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Approaching business journalism with a data state of mind

By Hilary Niles

When you think of a company, don’t think of something with a physical presence, like a storefront or a corporate headquarters. That’s just not how companies are organized these days, said Chris Taggart of And in many cases, he said, there’s simply no single entity that encompasses all of a corporation’s holdings.

Taggart detailed the power of OpenCorporates during "Data for business investigations" with Thomson Reuters CAR editor Maurice Tamman.

Instead, think of a company as a creation of someone’s mind. Rather than occupying a body (or a building), this creation is given a “personality,” so to speak. It’s made into a legal entity. That entity classification means everything — and most likely something different in the various jurisdictions where a company may operate. 

The legal entity is what you have to know and understand to cover a company, because it’s what determines everything from the taxes a company has to pay (or not) and what regulations it’s subject to, for starters, Taggart said.

He said that a truly complete picture of corporations is generally unattainable. It’s not for lack of data — there’s plenty of actual data out there, he said. The problem is stitching it all together, since the systems used by different jurisdictions vary so widely. Even services like Lexis-Nexis and Hoovers are limited, draw from the same standard data, don’t reveal the sources of their data, and hold tight to the proprietary rights of their programs. 

This is where OpenCorporates comes in. His goal for the site is simple but huge, he said: to amass “an entry for every corporate legal entity in the world.” OpenCorporates is useful to journalists in four key ways: simple searching, digging for additional information about a company, matching company names to legal entities, and as a searchable database built on a free API. 

Taggart quoted Thomas Jefferson, who said “Information is the currency of democracy.” Taggart updated that to “data.” You can find some of it at Find his presentation online.

If he were king, Tamman said, there is one approach he would have every business reporter take to inform readers and say something really substantive about their communities — whether on a national, state or local scale: 

  • Make sure that the value of our reporting to our readers is emphasized. Everything in our lives is affected by business, he said, and our reporting should reflect that in a way that our audiences can understand it that way.
  • When you’re reporting on jobs numbers, dig into trends in employment rates to put the numbers in perspective. Reporting a mass layoff? Get aggregated and comparative data for the company laying off. Put it in context. Look at salary and wage distribution using Census and IRS figures. Report on the hot careers in your area, and the dying ones — but don’t look up journalism, he said. His list goes on.
  • And so do his suggestions for sources. My favorite: the sources cited at the end of your local and state economic development reports are a goldmine for data that government folks use to make recommendations and decisions. Some other not-as-usual suspects: Bureau of Labor Statistics, local court documents, and local taxing authorities, to name a few.
  • Tamman’s most passionate advice though, is to simply learn how to read these reports. It will take time and you’ll have to seek out guidance, but in order to really tell some informed stories, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. 

Hilary Niles is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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