2019 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Investigating the NRA

About the Project

As a nonprofit news organization dedicated to covering gun violence in America, we often report on the National Rifle Association, an organization strenuously committed to keeping its internal affairs secret.

This year, Trace reporter Mike Spies has pierced that secrecy. While his revelatory investigations, two of which were published in partnership with The New Yorker, have relied on winning the trust of insiders, they would not have been possible without his masterful pursuit of the digital clues left by the NRA and its vendors. Supplemented by computer-assisted reporting and visualizations from Trace data and graphics editor Daniel Nass, Spies has produced investigations serving the public’s interest in the integrity of our elections and tax-exempt organizations. The reporting has generated significant direct action by law enforcement, campaign watch dogs, and federal lawmakers.

By digging up corporate filings, domain registrations, and other digital evidence, Spies was able to uncover improper campaign coordination between the NRA and the Trump campaign. Because the Federal Communications Commission’s website is not scrapable, Spies had to manually analyze 1,000 pages of records. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where illegal coordination seems more obvious,” a former Federal Elections Commission chair told Spies. To bolster reader trust, Nass incorporated excerpts from the primary sources into our graphics.

All this was happening against the backdrop of the 2018 midterms — a story too sprawling for our small newsroom to cover from the ground. Nass solved that by writing a code that funneled information from the NRA’s FEC filings into an automated tracker and accompanying Twitter feed, @NRAMoneyBot. The tool enabled us to report a significant development that would not have been apparent from following individual races: The NRA’s spending on the 2018 election was way down.

The final two stories submitted for your consideration concern the money the NRA spends to enrich its officers and favored vendors. Spies brought sunlight to the extensive self-dealing that the NRA had worked to keep hidden, spurring the attorney general of New York (where the NRA is chartered) to probe the group’s nonprofit status. Spies’s first investigative feature, produced in partnership with The New Yorker, was published on a tight deadline. A subsequent story, which The New Yorker again co-published, showed that the NRA’s own accountants had grave concerns about the nonprofit’s contracting practices. To make the findings widely accessible, Nass produced a companion post illustrating the business arrangements, lavish perks, and clear conflicts of interest that have benefitted NRA executives and their friends.