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From athletics to art — fresh business-story ideas from the IRE Conference

Logo for IRE Conference 2011 in OrlandoORLANDO — From college athletics to art museums to foreclosure and economic incentives, the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) Conference provides a story-idea palooza. Here are some that you can try at home, complete with tip sheets from other reporters in some cases:

  • The subprime-loan crisis has disproportionately affected minorities. The Orlando Sentinel used Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data available from IRE to find that Hispanics had 43 percent of the worst loans made by lenders in Central Florida.
  • Foreclosures are more likely than short sales in lower-income areas. This time, the Sentinel used real estate records from RealtyTrac and compared the data on foreclosures and short sales against Census income by ZIP code. | Tip sheet (PDF): 10 mortgage-default and foreclosure stories to do at home by Kimberly Miller of the Palm Beach Post and Mary Shanklin of the Orlando Sentinel.
  • Have economic incentives provided by governments resulted in the jobs promised? Goodjobsfirst.org is an advocacy organization, but it has a number of resources on its site, including a Subsidy Tracker. Other experts include reporter Jim Heaney of The Buffalo News and Professor Heywood T. Sanders at the University of Texas at San Antonio. | Tip sheet (PDF): Reporting on economic development subsidies by Jim Heaney of The Buffalo News.
  • Homeowners are losing their homes because of small debts, such as unpaid water bills. More than two dozen states sell unpaid property-tax bills and other municipal debts to investors. These investors are allowed to charge interest on the debt of up to 18 percent, plus fees. Reporter Fred Schulte at The Center for Public Integrity knows more, as does the National Tax Lien Association. | Tip sheet (PDF): Looking into tax liens by Fred Schulte of the Center for Public Integrity.
  • Find looted art at your local museum. In the 1980s and 1990s, as many as 90 percent of the antiquities for sale to museums had been recently looted, Los Angeles Times reporters Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino found in writing their new book on the illegal trade in ancient art called Chasing Aphrodite. A handful of dealers were often involved in these transactions. “Search your museum’s website, or ask the [museum] registrar’s office, for a list of pieces sold or donated by such people as Robert Hecht, Fritz Burki, Robin Symes, Chrisoph Leon and Freida Tchakos Nussberger,” they advise in a tip sheet. | Tip sheet (PDF): Digging culture -- the fine art of investigating the business of museums by James V. Grimaldi of the Washington Post. Tip sheet (PDF): Finding loot at your local museum by Felch and Frammolino.
  • Check on shaky local banks. Jake Bernstein, who won a 2011 Pulitzer at ProPublica with Jesse Eisinger for exploring the origins of the financial crisis, says look into local banks. He recalled a story he did on a Las Vegas bank that failed after extensive use of interest reserves on construction loans. Here, from his story, is how those work:

“When a bank makes an interest-reserve loan to a developer, it hands the builder both the principal and the interest on the loan….Eventually, if everything goes right, the builder will finish the project, sell or lease the property, and pay back the money. But as the past few years have made clear, things don’t always work out so smoothly in real estate.”

For more on banks’ finances, check out the FDIC website and the Investigative Reporting Workshop’s BankTracker.

  • Look into the big business that is college athletics. At public schools, file a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of the financial report that the athletic department makes annually to the NCAA. Data from that report underlies this USA Today database of revenues and expenses for big public colleges, advises Jodi Upton of USA Today. Also request contracts for communications, licensing and coaches. Reporter Jill Riepenhoff of The Columbus Dispatch suggests getting the school’s compliance department audit, the athletic department employees’ salaries and the lists of those who get free cars and free tickets to games. At private schools, request a copy of the schools’ last three Form 990s, submitted to the IRS. Often, a coach will be listed on the form as the highest-paid person on a school’s payroll.| Tip sheet: Investigating the finances of college athletics by Jill Riepenhoff of The Columbus Dispatch.
  • Examine default and graduation rates at for-profit colleges. According to a Bloomberg series called, “Education Inc.,” for-profit colleges “have mushroomed into a $30-billion-a-year industry at taxpayer expense by targeting vulnerable populations — disabled military and veterans, the homeless, immigrants and minorities — with misleading promises of low costs, online academic help, and lucrative jobs after graduation.” A starting point is your state attorney general’s office.

In Basics, Story ideas.

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