TERENCE SMITH: As campaigns get down to the final wire...
SPOKESMAN: Democratic voters, may I help you?
TERENCE SMITH: ...And the candidates make their last appeals to voters...
ELIZABETH DOLE: Well, I need your help to get there now.
TERENCE SMITH: Newspapers across the country are increasingly using computers to get the story, and sometimes the story behind the story. It's called computer-assisted reporting, and it's changing the way that news organizations -- especially medium and smaller size newspapers -- are covering government and campaign 2002.
MARGARET SULLIVAN, Editor, The Buffalo News: It leads you to different kinds of stories. Politics can be reduced to a horse race, or it can be about the systems that underlie politics; lifting up a rock and showing us what's really underneath it.
TERENCE SMITH: Margaret Sullivan is editor of The Buffalo News in upstate New York. She says computer-assisted reporting enables her staff to verify their hunches.
MARGARET SULLIVAN: They might have had to in the past rely on anecdotal evidence, or, "well, we think this is true," but it allows them to nail it down, and to document it and to say without any doubt that something is the case.
TERENCE SMITH: One example this year involved judicial elections; not often the stuff of front page news, despite the power and influence of judges.
ROBERT MCCARTHY: These are the people who decide everything from, as our story said, noise ordinance violations to capital murder cases.
TERENCE SMITH: Using state campaign finance reports, reporters Robert McCarthy and Michael Beebe found that local party officials were asking judicial candidates to raise party funds to ensure an endorsement.
MICHAEL BEEBE: We got a database of every lawyer in New York State, and we merged that with the database that we had of our contributions. And that way we were able to come up with lawyers who were contributing to judges. And these are lawyers who appear before these judges. It's sort of a tawdry thing where you've got a lawyer that is directly giving money to a judicial campaign, and then appearing before the same judge.
TERENCE SMITH: Until they broke the story, reporters say, readers had been unaware of the fund- raising process. There is now a new county Democratic Party chairman...
SPOKESMAN: A resurgence is under way.
TERENCE SMITH: ...And a number of judicial candidates have pledged to do business differently. In spite of having a smaller staff and budget than a large metro daily, for The Buffalo News, computerized data made the difference.
ROBERT MCCARTHY: In the old days-- and I remember having to do this-- you get in the car and drive 280 miles down to Albany, and then I'd spend a whole day in the board of elections, copying records, and then you'd have to come back and put them all together. You could never justify the time and expense.
TERENCE SMITH: In Raleigh, North Carolina, The News and Observer has compiled more than 3,000 databases, which it continually updates looking for news.
DAVID RAYNOR, Database Manager, The News and Observer: There's a lot out there, and we try to get our hands on as much as we can.
TERENCE SMITH: David Raynor is the newspaper's database manager.
DAVID RAYNOR: We collect crime incident reports from local police agencies, education data. We get state salaries from state government. We've gotten databases from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, overloaded truck data.
TERENCE SMITH: Raynor says just conducting searches with the new data helps reporters find stories, and the state and local governments, he says, are becoming more accustomed to newspapers demanding access.
DAVID RAYNOR: A lot of things were, for many years, under the radar. We didn't... we didn't know about them, and if we did, it was very difficult to get at them. And I think everything is more out in the open now.
TERENCE SMITH: For the paper's political writer, Rob Christensen, computers are essential to his coverage.
ROB CHRISTENSEN, Political Reporter, The News and Observer: The two main functions of campaigns these days seems to be raising money and getting on TV, and raising more money and getting on TV.
ELIZABETH DOLE: I was raised to face a problem and fix it.
COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: Erskine Bowles for U.S. Senate.
ROB CHRISTENSEN: We have to track the money. How did they raise the money? Who is bankrolling their campaign, and who is paying for all those ads that show up in people's living rooms?
TERENCE SMITH: The paper's research confirmed what most North Carolinians suspected about their hotly contested Senate race. Much of the money for Republican Elizabeth Dole and Democrat Erskine Bowles has come from out of state.
ROB CHRISTENSEN: We found out, for example, that Erskine Bowles was raising hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars from Wall Street, which is an important issue in this campaign because there's so much controversy about Wall Street and all the corporate scandals.
Things we found out about Elizabeth Dole, we found out that she was getting lots of Texas oil money, for example; that she was getting lots of money from a lot of the old friends of her husband, Bob Dole.
TERENCE SMITH: Beyond the numbers, new computerized graphics are making it easier for readers to digest complicated information.
TERENCE SMITH: The Wisconsin State Journal in Madison has been breaking down census data for its readers.
One of the paper's early findings: Predominantly Republican state legislative districts were gaining population faster than those that lean Democratic, a key element for this election's redistricting.
ANDY HALL, Investigative Reporter, Wisconsin State Journal: There were more options for redrawing the boundaries to continue to favor Republicans.
TERENCE SMITH: Investigative reporter Andy Hall says computer-assisted reporting has become part of the daily rhythm of newsgathering at the Journal.
Using telephone records, for example, the paper was able to document that four state agencies were being used as illegal campaign machines by both Republican and Democratic elected officials.
ANDY HALL: We were able to feed that data, then, into a computer to help us sort out the phone numbers, figure out which phone numbers were being called when, and how often they were being called. We could match that up with a list of phone numbers that belonged to political operatives and political consultants, and that helped... helped us figure out what the pattern was.
TERENCE SMITH: Investigations followed, and within the past few weeks, the state Senate majority leader, the assembly speaker and others have been charged with felony misconduct.
It's one of the biggest political scandals in Wisconsin's history.
ANDY HALL: The availability of computerized information undoubtedly levels the playing field more than any other single factor that I am familiar with. It gives you, as a journalist, the power to go out and investigate, which is what we really ought to be doing.
TERENCE SMITH: In effect, computers have enabled Hall's paper and others like it not only to see beneath the political radar, but to build a radar system of their own.