We tend to think of investigative journalism as the territory of paid professionals, but that’s absurd — citizens are empowered to muckrake just as well as staff writers at newspapers. Here are some resources to help get you started.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a great Freedom of Information Act letter generator to expedite the process for filing information requests of federal agencies. There’s also information on that page about filing Public Records Act requests in California — more on that at Citizen’s Media Law page on PRA. Court records can also be fruitful, but they tend to come at a higher per-page price.
You can request documents as PDF files sent to you digitally, but some agencies might still want to charge you a per-page fee; in Alameda County that’s 10 cents, which can add up. Ask for a fee reduction. They don’t have to give it to you, but they might, and it would help. Splitting requests among a group of citizen reporters can help. Then we recommend paying it forward: put your spoils online and crowdsource your raking.