • Pete Czosnyka — Citizen FOIA requester
  • Greg Pratt — City Hall Reporter, Chicago Tribune
  • Ryan Mahan — Sports Reporter, The State Journal-Register
  • Moderator: Courtney Kueppers  — Independent journalist

FOIA for organizers

De-mystifying the basics of FOIA and showing how the general public and organizers can use the law to acquire information to improve their everyday lives and fight for justice.

  • Ramsin Canon — Principal Attorney, Canon Law Group
  • Debbie Southorn — Program Coordinator, American Friends Service Committee
  • Xanat Sobrevilla — Organizer, Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD)
  • Taylor Moore — Program Coordinator, International Women’s Media Foundation

FOIA and the environment

How to use FOIA to uncover environmental injustice.

Covering housing and segregation

Chicago is experiencing an affordable housing crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic and rising rent prices. We’ll explain the history of Chicago’s housing segregation, the displacement of people of color from gentrifying communities and legal ways in which Black Chicagoans have been kept from neighborhoods.

FOIA and the justice system

From police to prosecutors, courts to prisons, the criminal legal system is a complex web of different agencies. Each stage of a criminal case creates records, but they’re all held by different public bodies. Reporters in this panel will discuss how they’ve used FOIA to understand and uncover problems at every stage of the criminal justice system — and how they’ve connected those records to see the whole picture.

FOIA and politics

What does it take to be a political reporter and how does FOIA play a part in advancing your political reporting? Learn tips and tricks from these reporters.

  • Rachel Hinton — Enterprise Reporter, Better Government Association
  • John Chase — Director of Investigations, Better Government Association
  • Jessica A. Floyd — Business and Finance Correspondent, TheGrio

A deep dive into FOIA statutes 

There’s a law for everything from what public records you’re allowed to request all the way to the timeframe a FOIA officer is supposed to follow in responding to you. So what are those laws exactly, why are they important, and what does it take to reach the level of transparency in government activity that the people deserve? This panel will discuss the Freedom of Information Act statutes, who the “fighters of transparency” are, and how legislation impacts your public records practice.

FOIA 101

It’s FOIA 101! Whether you’re getting started or looking for a refresher, this session can equip you for your next Freedom of Information Act request. Join Better Government Association’s Olivia Obineme and learn along from a panel of experts who will touch on all the things: history of FOIA, how to get started in making requests, what tools you need, who you need to reach out to and what to do if you get ignored or denied.

  • Jared Rutecki — Investigative Reporter and Data Coordinator, Better Government Association
  • Jonah Newman — Editor, Injustice Watch
  • Sidnee King — Equity Reporter, Better Government Association
  • Wesley Wright — Assistant Director Student Media, Florida Atlantic University
  • Rachel Eun — FOIA Paralegal and Intake Coordinator, Loevy & Loevy
  • Shelley Geiszler — Attorney, Loevy & Loevy

How student journalists are using FOIA

Student-run publications are using FOIA to advance their reporting on corruption on campuses and to hold school leaders accountable. Hear from student news leaders on their experiences while applying the Freedom of Information Act, the stories they’ve used it for and tips they’ve learned along the way.

  • Zach Watson — Northwestern
  • Cam Rodriguez — Managing Editor, 14East/DePaul
  • Sidnee King — Equity Reporter, Better Government Association (Moderator)

FOIAFest ’21 Boot Camp showcase

As our second cohort of FOIAFest Boot Camp is underway, say hello (again!) to some of our mentees of our inaugural Boot Camp who have come back to share what they’ve learned from participating in the program. They’ll share some of their latest work and answer questions around what it means to be a FOIAFest mentee and how you can also become FOIA greats in the making!

So you want to collaborate with other newsrooms? Here’s how to get started

Collaborations are on fire these days. They’re a key way to reach a wider audience, have a greater impact and help more people. Hear from a panel of newsroom leaders on how they navigate this world.

FOIA in a pandemic

Let’s dive into how we are doing our work during a momentous and challenging time in our history: the pandemic. What have been the challenges? Hear from newsroom leaders and legal consultants on their experiences in handling the challenges that have surfaced from filing FOIAs on topics ranging from COVID-19 to civil unrest.

FOIA 201: More data, more problems

We’ll discuss technical and collaborative approaches to acquiring, analyzing and reporting on massive data and document sets.

  • Jared Rutecki — Investigative Reporter and Data Coordinator, Better Government Association
  • Matt Kiefer — Data Editor, WBEZ
  • Freddy Martinez — Director, Lucy Parsons Labs

Covering health care during a pandemic

Sure, there’s a lot of public information about health care. Hospital rankings. Community vaccination rates. Patient demographics. But during the pandemic, some of the best kind of data and public records that would give the public a deeper look into what’s happening has been out of reach. We’ll delve into the bright spots and challenges of covering COVID-19, and how to cover the story whether or not you can use FOIA.

How to turn your FOIAs into great audio stories

Turning document-heavy stories into compelling narratives for the ear is tough. It involves lots of planning (storyboarding!), and thinking creatively. The team behind the Somebody podcast will break down how they turned 80+ FOIAs into a riveting award-winning podcast.

  • Alison Flowers — Producer, Somebody podcast; Director of Investigations, Invisible Institute 
  • Bill Healy — Producer, Somebody podcast; freelance journalist
  • Shapearl Wells — Host, Somebody podcast; vice president of The Courtney Copeland Memorial Foundation 
  • Sam Stecklow — Reporter, Somebody podcast

Local stories with national implications

This session will cover stories that focus on Chicago while addressing larger issues facing the country. Speakers will discuss reporting methods that combine state and federal public records research.

Using FOIA to strengthen your data story

You got the database you’ve been after, but now you need to test it out and bring the stories in it to life. In this session, we’ll learn from editors about projects they’ve overseen that used FOIA to pull out the rich stories that lie within.

FOIA and immigration

Understanding how to use FOIA to uncover injustices in immigration.

  • Chelsea Verstegen — Borderless Magazine
  • Additional speakers to be announced

Engaging and equipping communities with public data

Journalists seek public records to better understand the issues stemmed from government policies and decision-making and some of those investigations have led to real change. But more newsrooms are learning it’s not about the data that results in this type of impact, but how the people they’re reporting about are utilizing with the information we find and bettering our reporting. Learn about how some journalists and community members define what it means to engage and equip communities with public data.

  • Speakers to be announced

Pandemic, schools and FOIA

All aspects of the education systems across the country have been hard-hit by the pandemic. COVID exacerbated new and existing issues, unions and school board tensions have been at an all-time high, educators uncertain of their career plans and parents and students have been left to make hard choices in trying to keep safe. Learn how these issues are being reported and how public records have contributed to impactful education journalism during these hard times.

  • Nader Issa, Education Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times
  • Sarah Karp, Education Reporter, WBEZ
  • Additional speakers to be announced

Covering inequality

Learn how to root out and report on inequality in its many forms using FOIA, documents and data from some of Chicago’s best investigative reporters. 

Case studies

These sessions will go over investigative stories from start to finish. Learn how investigative journalists work through their stories — how to get started, where to find sources, how to file and follow up on public records requests, and what happens after the byline.

Data demonstrations

Data demos walk you through the technical steps of working with data. We’ll use browser-based tools and provide sample data so you can follow along at home, at your own pace. Grab a warm beverage and get ready to hack.

Spreadsheet magic

You got your FOIA back. Now what? Learn the basics of data analysis using the multi-tool of data journalism: spreadsheets.

Fun with data viz

How visualizations can guide your reporting even if the public doesn’t see them, and how to decide the best options for visualizations that land in a story.

Learn SQL with Datasette

Excel’s crashing and Sheets is hanging. We’re gonna need a bigger database. Follow along while we learn how to load, sort, search and join data in SQLite in this introductory tutorial.

Your first Python notebook

Now’s your chance. Let’s learn some Python.

  • Instructor TBD

Consultations

10MIN LOEVY & LOEVY CLINICS

Have a specific FOIA legal question or problem? Ask an attorney from the Loevy & Loevy FOIA team, which specializes in public records cases.

  • Merrick Wayne — Attorney, Loevy & Loevy
  • Shelley Geizsler — Attorney, Loevy & Loevy

10MIN EDITOR CLINICS

Have a journalism question? Need some advice on your pitches or writing? Ask an experienced investigative editor.

  • David Kidwell — Special Projects Editor, Better Government Association
FOIA Fest returns for 10th annual conference