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Rosland Gammon

Rosland Gammon is a former business journalist turned college instructor. Her newsroom experience includes reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and reporting and editing at Bloomberg News. Gammon currently teaches communications at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Rosland Gammon


Tips on getting through SBA data to find defaulted loans in your area

Using Small Business Administration 7(a) loan data, Lynn Hulsey and Ken McCall of the Dayton Daily News found a pattern of defaults among some restaurant franchise owners, and few payments on some defaulted loans. They write:

“More than half of the 168,324 charged-off loans failed before 20 percent of the loan was repaid. More than one in three repaid only 10 percent or less of the loan. More than 7 percent did not reduce the principal on their loan at all.”


Operators of national franchises like Cold Stone Creamery received millions of dollars in loans.

Getting data is rarely easy and the SBA data was no exception, Ken says. The reporters received about five sets of data from their FOIA requests before they got the information they needed. He suggests reporters do “integrity checks” by counting different fields and records. He also says to check for missing years and coding values.

The next obstacle: the data came in an Excel format.

“Excel does weird things to data types because it can’t specify what data is what,” he says.

He came up with what seems to be an easy solution – though I wouldn’t have thought if it. He exported the information into the Access program, saved it as a .csv file and imported it into MySQL,which handles a larger pool of data, he says.

Finally, they learned SBA lenders submit loan information without a standardized system, which meant the team had to clean up more than 1 million records, Ken says.

The result was a localized searchable database showing companies that defaulted on their loans. The analysis also allowed them to see the effects the recession had on defaults and lending.

Stay tuned for more stories generated by the database, Ken says.



Inside Reuters’ Cancer Treatment Center of America coverage

cancer center

Cancer Treatment Center of America’s Eastern Regional Medical Center. Photo by CTCA.

Not many hospitals report cancer survival rate data, says Robin Respaut of Reuters. There are no reporting regulations for those who do. When she and reporter Sharon Begley looked at the numbers, data reported by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America stood out. They write:

“What sets CTCA apart is that rejecting certain patients and, even more, culling some of its patients from its survival data lets the company tout in ads and post on its website patient outcomes that look dramatically better than they would if the company treated all comers.”

Looking into the privately held company and its numbers took some digging, says Robin, who does investigative research at Reuters. Some of the sources she found can be useful for healthcare reporters, especially those in markets that have Cancer Treatment Center of America hospitals.

For this and most stories, Robin says she does Google searches followed by lawsuit searches on PACER, Nexis and Westlaw. She also calls local courts to request searches for the parties involved. 

For the Cancer Treatment Centers of America story, the searches led her to Congressional testimony in New Hampshire, where the health system sought to open a location. The company’s push to bypass the state’s certificate of need requirement generated a lot of a debate and paperwork. Through public records requests, Robin got testimony from hearings as well as additional information about it survival rates. For instance, one document included longer term studies than she had seen on the company’s website, she says.

Legal searches led to a lawsuit filed in Delaware by former president and CEO Robert Lane. That provided a huge amount of background about how the company was founded, she says. She warns that many suits use the hospitals’ names rather than “Cancer Treatment Centers of America.”  For example, the Philadelphia location operates as Eastern Regional Medical Center. 

Finally, Robin recommends the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Hospital Inspections site that offers federal health inspection reports.


Develop sources who’ll take your call when news breaks after hours

Sprint SoftBank

In October, Japanese-based SoftBank announce it was acquiring 70 percent of Sprint.

Kansas City Star business reporter Mark Davis was working the Sunday city desk shift as part of the paper’s rotation. But while listening to the scanner, he saw a Bloomberg report about a possible deal between Sprint and SoftBank, he says. He jumped on the story, which gave him a reprieve from the scanner.

My question for him: How do you find sources after 4 p.m. on a Sunday?

“It’s important to have cell numbers and a good repertoire with people who will answer your call,” he says.

That Sunday story evolved into a three-day series that won a Society of American Business Editors and Writers Best in Business Award for breaking news this year. Both Mark and reporter Scott Canon were named winners.

Mark, Scott and business editor Keith Chrostowski planned the stories right after the story broke, Mark says. “We needed that moment to focus,” he says. “We were at the point where we had done enough reporting to figure out what we knew.”

Mark, who covers multiple beats, says more daily coverage of Sprint would have helped them prepare for the story. “You have to be a business journalist in the broad sense to deal with what comes,” he says. “To be a better GA reporter, you have to have contacts, read a lot and talk a lot.”



CNET’s iPhone reporting and the impact of first-person writing

jay greene

Jay Greene reported on the life of an iPhone for CNET.

Too often when I read stories with first-person references, I can’t understand why the writers chose certain moments to make themselves part of the story. I honestly don’t care where the writer sat when the coffee arrived.

That’s the challenge Jay Greene of CNET considered when his editor suggested a first-person perspective for his stories looking at the life of an iPhone. Those stories, which explored work conditions at manufacturing factories in China and environmental concerns, won a Society of American Business Editors and Writers award this month.

It took some prodding from editor Jim Kerstetter to make Jay include himself as a part of the story, he says. He says his first draft wasn’t “first person-y” enough.

“I didn’t want to be too strong of a character because the characters in the story were really interesting,” Jay says.

In addition to a good editor, Jay says first-person stories require feeling comfortable with what you know. And that takes reporting, he says.

I also asked Jay about why he chose the iPhone as his focus. His response: “Big explanatory stories need a donkey, something to help you traverse the terrain,” he says. “If you’re going to look at the lifecycle of a device, it’s the obvious one to choose.”


NPR’s Zoe Chace on her search for characters to help tell business stories

Zoe Chace and the Planet Money team were brainstorming story ideas about JC Penney. The company had brought in Ron Johnson to turn things around as he had with Apple and Target. When fourth-quarter earnings time came, they decided the time was right. But, unlike most news outlets, they chose a different route.

JCPenney Sales Again

Photo: Charlotte Business News

“We didn’t want to do a story about the bad deals investors were getting, but about how the store felt to old customers,” Zoe said. “They’re building the store of the future, but we’re not in the future yet.”

To find the customers being left behind, Zoe turned to the company’s Facebook page. That’s how she found Carol Vickery in Tallahassee. Her emails to find budget shoppers led her to Helene Abiola, a fashion blogger. She found the mother-daughter shoppers by hanging out in JC Penney’s parking lot for 45 minutes.

“It’s really uninteresting to hear about how the company is reworking if you don’t have characters” to represent the issue, Zoe says. “Always think about who loves this thing and can they be the experts.”

After her first conversation with Vickery, she knew she’d be a great source. “She was so perfect that it freaked me out,” she says.

Even so, Zoe needed to confirm some of the information, she says. To verify that the store had more shoppers before the change, Zoe called. When the official channels didn’t work, she called a department directly and asked questions about the Saturday sales. The sales clerk confirmed the crowds had dropped. “I had to make sure what Carol said was adding up,” Zoe says.


NPR transcript:  Sales Are Like Drugs: What happens when a store wants customers to quit?

More Zoe Chace stories


Loss of flights takes its toll on airport businesses

Airport shoe shine St. Louis

Theodore Wilson, right, has shined shoes at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport for 33 years. Photo: Post-Dispatch

Ken Leiser of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently found a new economic indicator: the airport shoeshine stand.

He writes:

“As with other airport businesses, the loss of flights has taken a toll on the shoeshine market. In 2001, Lambert officials were guaranteed $105,000 in revenue from the shoeshine operations. When the contract was renewed last week, the minimum annual guarantee had dropped to $45,000.”

Ken says he and his colleagues have written about the airport’s struggles for more than a decade as flights decreased. It lost its major connecting hub status when American Airlines bought TWA, and it endured the post-Sept. 11 airline struggles and an economic recession.  “This story was just one piece of that,” he says.

Fewer passengers and more casually dressed travelers meant fewer possible shoeshine customers, he says. That reality plus information from the St. Louis Airport Authority’s minimum-annual contractual guarantees led him to the story. He says the contractual guarantees to the airport are public records.

“Spend some time talking to shoeshine workers, sky caps and taxicab drivers at your local airport,” Ken says. “They have some great stories.”


Bloomberg reporter tells compelling story of U.S. income disparity

There’s been a lot of talk about pay disparities, but Leslie Patton of Bloomberg does a great job of illustrating the issue by comparing the lives of McDonald’s CEO with a minimum wage earner.

“I wanted to use a company everyone knew and understood what it was,” Leslie says.

Chicago minimum wage workers

Employees at McDonald's Corp. restaurants in Chicago ,and an employee at a Chicago Protein Bar restaurant talk about difficulty making ends meet. Source: Bloomberg News video

The story is part of Bloomberg’s series about the uneven economic recovery. It is filled with data from the Bloomberg terminals as well as the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Leslie searched their websites then called the agencies for more specific information, she says.

“It can be difficult to get the level of detail you want,” Leslie says. “There’s some good stuff out there if you’re willing to dig.”

Leslie wove that data into the story of Tyree Johnson. He works part time at two McDonald’s restaurants in Chicago so he can afford his $320-a-month rent at a hotel. She takes readers along his route from one job to the next. She juxtaposes his life with that of the company’s CEO. For example, in her kicker she writes that current CEO Don Thompson “spent about $3.3 million in September to buy two condos near the top” of the Trump International Hotel and Tower.

Finding Mr. Johnson wasn’t easy. Most workers didn’t want to share details as freely as he did, she says. She met him at a union rally of workers pushing for an increase in the minimum wage. The fact that he and Thompson grew up in the same neighborhood of Chicago was a coincidence, she says.

Leslie’s advice to reporters wanting to focus on local companies: Make sure the company knows you’re working on the story.


Reuters reporter tracks foreclosures to find the ‘zombie title’

zombie title

Reuters' special report focuses on a hidden area in the foreclosure process: "zombie titles."

Just when I thought I’d seen every angle of the foreclosure crisis, I read Michelle Conlin’s Reuters story on “the zombie title.”

She shares the story of a family who moved out of their home after receiving a notice of foreclosure. But the bank canceled the foreclosure, leaving the family legally liable for the home.

Michelle says the story started when she read about a homebuyer who didn’t actually own the house. That piqued her interest in property titles and her push for the story.

Michelle Conlin

“Go with what completely fascinates you, even if it’s only one anecdote, to see if it leads elsewhere and hunt it down,” she says.

Michelle’s story is filled with people “haunted” by the homes they thought they no longer owned. She found several people, including Mr. Keller, through legal aid lawyers, she says.  Others she found through comments posted online.

To balance the personal stories, Michelle needed data, she says. She found an increasing number of “zombie title” related cases filed around the country. She writes cases in South Bend, Ind., and Memphis, Tenn., have doubled.


Insider lending at your local banks? Use these tools to find out

fdic headquarters

FDIC headquarters in Washington D.C. (Photo credit: FDIC)

The story doesn’t have to end when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. takes over a bank. For Sanjay Bhatt, the takeover and subsequent lawsuits created a treasure trove of information that developed into a two-day series for The Seattle Times.

Sanjay’s focus was on Westsound Bank, a community bank taken over by the FDIC in 2009. In 2011, lawsuits were filed. Last year, the agency banned a loan officer from working for a federally insured bank, which made Sanjay wonder what else was going on. The answer: insider transactions. Through a lot of digging and open-records requests, he found details he used to clearly tell readers what happened.

Sanjay shared some tips for looking into insider lending on your beat:

1. Use the Uniform Bank Performance Report (UBPR) to compare insider lending at local banks to their peer groups. Sanjay’s instructions:

“After you pull up the UBPR for a specific quarter, select the link ‘Allowance & Loan Mix-b,’ which is Page 7A of the report. Look at the line item called ‘Officer, Shareholder Loans.’ This is where you can see how your bank’s insider lending compares to its peer group and how that relationship has changed over time. For the absolute dollar amount of insider loans, click on the link ‘Balance Sheet $,’ which is Page 4 of the report. Add three zeroes to the amount shown and you now know the total amount in insider loans.”

Sanjay Bhatt (Photo credit: Genevieve Alvarez / The Seattle Times)

2.  Determine how local banks approve insider loans. If loans go through a committee and those members have interlocking conflicts of interest, it raises questions about how objective the board members can be in making decisions on insider loans,” Sanjay says.

3.  Use the annual “Y-6” report from the Federal Reserve for banks executives’ disclosures of business interests. Bank holding companies have to disclose businesses in which their executives and board members have a governing capacity as well as their percentage stake, Sanjay says. “You can compare that disclosure to individual disclosures on state applications for, say, a professional license or business license,” he says. “If you see a pattern of large loans being made repeatedly to one or several businesses connected to an insider, that deserves more scrutiny.”

Sanjay points out that insider loans aren’t illegal nor do they lead to bank closures. However, they can indicate an institution’s culture.. “It’s an insidious thing that can slowly weaken the internal controls at a bank to make it vulnerable to fraud or risky loans,” he says.