Paper trails: documents and data you need

Many of these sites have limited free access to data and are really portals to pay searches from their Web sites. But four sites - the National Association of Secretaries of State, NETRonline, Public Record Finder and especially Search Systems - offer lots of free public access to records.

For more help with online public records, check IRE Tip Sheet #906 (pdf) from Kitty Bennett.

And to learn how to use public records effectively, check pages 35-53 in The Reporter's Handbook, 4th ed.

  • Search Systems - This regularly updated site has a collection of more than 2,200 links to searchable online databases, most of which are operated by government entities. The site includes a national section, a separate section for each state and links to international data. Results indicate whether database is free or has user fee. Search Systems now charges a monthly user fee.
  • Public Record Finder - Good list of free public records online, including criminal and sex offenders, vital records, property records, court records and others.
  • NETRonline - This online public records database is an information portal to official state and local Web sites, including tax assessors' and recorders' offices that have developed Web sites for the retrieval of available public records over the Internet. Public records information that you may find includes copies of deeds, parcel maps, GIS maps, tax data, ownership information and indexes, and will vary to the extent that the particular office has developed their site.
  • Social Security Death Index - A genealogy company that keeps publicly accessible information on people who have died while collecting Social Security. It's not always complete or up to date, but if you find someone there, you'll find their Social Security number.
  • Military City Online - Catch up on the latest military news. If you subscribe to the sponsors (Defense News, Army Times and affiliates), you can search for military personnel in a four million record database, get details on military installations. Sponsored by the publisher of Space News, Federal Times, Defense News and Army Times.
  • National Association of Secretaries of State - The NASS Business Registration and Filing Services page can be reached by clicking on "Corporate Registration" on the homepage. This section is designed to give you access to state business and corporations divisions in a single location. Each state files a variety of documents including corporate filings, UCC financing statements, trademarks, professional licensing applications and other legally required special filings.
  • Ameridex - You have to sign up with a credit card for this service, which costs $29.95 to register, which can be applied to future searches, and from $0.05 to about $30.00 per search for death records, active military service and similar national records.
  • BRB Publications, Inc. - This organization is the nation's premier publisher of sourcebooks used for locating public records. BRB's books and electronic products point the way to over 26,000 government agencies and 3,500 record vendors that maintain, search for or retrieve public records. The site also has some free resources and a newsletter with public record updates.
  • KnowX - A teaser for a pay service, where you can check liens, UCCs, bankruptcy filings and similar data on a person within a state for free. Detailed records require a credit card number and membership. Consider using a database service in your library if you have that option.

Downloadable data on the 'Net

This list includes a sampling of databases that will take some time for you to understand and use. Some updated once a year, and they may be worth your effort to gain that understanding. Others are just difficult, confusing or require you to use a detailed record layout. And many of these are ftp sites or contain files in special formats that make them harder to use.

Often, NICAR's Database Library has the data you need with a record layout and links to the IRE Resource Center for tips and to see how other news organizations have used the data.

  • American FactFinder - The U.S. Census Bureau Web site for downloading its wealth of demographic, economic and other data sets. Much of the data is available in an Excel format.
  • IPUMS - The Minnesota Population Center offers this free site for census microdata and an expanding section of international census and demographic data.
  • Check, run by IRE, for tip sheets on using census data, useful links and other census resources.
  • Federal Election Commission - It'll take some work to do more than search by name or state. This is the big database that lists every contribution, updated monthly. If you're going to use this regularly, think about buying a subscription to the full database from NICAR or other organizations.
  • Campaign Finance Information Center - IRE runs this electronic clearinghouse of state-level campaign finance records. It includes links to searchable data as well as copies of state campaign finance data downloadable from the site.
  • PoliticalMoneyLine - Maintained by a former FEC official and designed to give you up-to-date information on electronically available federal campaign contributions. Or try its sister organization, the Center for Responsive Politics.
  • As an alternative, try American University's state-specific files derived from the FEC downloads.
  • Check Unstacking the Deck: A Reporter's guide to Campaign Finance by Michael A. Weber, Aron Pilhofer and Dereck Willis in the IRE Beat Book Series for more information and Web sites when covering this issue.
  • NICAR's Database Library has FEC data with a record layout and links to the IRE Resource Center for tips and to see how other news organizations have used the data.
  • IRS 990 Basics - The IRS provides dozens of files that list, by area, each nonprofit institution, the date of its last 990 report, its assets, income, address, and employer ID. This is helpful to find out which nonprofits to focus on in your area or the employer IDs you need to order the full documents.
  • Build A Table - Department of Education - This application enables users to create customized tables of public school Common Core data for states, counties, Metropolitan Statistical Area's, districts and schools, using data from multiple years. The site also has a tutorial.
  • RTK Net - RTK Net provides free online access to gigabytes of government databases and information on the environment. Sponsored by an activist group, but generally considered reliable.
  • Covering Pollution: An Investigative Reporter's Guide shows journalists how to tap resources for local investigations into environmental pollution. Much of this guide focuses on how to use Web-based, federal database searches to get data to find and drive environmental investigations, but you'll also find numerous tips from veteran reporters about how to handle other aspects of investigative environmental journalism, including interviews and writing. Includes story ideas and resources from IRE and SEJ.
  • State Health Facts Online - This site from the Kaiser Family Foundation contains the latest state-level data on demographics, health and health policy. This information includes health coverage, access, financing, and state legislation. Data can be downloaded as text files or Excel worksheets.
  • Berkeley Mortality Database - This database was established in 1997 by Prof. John R. Wilmoth of the Department of Demography at the University of California, Berkeley. It is supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging. The site contains a large and detailed collection of mortality data for national populations. Data are in text files and can easily be downloaded into a spreadsheet or database.

GIS Data

A growing area of downloadable data are files for GIS and mapping. For GIS help, check out IRE Tip Sheet #1643 (pdf) from David Herzog. And for more ideas, see Mapping for Stories: A Computer-Assisted Reporting Guide by Jennifer LaFleur and Andy Lehren.

Searchable online databases

These are locations where you can create your own reports or list documents available on the Internet within a small topic. If you need more power in your searches, you may have to buy or download the data they come from. In many instances, NICAR's Database Library has the data you need already cleaned with a record layout included and links to the IRE Resource Center for tips and to see how other news organizations have used the data.

  • Fatal Accident Reporting System - This searchable version of FARS lets you create your own tabulations of detailed fatal accident reports. You can also download your own data set of crashes, victims and cars.
  • For related information on interstate trucks, see the SAFER system.
  • NICAR's Database Library has FARS data with a record layout and links to the IRE Resource Center for tips and to see how other news organizations have used the data.
  • Federal Aviation Administration - The FAA's site of service difficulty reports.
  • Landings aviation databases - Has some searchable databases of pilots and registered aircraft along with Service Difficulty Reports. Note: Aircraft Service Difficulty reports can be misleading, and Landings has been known to miss some reports. Accident reports are searchable on the NTSB Web site.
  • Check Covering Aviation Safety: An Investigator's Guide by Marie Tessier in the IRE Beat Book Series for more information and Web sites when covering this issue.
  • NICAR's Database Library has the FAA data cleaned with a record layout included and links to the IRE Resource Center for tips and to see how other news organizations have used the data.
  • FlightAware - A free flight tracker, FlightAware allows you to view schedules, track any private or commercial flight and see scheduled and recent activity at any airport. It also offers some flight analysis.
  • American Religion Data Archive - ARDA, based at Penn State University, collects data on religion, from studies to surveys. One of the most useful datasets is the churches and church membership in the United States by the Glenmary Research Center. This dataset contains statistics by state for 133 Judeo-Christian church bodies, providing information on the number of churches and members. The information is collected every 10 years. Data can be downloaded as text file or as an SPSS file.
  • - is a growing collection of over 41,000 adherent statistics and religious geography citations - references to published membership/adherent statistics and congregation statistics for over 4,200 religions, churches, denominations, religious bodies, faith groups, tribes, cultures and movements. The site has some data in HTML format that can be downloaded into a spreadsheet.
  • Occupational Health and Safety Administration - OSHA's site has both inspection data and statistics.
  • And NICAR's Database Library has OSHA data cleaned with a record layout included and links to the IRE Resource Center for tips and to see how other news organizations have used the data.
  • CDC WONDER - Public-use data is available about mortality, cancer incidence, hospital discharges, AIDS, behavioral risk factors, diabetes and many other topics from the Centers for Disease Control. The data can be queried and the requested data can be readily summarized and analyzed. Data is available in HTML format but can be put into a spreadsheet program or a database manager.
  • Internet Law Library - Includes US Code and Code of Federal Regulations, plus links to state, federal and international laws, treaties, regulations and other items.
  • Social Security Statistics - A wealth of searchable information on this monster of government programs.
  • Vote-Smart - This site has useful congressional background, including voting records and ratings of lawmakers by special interest groups.
  • Central Intelligence Agency World Fact Book - Home of the CIA's World Fact Book, containing basic information on every country in the world.
  • Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies Databank - DataBank is a service of the Joint Center, a think tank on minority-related issues. Comparable data on African Americans and other racial and ethnic populations are standard features. DataBank also presents facts and figures from the Joint Center's unique research on minority businesses and black elected officials, and from its annual National Opinion Polls. Some data come in Excel worksheets.
  • Patent and Trademark Office - Search the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database.