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Check out IRE’s best data-driven business stories of 2010

Mark Horvit IRE CAR

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, introduces the best computer-assisted reporting in 2010.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Need inspiration?

Check out some of the data-driven business stories that were among the best in computer-assisted reporting in 2010. The presentation today by Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, and its training director, Doug Haddix, was part of IRE’s Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference.

They emphasized that the public records underlying these stories are often available in other states, making it possible to localize these stories.

Here are some of the stories they highlighted, or take a look at the entire presentation in this PDF:

  • Government pension plans in trouble. McClatchy Newspapers used pension-plan valuation reports to find that the shortfall in California pension plans totals $4,000 per household. Among the factors behind the problem are rules that often base workers’ pensions on the last few years of earnings. Often, those receiving the biggest pension payments are police officers, firefighters and sometimes road workers, Horvit said, because of substantial overtime they racked up in their last years of employment.
  • Food deserts for poor families. Chicago public radio station WBEZ requested USDA data on vendors approved to accept food stamps. It documented that parts of Chicago lack grocery stories. The poor families who rely on food stamps were forced to shop at liquor stores, gas stations and dollar stores, which offer limited fresh produce and meats.
  • Immigrant labor filling new jobs. Using the U.S. Census Bureau’s Public Use Microdata Sample, the Orange County Register found that immigrants have filled most of California’s new jobs since 1970. It also found that “the odds of an illegal immigrant being detained at work were 1 in 1,300.”
  • Sales of guns used in crimes. Using the Virginia State Police’s Criminal Firearms Clearinghouse, The Washington Post was able to find which retailers sold the most weapons recovered after crimes.
  • Turning foreclosure conventional wisdom on its head. Using a random sample of 1,200 foreclosures in three cities, The Seattle Times and ProPublica.org found that the conventional wisdom about foreclosures is often wrong. The analysis found that half of the foreclosures affected people over 40; three in four loans were not “predatory”; and more than half of the foreclosures ended with people being able to keep their homes.
    Stadium food restaurant inspections ESPN investigation

    An investigation by ESPN into health and safety violations in restaurant inspections for stadium vendors was one of IRE's top data-driven business stories in 2010.

  • Manipulation of the market by insurers. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune pulled the financials on more than 100 insurance companies operating in Florida and found that insurers and reinsurers had manipulated the market to overcharge homeowners and maximize profits.

NICAR seeks entries for Meyer award for best work using social science

The National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) is seeking entries for the Philip Meyer Journalism Award, which recognizes the best journalism that uses social science research methods, such as probabilities and survey research.
 “Among past winners are investigations that examined levels of air pollution at schools across the country; exposed bureaucratic lapses that have hindered the search for causes of Sudden Infant Death; uncovered evidence of cheating on standardized tests in Texas public and charter schools; and much more outstanding work,” according to an e-mail from Beth Kopine, resource center director and contest coordinator for Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). 


Three awards are given: $500 for first, $300 for second, and $200 for third. Deadline to apply: Nov. 1. Work must have been published or aired in the year ending Sept. 30. 

Philip Meyer

The award was introduced in 2005 by NICAR, a joint program of IRE and the Missouri School of Journalism; the Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University; and IRE to honor Meyer. 

Meyer is professor emeritus of journalism at the University of North Carolina and the author of “Precision Journalism,” the 1972 book (and later editions) that introduced many journalists to the use of  social science methods.   

More information, including the entry form, can be found here


Need help investigating stimulus or lenders? Check these training videos

From Center for Public Integrity story on top 25 subprime lendersWe’ve posted two training videos that may be helpful if you’re investigating the stimulus or tracking mortgage lenders. They are graciously provided to us by Investigative Reporters and Editors from sessions at its Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) Conference in Phoenix in March.

In the video on the federal economic stimulus, reporters Tom Grabell of ProPublica.org and Ben Poston of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tell you how to track stimulus dollars into your community and offer examples of stimulus stories that have been done and could be replicated in other areas.  | VIDEO and presentation: Michael Grabell and Ben Poston on Covering the Sluggish Recovery. [Presentation starts on Slide 4.]

In the video on mortgage lenders, David Donald, data editor for the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, talks about how to use federal mortgage data to track subprime lenders| VIDEO and presentation: David Donald on Probing Banks and Mortgage Lenders. [Donald's presentation begins at Slide 11. Before that, Maurice Tamman of The Wall Street Journal presents on the same subject, starting about 54 seconds in.]

One cool thing about both these videos is that they incorporate the presenters’ PowerPoint. In fact, the PowerPoint can be used to navigate the video. Pick a slide at any point in the presentation, and the video will jump to that point.

If you’d like more stimulus training, please check out the Reynolds Center’s free, daylong workshop in Washington on Oct. 27: “What’s Next for the Economy in Your Town.” Jennifer LaFleur, CAR director for ProPublica.org, and Matt Apuzzo, investigative reporter for The Associated Press, will teach you how to access stimulus data and what five stimulus stories you should be doing now. Reporter Russ Choma of American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop will do the same thing for the green stimulus.

In addition, Gus Faucher, director of macroeconomics for Moody’s Economy.com, will provide an overview of where the national economy is headed and how to track what’s happening locally. Ezra Klein of The Washington Post’s Wonkbook will offer the view from Washington on the economy.

SIGN UP for this free training: What’s Next for the Economy in Your Town: Washington, Oct. 27.


Gannett N.J. papers delve into state’s high tax bills

Gannett series logo on high New Jersey property taxesGannett New Jersey, comprised of the the Asbury Park Press and five other papers, was recognized during last week’s IRE conference in Las Vegas for its investigative series about New Jersey’s high property taxes. It was also a finalist in the public service category of the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes. Writers Paul D’Ambrosio and Jean Mikle started the series writing: 

“It is an archaic tax that preserves New Jersey’s fragmented system of government — 566 municipalities, 605 school districts, and more than 400 other local taxing authorities — the most per square mile of any state. It is a tax driven by runaway local government and school spending, political paralysis at all levels by both parties, and patchwork budget remedies. And it is a tax that ultimately hurts you.” 

The entire series maintained a “let’s do something about this” tone and pushed readers to action. The stories explained clearly why readers should care: lost residents and employers, high salaries for public servants and “why the gubernatorial candidates are talking about everything except fixing your tax system.”    

Today’s Tip: When you add not-so-well-known data to everyday realities, you can shed light on new topics.      

As a former East Coaster, I know New Jersey taxes are high – as do the papers’ readers.  Gannett delved into the topic by posting comparisons – property taxes represent about 43 percent of New Jersey’s taxes versus a national average of 29 percent; New Jersey’s local government employs five times more workers than the state government – to help readers understand where the money goes.    

Gannett reviewed economic, tax and census data, and interviewed residents, economists, demographers and government officials for the eight-day report.    

David Donald, data editor for the Center for Public Integrity, offered IRE conference attendees a list of at least 25 databases where you can find much of the data the papers used.    

Other IRE speakers recommended “unsung documents,” suggesting that reporters “ask for everything you can get, even if you don’t think you can get it.” 

Check out more IRE Conference coverage of interest to business journalists; topics range from covering health-care reform to watchdogging economic-stimulus programs.


IRE 2010: Best of the Year, reports from the convention

IRE’s 2010 convention in Las Vegas is over, but the lessons learned live on.

IRE 2010 logo

Take a look at our IRE 2010 blog.  Reynolds Center Executive Director Linda Austin reported on many sessions that offered good tips for business journalists.

And be sure to take time to check out this absolutely awesome 44-page IRE document showcasing the best investigative journalism during 2010:

  • IRE Year in Investigation (PDF)
  • 3

    How to cover health-care reform locally

    Photo by Flickr.com user Doug McIntosh

    LAS VEGAS — John Fairhall, senior editor for Kaiser Health News, offered these tips at IRE on how to cover health-care reform in your community:

    • Stay on top of proposed health-insurance rate increases. Insurers’ filings with state regulators are public record. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners can point you to the office in your state. Seek comment from consumers, employers, consumer groups and politicians. Before the filings, identify the insurers with the biggest market share and have a chart of increases for the past five years ready to run.
    • Talk to business groups and employers about how they’re preparing for the new law. Look for changes in the type of policies being offered, shifts in the share of premiums paid by workers and any increased emphasis on prevention. Insurance brokers and benefits companies such as Mercer and Hewitt can assist.
    • Insurers and hospitals are at war over prices, with each getting bigger to get more bargaining clout. “Mergers are more about money than patient care,” his tip sheet says. Sources include IRS Form 990s for nonprofits on GuideStar.org and bond prospectuses filed when hospitals borrow to finance construction, available on the EMMA database of municipal bonds.
    • Check every bill introduced in your state legislature that changes the role of hospital, doctors, insurers or others in the health-care system, such as nurse practitioners. “Lobbyists are often the best source of information about competitors’ bills,” he says. “Are campaign contributions greasing the skids?”

    And here are helpful websites he identified:


    Finding fresh angles on the financial collapse

    Chris Adams (left) of McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau spoke on an IRE panel with David Heath of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund about investigating the financial collapse.

    LAS VEGAS — McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau went looking for “fresh meat on old stories” and local angles on national stories about the financial collapse, one of its reporters, Chris Adams, told IRE. He acknowledged that the bureau “did come into this thing late.” Plus, the bureau, which serves 30 dailies, has a different audience than The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, which were leading on the story.

    Its effort resulted in Adams, Greg Gordon, Kevin G. Hall being named 2010 finalists in national reporting for  “their examination of the nation’s financial collapse and notably on the involvement of Goldman Sachs.” It marked Adams’ third time as a finalist.

    Among the angles that the bureau came up with were how:

    And here are the sources that the bureau tapped to do those stories:

    • Obscure SEC filings, such as the 40-App
    • Collaterized debt obligation prospectuses from the Irish Stock Exchange
    • Pension fund reports using the Freedom of Information Act and Data Practices Act
    • Work calendar for former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson
    • Financial disclosures for Goldman Sachs alumni who took jobs in Washington
    • Quarterly call reports for banks from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency
    • Internal files, e-mails and memos from the Federal Trade Commission on its cases against mortgage-service companies
    • Lawsuits and bankruptcy court records.

    Here is Adams’ full presentation.


    How to find victims of mortgage fraud

    David Heath, senior reporter, Huffington Post Investigative Fund

    David Heath

    LAS VEGAS — When he was at The Seattle Times, David Heath produced a compelling story and video about a 90-year-old widow who lost the million-dollar home that she and her husband had built in 1953 because of unscrupulous lending practices.

    Now at the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, Heath told IRE attendees how he found her and others adversely affected by Washington Mutual. The Seattle institution collapsed in 2008 in the largest bank failure in U.S. history.

    To learn the basics about what led to WaMu’s failure, he started looking for victims by:

    • Looking up cases on the federal courts website, Pacer
    • Running a list of consumer-oriented attorneys’ names through the state court system. That led him to a suit one had filed on behalf of the widow.
    • Requesting consumer complaints against WaMu from the state attorney general’s office and the federal Office of Thrift Supervision.

    “I talked to a lot of people and heard the same story over and over again — a story of being ripped off,” said Heath, who has been a Pulitzer finalist three times.

    He then started talking to bank employees, starting at the lowest level and working his way up. He found some current and former employees by using the social-networking site, LinkedIn.

    “A lot of employees were very angry with WaMu” and eager to talk, he said. “One thing I got quickly from employees were the rate sheets on loans. It explained a lot.” Because profit margins were dwindling on traditional mortgages as interest rates rose in 2003, the bank paid brokers enormous fees to make more profitable exotic loans, he said.

    To make sure the anecdotes illustrated a systemic problem, he got the “free-writing prospectus” on a mortgage-backed security that listed addresses of the 10,000 WaMu-mortgaged properties that were rolled into it. He took that list to a firm called RealtyTrac, which collects foreclosure data, and asked it to run the addresses against foreclosure records. At least 44 percent of the loans had gone into foreclosure. That tells you there was “something very wrong about way the loans were being made,” he said.


    5 stimulus programs to watchdog locally now

    The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided $400,000 for solar-panel installation in Ohio's Wayne National Forest, which supplied this photo to Flickr.com.

    LAS VEGAS — AP investigative reporter Matt Apuzzo offers five economic-stimulus programs to look into and three questions to ask about each. Here are the five:   

    • Health information technology. The stimulus contains money for medical electronic records: $2 billion for regional extension centers, $27 billion for hundreds of thousands of doctors’ offices and 5,000 hospitals, and $1 billion for comparative-effectiveness research on various treatments, according to Fred Schulte of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, who spoke earlier.  In addition, on May 4, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded $220 million to 15 “beacon communities” to be models of electronic-medical-records adoption. They are Tulsa, Okla.; Stoneville, Miss.; Brewer, Maine; Danville, Pa.; Salt Lake City; Indianapolis; Spokane, Wash.; New Orleans; Rochester, Minn.; Providence, R.I.; Grand Junction, Colo.; Concord, N.C.; San Diego; Hilo, Hawaii; and Buffalo, N.Y. “Will they live up to the hype?” Apuzzo asked. For more info, see the government’s websites at HealthIT.hhs.gov and www.hhs.gov/recovery,which has state-by-state data.
    • Education. Hundreds of millions in competitive and discretionary grants are being made to local school districts. The awards’ criteria are at www.ed.gov/recovery. Apuzzo said to measure your schools performance by the government’s own standards in awarding the grant. “Has your school really shown a history of increasing dropout rates or improving performance, or are they just fudging the numbers?” he asked. Many grants are supposed to demonstrate best practices for the future. “Are they showing cutting-edge stuff? Or is it just plugging the gaps?” he asked.
    • Small-business loans. Unlike the other programs, no specific data is available on these loans on recovery.gov. You can get individual-loan data from the Small Business Administration headquarters or your regional SBA office. However, the SBA is required to report to Congress on the misuse of recovery loans, which Apuzzo describes as “an often unfulfilled obligation.”
    • Transportation. The Department of Transportation is making $1.5 billion in discretionary grants. Specific award winners and losers are available at www.dot.gov/recovery. Again, hold the projects to the government’s own standards in judging their effectiveness.  
    • Weatherization. He said a shortage of contractors to do this work exists, and the selection process for contractors is susceptible to political influence. He pointed to the Indianapolis Star’s coverage.

    And here are the three questions to ask about these programs:   

    • Is what’s getting the money a priority?
    • Who is doing the work?
    • Is it making a difference?

    Jennifer LaFleur of ProPublica.org offered these useful websites:   

    She also offered some websites to consult in checking for bad apples among contractors receiving stimulus funds:   

    You can also go to the job site and check whether any work is happening, how many people are working and who the subcontractors are.