Training: Investigative Business Journalism at SABEW

by October 3, 2013

This training was originally presented at the Society of American Business Editor and Writers’ Fall 2013 Conference at City University of New York on Oct. 4, 2013.

Investigative business journalism is a big topic. It can be daunting to tackle without a game plan.

In these sessions, veteran journalists share their tips and offer resources for how to tackle three different kinds of investigations: of a CEO, of government contractors, and of stock brokers and financial advisers.

SESSION ONE: Investigating a CEO: How Reuters mined SEC filings for Chesapeake Energy Corp.

The session helps business journalists look for red flags in corporate Securities and Exchange Commission filings — the inconsistencies, contradictions, half-explanations and omissions that can signal to investors when companies and their executives aren’t telling the truth, in part or in whole. The seminar also explains how reporters can verify and fact-check findings through a range of other data sources. Instructor Brian Grow was part of the Reuters team who won a 2013 Loeb Award for its coverage of Chesapeake Energy.


  • How to identify red flags in SEC filings
  • How to cross-reference SEC filings to look for inconsistencies
  • How to use additional public data sources such as land records to verify and fact-check


Brian Grow is a special enterprise correspondent and editor-in-charge based in Atlanta for Reuters. Prior to joining Reuters in 2010, Grow was the project director for business and financial investigations at The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, where he investigated FHA mortgage lending with The Washington Post, and litigation finance with The New York Times. From 2004 to 2009, Grow was a beat reporter for BusinessWeek covering retail, airlines, cybersecurity and immigration and a senior writer for the magazine’s investigations team.

SESSION TWO: Investigating Government Contractors

Contractors have become a fourth branch of government. Name a government function, and it’s a good bet it’s being carried out by a contractor, including national security, as we’ve seen with NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Some contractors, such as Lockheed Martin, get more federal dollars than several government agencies combined. Learn how to track government spending on contractors in public databases and see examples of stories that have or could be done.


  • How to find or FOIA public databases on spending on contractors at the federal and state levels.
  • What to look for in identifying stories on contractors.
  • How debarment of contractors works — or not.


Ron Nixon is a domestic correspondent in the Washington Bureau of The New York Times, where he has worked since 2005. According to his biography on the Great Lakes Media Institute’s board of directors page, Nixon “has reported from Rwanda, Uganda and Nigeria” and “also trained journalists in Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria in investigative and other reporting techniques. His work also appears in the International Herald Tribune, which is owned by the New York Times.”

SESSION THREE: Investigating Stock Brokers and Financial Advisers

Learn whether stockbrokers or investment advisers have run afoul of regulators or been the subject of customer complaints. This session guides you, step-by-step, through the FINRA BrokerCheck database and the SEC’s Investment Adviser registration database, which contain records on 1.3 million current and former professionals. You’ll also learn how state securities regulators police the industry and how to obtain results of their investigations for your stories. Reporters can conduct this research for free on any computer with an Internet connection; no special software or database knowledge is needed.


  • Find regulatory penalties and employment history of stock brokers and investment advisers using free databases.
  • Understand how the SEC, state regulators and industry regulatory groups supervise Wall Street, and how to get your hands on their findings.
  • Decode regulator-speak and find key “red flags” in these filings, such as “10b5” fraud and unsuitable investment cases.


Rob Wells is a lecturer at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a former Reynolds Visiting Professor in Business Journalism at the University of South Carolina. A former SEC beat reporter, Wells used the FINRA and SEC databases in an extensive computer-assisted reporting project.