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TRAC is a trove of FOIA data and story nuggets for business writers

If you haven’t explored TRAC, you’re in for a treat.

FOIA images headlinesThe Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse is a two-decades-and-going-strong project of former New York Times investigative reporter David Burnham and statistician and FOIA expert Susan Long.  Funded by foundation grants, user fees and other support, TRAC is affiliated with the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University and has offices in Syracue and Washington D.C. You can read much more about the research center’s history and mission here.

The bottom line is that TRAC does the FOIA-ing and other data collection so you don’t have to, and the site offers an almost unimaginable array of data from government agencies.  Some of it is subscription-only, with annual fees ranging from $750 to $2,500 depending on the size and scope of your news organization.  Some data is offered for a couple of dollars a shot on a pay as you go basis, and a lot is free of charge. TRAC also has created The FOIA Project, a site dedicated to improving the process of asking for information from government sources.

“There is so much data out there, it’s maddening,” said Burnham, who guided me through a brief tutorial of the site, which he calls his “baby.” And “we ask for everything,” he said.

Today, for example, a new report will be available on the free part of the site, detailing a hike in the backlog of Social Security disability claims – contrary to pledges made by the Social Security Administration to reduce the number of pending cases.  A quick review of the embargoed report shows that data is available in detailed form by state, including a change in cases from March 2010 to March 2011.

While Social Security disability is a social issue, (no pun intended), like most human transactions and activities it has spawned a for-profit industry in terms of disability lawyers, consultants, medical and rehabilitation specialists, etc. – and if you are telling that sort of story, or taking a look at health care services in your area, or myriad other financial angles, this data could provide valuable context.  Just moseying around the site may suggest angles and ideas you hadn’t thought of, based on data you hadn’t known existed.

TRAC is big on Internal Revenue Service data too – Burnham walked me through a look at a report which showed a much-vaunted IRS review of the “super-rich” actually reviewed only a couple of dozen returns in more than a year.  If you’re a personal finance writer, there is searchable income data by county, and if you write about corporate finance you’ll find plenty of fodder as well.  An entire section on immigration could help bolster, for example, any stories you do about demographics, economic development and so forth.

Burnham is especially proud of this TRAC at Work page, which lists the headlines and links of stories that have used TRAC data.  He points to the April New York Times report “In financial crisis, a dearth of prosecutions raises alarms,” as one whose backbone, as he put it, was Justice Department data collected by TRAC’ and offered via its subscription service.

There’s  virtually a story a day that has relied on TRAC, from prestigious household-name news organizations all the way to small local papers, and from countries as far-flung as Brazil and China.  Check out TRAC and sooner or later your byline is bound to end up on the TRAC at Work page, too.

About the Author

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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