Investigating business and non-profits

Although business is supposed to be about the private sector, some of the best Web sites for covering business are found where the public sector intersects with the private. The SEC, the Fed, the Small Business Administration and other federal and state sources offer some of the best data for investigating businesses. For help using government Web sites, check IRE Tip Sheet #1743 (pdf) from Chris Roberts. For more techniques on investigating for-profit businesses, refer to pages 309-350 in The Reporter's Handbook, 4th ed.

  • Edgar - Beginning in 1997, all public companies were required to file their documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission electronically. They're stored in the EDGAR archive on the SEC's site. EDGAR (the Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system) is limited because it allows you to search only the headers of the reports; for full-text searching, check out 10K Wizard or Free EDGAR. Both privately operated sites have additional features that make it easier to use the reports, including a Free Edgar add-on that allows you to instantly create Excel spreadsheets from the tables in SEC reports.
  • 10k Wizard - A pay site that gives complete, searchable SEC filings. Once subscribed, you can customize so that an email message is sent to your inbox whenever the companies you track make a filing. Current cost is $199 per year. Also, you can download filings into an Excel spreadsheet.
  • Home Mortgage Disclosure Act - When banks and other lending institutions refuse mortgage loans in specific neighborhoods, specifically those with heavy minority representation, that's redlining. HMDA is a way to investigate whether this is happening in your communities. This site will get you started.
  • Check Home Mortgage Lending: How to detect disparities by Jo Craven McGinty in the IRE Beat Book Series for more information and Web sites when covering crime and the justice system.
  • NICAR's Database Library has HMDA with a record layout and links to the IRE Resource Center for tips and to see how other news organizations have used the data.
  • Hoovers - For profiles of big companies. Your library's been using it for years, you just didn't know it.
  • D&B Credit reports - Prices range from $25 for a credit rating and other summary information on a business, to $112 for information that analyzes how quickly the business pays its bills and its likelihood of paying a supplier on time.
  • InfoUSA's business profiles - For $5, you can get a rudimentary analysis of a business, including the names of the principals, local competitors, approximate revenues and years in business. Be careful of any "credit rating" you see on the list - it's a probability of paying rather than any reflection of actual credit history.
  • PR Newswire - The Web presence of the PR Newswire, with a searchable database of press releases. (Note: PR Newswire has a separate section for journalists only - PR Newswire for Journalists - a free service that has a deeper archive of press releases, additional contact information and other features.)
  • Business Wire - Another searchable database of business press releases.
  • Securities Class Action Clearinghouse - Stanford University's Law School is beginning to put the full text of securities class action lawsuits on the Web in this new site. It's not immediate - they scan and check for at least a few days after a filing - but it's a good list of examples.

Backgrounding nonprofits

For many investigations into nonprofits, Guidestar has become the starting point. But don't forget that a way to get a comprehensive list of most nonprofits in your area is through a state agency, often the Secretary of State's office. For help finding Web sites for covering non-profits, check IRE Tip Sheet #1454 (pdf) from Sarah Cohen. For more techniques on investigating nonprofits and charities, refer to pages 351-366 in The Reporter's Handbook, 4th ed.

  • Guidestar - Lists basic information from nonprofits' 990 tax reports in a searchable database of about 850,000 organizations nationwide. For a fee, the site also includes a nonprofit salary search page and other resources.
  • Nonprofits Org - Another way to check on the nonprofit status of a company.
  • National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy - Site includes a searchable database to connect organizations seeking grants for social justice funding with organizations offering support, offering a way to check nonprofits involved in social justice work.
  • Independent Sector - Includes a Nonprofit Almanac and an ethics page to see suggested practices for nonprofit organizations.