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Rosland Gammon

Rosland Gammon is a former business journalist turned college instructor. Her newsroom experience includes reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and reporting and editing at Bloomberg News. Gammon currently teaches communications at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Rosland Gammon

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B&S Gold winners: Tracking charities that spend more on donation solicitors than people in need

The sensational story of a sham charity operator using a stolen identity and dodging an FBI warrant led to a 2010 Tampa Bay Times’ series. It also prompted a closer look at how much charities actually spend on people in need.

Reporters Kris Hundley at the Times and Kendall Taggart at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) looked at payments non-profit charities made to for-profit fundraising companies as one indicator of how much money went to people in need. Using tax filings and public records for a 10-year period, Kris and Kendall found the 50 worst charities raised $1.35 billion and gave $1 billion of that to fundraisers.

For their work, Kris and Kendall are this year’s winners of the gold Barlett and Steele Award for Investigative Business Journalism.

“We followed the money to see where it got plugged up in the system. Most of it stopped at the fundraiser,” Kris says. “We were shocked when we added up the dollar figures.”

The findings helped create an interactive national database of the 50 worst charities and an ongoing “America’s Worst Charities” series. Reporters looked at 10 years of data to make stronger claims about the groups and their practices, Kendall says. In a sidebar about the methodology, the reporters say their data focuses on charities that paid fundraisers a large portion of  donations in at least 75 percent of all campaigns over the years.
America's worst charities
Looking back 10 years posed some challenges. Some news stories they needed weren’t available online so they had to find them the old-fashioned way: in the morgue. Kendall says they dug through news clippings in the basement of the Kansas City Star.

Kris and Kendall, who is based in California, worked in their separate offices when they weren’t travelling together to interview charity operators, donors and experts. Having a partner during the yearlong process was valuable, Kris says.

“When one of us got stuck in a rabbit hole we couldn’t get out of, we had somebody to call,” Kris says. “We did go down a lot of holes that yielded nothing and sometimes we hit oil.”

To manage all of the information, Kendall says they created a spreadsheet with their tentative findings such as cracks in the regulatory system on the top row. They entered information that supported those findings under those headings.

“That helped us track and synthesize what we were finding before we were able to sit down and write about it,” Kendall says.

Kris suggests establishing an organization strategy early. She also says to record dates of emails and calls to show a history of trying to reach people.

Kris says she did not expect the series to have such an impact. There have been regulatory changes, investigations and more scrutiny placed on charities, particularly the ones that made the Times’ list.

A greater impact has been providing a resource for regular people, Kendall says. For instance, an elderly man without Internet access heard her on an NPR segment about the series, she says. He later called and asked her to mail him the list of the 50 worst charities so he could avoid them. Kendall says he’d called the public library to get her phone number.

 For more tips from Kris and Kendall, view their slideshow from an Investigative Reporters and Editors presentation

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B&S Bronze winner: WSJ exposes insider trades, regulatory loopholes

The Wall Street Journal jumped into the murky world of insider trading to see how executives traded their companies’ stock.

A database they created using information from an eight-year period showed more than 1,000 executives earned big profits or avoided losses when they traded before company news releases.

“It‘s an area that involved an accepted practice,” Susan says. “There are times when you should question accepted practices.”

Michael says the Journal had been reporting about new kinds of insider trading.  When one of Susan’s sources told her about an executive who’d sold off many shares right before a news announcement, they had another new angle.

“No good story idea has come without an initial idea from a source on the ground,” Susan says. “It’s not like Facebook. You only need a small number of good sources who can really tell you what’s what.”
The database led to an ongoing series that also has exposed regulatory loopholes that allow executives to circumvent rules designed to prevent improper trading. The work by reporters Susan Pulliam, Rob Barry, and Jean Eaglesham, and editor Michael Siconolfi has earned them this year’s bronze Barlett & Steele Award for Investigative Journalism.
WSJ database insider trading
Susan says developing sources is a dying art because of the Internet and because it’s harder for reporters to get inside companies.

To get the story going, Michael paired Susan with Rob, who specializes in analytics. They reviewed executive stock trades to see if news led to the trades, Michael says. “When the data came together, it seemed like we struck gold,” he says.

Susan says working with Rob helped provide a solid foundation and took the story from “good to really good.” It was her first time working with a reporter with computer-assisted reporting skills, she says. “I never again want to work without a [CAR] person by my side.”

The challenge Susan faced was getting information about trading plans from companies, which don’t have to disclose them, Susan said. Many companies tried to ignore or stonewall her requests. Being insistent and persistent sometimes caused the companies to relent, she says.

Sourcing was the key to getting the story started, but the team relationship pushed it forward. Michael and Susan have worked together for more than 10 years. Like many reporters, Susan says having an editor’s support and confidence is like “money in your pocket.”

Michael likens the editor’s role to the coxswain’s in rowing. “You want to guide them and encourage them to make sure the boat moves quickly and smoothly, and make sure to not get in the way,” he says. “The fun part of the process is watching reporters do their thing.”

 

 

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B&S Silver winner: NYT reporter who created business incentives database

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.

 

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Another public pension angle: Are employees putting in their share?

When you’re working on your next public workers’ pension story, check out the line about how much employers contributed. Those numbers helped Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter Bay Area News Group, and Daniel Willis find what their story calls the “pension pickup.” The story published in the San Jose Mercury News says:

“Like a rich uncle picking up the tab at a big family dinner, Bay Area taxpayers footed the bill for more than $221 million last year for the employee share of 63,000 public workers’ pension contributions.”

Thomas Peele

Thomas’s advice for finding new stories in annual reviews of public compensation data: “Spend time with it. Get familiar, sort it and query many, many ways. Look at the benefits of part time elected officials. What are they getting?” he says.

As the story suggests, check state laws to learn what percentage of gross pay public employees should be contributing through payroll deductions.

If you’re still relatively new to writing about public pensions, check out this post with tips from St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter MaryJo Webster. She did a great explanatory story earlier this year and she gave me some really good tips.

Also, see the Reynolds Center’s self-guided training program “Investigating Public Pensions” with Craig Harris of The Arizona Republic. It offers a lot of information, including a list of experts and a sample FOIA letter.

 

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Marketplace’s Hill explores the plight of ‘just-in-time’ workers

Consumed the Series APM MarketplaceAs part of America Public Media’s Marketplace series “Consumed,” Adriene Hill produced a segment on part-time careers. Her story notes these positions offer companies “just-in-time” workers, but rarely meet employees’ needs.

Adriene says the story started during planning for the series, which asks the question: “Can we really afford all this?” They started with a broad plan to include a story about insecure work. To focus the story and find a person to tell the story, Adriene sought feedback from members of the Public Insight Network, visited a local job center and called people she found in the resume section on Craigslist, she says.

“At some point my editor and I decided an adjunct professor might be a good subject, and I reached out to a couple sources, including a blog focused on adjuncts,” she says. “After meeting with [Vanessa], we decided her personal story would be strong enough to build the piece around.”

The story follows an adjunct professor who earns enough to pay for her “rent-controlled apartment, basic bills, a small studio,” the story says. To tell the story for radio, Adriene used the “tick-tock of the day” to structure the story, she says.

Listeners get time updates as they ride along during the commute, sit in the classroom and prepare for the ride home.

Here’s the story:

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Tracking the deaths that boost state inheritance tax collections

sail boat

Find a story in tracking the benefits to your local coverage area from wealthy residents' deaths.

Only a few states, including Connecticut, have an inheritance tax. (Forbes has a great graphic to help you find states that do.)  Until I read Christopher Keating’s Hartford Courant story, I didn’t realize how much states can benefit when wealthy residents die. He writes:

“Legislators expecting to collect about $150 million were stunned recently when the projection soared to $428 million — the highest amount, by far, in state history.

With the economy still sluggish, officials had been skittish this year about balancing the state budget. But the unexpectedly huge collection of inheritance taxes — along with a spike in income tax revenue —helped turn the red ink into black.”

As state budget reporter, Christopher keeps an eye on the tax line because of the large number of wealthy residents, he says. Business reporters also can use his tips to see how much an executive’s death could benefit the state.

Christopher’s first tip: Don’t think the story will be easy. “Relatively few stories are as complicated as this,” he says. “A lot of stuff is kept secret.”

State tax departments don’t release information because of confidentiality rules. However, reporters can find details by getting files from probate court, Christopher says. Sometimes you can get specifics about the size of the estate, but some filings can be generic without any details, he says. Files get more detailed as time passes so he suggests checking them about nine months after a person dies.

Christopher tracks wealthy residents’ deaths on his calendar and looks them up later, he says. But he doesn’t catch them all. He contacts legislators in wealthy towns and asks if any residents died in the past year. However, that doesn’t always work, especially when no one knows how wealthy the person was or if the person didn’t contribute to political campaigns, he says.

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Avoid profile ruts: Use varied sources, telling scenes and detailed background

post dispatch

Businessmen Mike and Steve Roberts (pictured above) were featured in the Post-Dispatch's Loeb-nominated story. Photo by David Carson of the Post-Dispatch.

With changing bylines on the same story, big-picture stories sometimes don’t make it onto the budget. But after writing another story about the bankruptcy filings and real estate struggles of two local businessmen, reporters at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch decided it was time to put the issues into perspective, says reporter Tim Logan.

“Four of us on the business desk, who’d all written about the brothers in one way or another, got started, and two weeks later it had evolved into this big Sunday profile,” he says. Their profile is among the finalists for this year’s Gerald Loeb Award that recognizes business and financial journalism. Winners will be announced June 25.

Tim and Lisa Brown wrote the story without relying heavily on court filings or direct quotes from the businessmen. Tim offers four tips to help you find that balance:

1. Cast a wide net to find sources from different times in your subject’s career. The reporters, including contributors Steve Giegerich and Tim Bryant, contacted people who had known the men at various stages so they could get a variety of perspectives, Tim says. “Those voices balanced out the self-interested optimism of the main characters, and gave a lot of credibility to concerns about their future,” he says.

2. Look for telling scenes, even if your subject isn’t in them, to bring the story to life. “We were fortunate to find a few scenes that showed the depths of their troubles in other ways,” Tim says. For instance, the story includes a court hearing the businessmen skipped because they were being deposed in another lawsuit, he says.

3. Read everything to find the background details. They used profiles and an autobiography to gather information. “A lot of the little details – like ‘they’ve hobnobbed with Bill Clinton’ – came from that background work, as did the basics of the section on their rise in business,” Tim says. “That paper trail lent a sense of authority to our story.”

4. Don’t let the subject dictate the story. The businessmen didn’t agree to an interview until about 10 days into the reporting and were likely hoping for a “rising from the ashes”-type story, Tim says. “We listened respectfully, but by that point we had more than enough material to write a story about their state of limbo,” Tim says. “So we incorporated their arguments and plans but kept writing the story that all the rest of our reporting was telling us.”

 

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Methods for finding company influence on virtual school policies

virtual schoolColin Woodard of the Portland Press Herald/ Maine Sunday Telegram checked emails, donations and legislative bills to determine who was behind the state’s  push to approve virtual schools. He writes:

“A Maine Sunday Telegram investigation found large portions of Maine’s digital education agenda are being guided behind the scenes by out-of-state companies that stand to capitalize on the changes, especially the nation’s two largest online education providers.”

His story is among the finalists for this year’s Gerald Loeb Award that recognizes business and financial journalism.

Colin says reporters need public records to determine what influence companies may have on creating virtual school policies. He used public records requests to get more than 1,000 pages of emails to find those connections.

“One would want to seek traffic between interested companies and allied school reform organizations and state officials and legislators,” he says. Colin says the list might include:

  • Key officials in the governor’s office, including the scheduler
  • The state education department
  • Key legislators
  • Charter school authorizing body or bodies
  • Individual school districts

Colin Woodard

In addition to emails, he recommends looking for affiliations with the American Legislative Exchange Council. “Matching relevant legislation introduced in your state with the ALEC draft bills leaked to and published at the websites of the Center for Media and Democracy, and Common Cause  may also be revealing,” he says.

Also, check IRS 990 forms to find information about relationships and inter-relationships for some of the organizations, he says.

Finally, use your state government’s disclosure databases to track campaign donations and lobbying activities. Colin says the websites offer full data sets, but searching for or using the data can be a challenge. He suggests contacting the staff that oversees the disclosures for help.

 

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Inside the Denver Post’s narrative on naming a computer chip

haswell

By Flickr user Jimmy Emerson

Andy Vuong of The Denver Post turned the naming of Intel’s latest computer chip into a cool story about a small Colorado town where the “claim to fame” is a one-cell jail.

He writes:

“Haswell, the chip project, started in 2007.

Haswell, the town, was incorporated in 1920 with a population of 250 and 29 businesses and professionals, according to the Kiowa County Historic Buildings Survey. By 1923, there were 37 businesses.”

Andy says he spent three days working on this story. Intel, which had contacted the town’s mayor, provided some background that wasn’t readily available elsewhere, he says. He also drove three hours to Haswell. (The only resident he could reach via phone was the town’s mayor, he says.)

Andy Vuong

Andy’s story has great color such as the gas station being a local hotspot and computer room doubling as a monthly barbershop. These details came because he let the locals talk and avoided asking a lot of questions, he says.

“One tip for a story like this would be to not dictate too much of the interview with the locals,” he says. “With politicians, CEOs and other company executives, I generally want to drive the conversation, otherwise I would only get their prepared remarks.” 

 He also suggests venturing out of your own and not spending too much time with officials. “I spent a little bit of time by myself to get a better feel for the town,” he says.