Silver winner: business incentives database

by November 14, 2013

Louise Story of the New York Times accomplished a major feat last year: She created an interactive state-by-state database calculating business incentives governments use to lure companies and create jobs. Readers can see the types of incentives offered in each state, an industry breakdown and

United States of Subsidieslists of companies that received grants. Though she may not have heard it, the database elicited a collective “ooohh” from reporters who had tried unsuccessfully to get those numbers.

Louise created the database as well as a great three-part series showing how some states use those incentives, which totaled about $80 billion. That’s a lot of work, which is one of the reasons she is this year’s winner of the silver Barlett & Steele Award for Investigative Business Journalism.

I talked to Louise last year when the series ran. She gave me some tips on localizing the data. When we spoke last week, she offered some advice that could encourage other journalists: Instead of saying no one knows the answer, she says, “Think about if they can know because of you.”

Louise’s background helped her through this project. She learned Computer Assisted Reporting skills while in Columbia University’s journalism school, she says. She learned all about spreadsheets, statistics and financial statements while working towards her MBA at Yale University.

Barry and Story in Leckey's class

Rob Barry listens as Louise Story urges students to keep an investigative mindset in all their stories.

She also has the persistence needed to contact local and state revenue departments and agencies across the country. It took five months just to create the database. She had to use several sources to compile the information herself, she says

“It was pretty easy to keep going because this is an interesting area to write about,” Louise says. “It was great to have the opportunity to bring together new information and answers that everyone tells me didn’t exist.”

The database has become a tool for journalists and researchers as well. Louise says more than 50 researchers from places such as the Federal Reserve, Stanford University and state government agencies have contacted her about the database. Some have launched their own studies to expand on the data, she says.

In nominating the story, New York Times editors said some states are considering new laws to regulate the use of incentives. They also said one organization has created national group to determine how governments can reform their awards.