Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Eight datasets, databases to pursue for business journalism story ideas

September 29, 2022

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Business journalists stuck searching for story ideas always have one fail-proof recourse to turn to: datasets and databases.

Here are eight places to find data for your business beat.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

The U.S. agency responsible for protecting consumers may not be a household name for many Americans, but it wields a lot of power to protect people — or not. They gather and publish data, too. A recent report from the CPSC explained that deaths and injuries related to fireworks have increased in recent years. Accountability stories assessing the agency’s policies have significant potential for impact.

Here’s a recent example: last year, ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News analyzed agency data and learned that the government has failed to regulate portable generators. That has led to the deaths of thousands of people per year, according to reporting from the three outlets. After their investigation came out, the CPSC said it was looking into new standards for manufacturers who create portable generators.

Delinquent property tax list

This one’s for the local reporters: if you’re looking for a simple local watchdog story, see who hasn’t paid their fair share in property taxes. Sometimes, it’s local leaders who are delinquent with property tax payments.

Counties and cities collect and store this information in different ways. One method to check for unpaid property taxes is by checking for tax liens at the county level. Other times, you can find the list through a Google search.

Here are some examples:

  • In Arizona, Maricopa County has an interactive GIS map that shows delinquent properties.
  • In Pennsylvania, Delaware County publishes a spreadsheet detailing which properties are delinquent on their taxes, and how much landlords owe.

IRS migration data

If you cover a boomtown or a county with negative net migration, that’s a business story. Who will perform labor for local industries? What businesses will new residents bring in, and what will they spend their money on?

If you need to quantify how many people are moving to or away from your coverage area, the IRS tracks that using tax return data. The data also reveals where people moved from.

Meta ad library

If you’re looking to dive into the world of politics, campaigns, and business, Meta’s ad library is full of data. That platform stores information and ads for candidates and businesses fighting for consumer and voter attention on Facebook both in the U.S. and beyond.

Also, it’s free.

Users can search by topic, geographic location, keyword, time period and more. With a simple search, you can see that Arizona State University — the college that houses the Reynolds Center — spent less than $100 on Facebook ads between June 15 and Sept. 12.

PACER

For reporters watchdogging or background checking entities and individuals, checking court records is a good place to start. Nearly any federal court record in the U.S. is available through PACER. If you’re looking for county court records, they’re not on this database.

Users have to pay for records, though. Government transparency activists, journalists and academics have long called for the removal of PACER’s pay fees, but to no avail.

There are a couple free options: RECAP is a free Firefox, Safari and Google Chrome extension that allows users to view PACER records for free if someone else has already paid for and viewed them. RECAP is a project by the Free Law Project, a non-profit working for transparency, fairness and efficiency in the U.S. legal system.

ProPublica nonprofit explorer

If you’re backgrounding a nonprofit in your coverage area, here’s a gold mine: ProPublica created a user-friendly database of 3 million tax returns from tax-exempt organizations.

It includes IRS data released since 2013 with more than 14 million tax filing documents dating back to 2001. The explorer was last updated on Sept. 14.

Health code violations at sports stadiums, major businesses

Business reporters working in local news can turn to this semi-evergreen watchdog story when they’re out of ideas: checking on health code violations in local establishments.

If your beat is in a major metropolitan area and has significant sports stadiums, this could be an impactful report. ESPN did a nationwide investigation a few years ago and found that more than 1 in 4 stadiums incurred serious infractions.

Call up your local health department, file an open records request, and get digging!

Bureau of Economic Analysis

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis publishes data at the international, national, and regional levels.

That can be used to assess Gross Domestic Product at the county and metropolitan level, income at the local and state level, and trade data. The bureau also has a webpage specifically for journalists.

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