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Looking for great databases for business stories?

October 11, 2010

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IRE Training Director Jaimi Dowdell explains how to create pivot tables in Excel at a Reynolds Center workshop offering computer-assisted reporting training for business journalists in Atlanta on Oct. 11, 2010.

Looking for great websites for data-driven business stories? Jaimi Dowdell, training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), offered up a bounty of sites for business journalists to find local business stories at a Reynolds Center workshop in Atlanta on Oct. 11.

“Any time a private business interacts with the government, those are the places to find information,” Dowdell told the 24 journalists at the “Be a Better Business Watchdog – CAR for Business Journalists” workshop at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Public records can be used to uncover basic information; test government officials, procedures regulations and promises; and uncover stories no one else is doing, Dowdell said.

She also offered this caution: “Anything you find online. You need to vet it. It’s just like interviewing a person.”

Here are some other tips for getting data from a government agency:

  • Request its data-retention schedule to find out what records it keeps. “It’s like walking into a restaurant and getting a menu,” she said, “but the restaurant offers public records.”
  • FOIA its FOIAs. File a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking for the FOIA requests that others have filed.
  • Ask for inspector general reports from federal agencies, reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office and reports from state auditors. In a report’s methodology, it will often list data used in developing the report.
  • Use advanced search on Google to specify.gov sites and .xls (Excel) format to see what databases might be available on a particular topic, such as the Gulf oil spill.

Here are sites that she recommended:

Ready reference

Reporters’ resources

Deep Web searches for people

“Background yourself. It will help you understand how wrong things can be” on the Web, she said.

Whose website is this?

The Dead Web

  • In Google search results, click on the cached link; that’s the last time Google took an image of the site.
  • Wayback Machine for snapshots of websites over time.
  • MINERVA – Library of Congress archives websites for major news events.
  • CyberCemetery—websites of defunct government agencies.

Other useful sites

Searchable databases for business 

Here’s a PDF of Dowdell’s handout from the workshop entitled, CAR for Business Journalists.


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