Investigating private companies can stymie even the most dogged reporter. They aren’t subject to Sunshine requests and they don’t file paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But chances are, you can still find out a lot about most of them.

Ames Alexander, a reporter for The Charlotte Observer, detailed some of these strategies at a recent training seminar in Charlotte, N.C. Here are a few of the insights that Alexander shared:

  • “For information about a company’s occupational safety history, visit OSHA’s data and statistics page. From there, you can search the agency’s database for all inspections conducted at a particular company. You’ll find basic information about each OSHA inspection, including violations found and fines issued. But for the detailed information about what inspectors found, you need to file a freedom of information request with the regional OSHA office that oversees the inspectors.” (The NICAR Database Library also has the complete OSHA database for reporters who want to look at trends.)
  • “For information about environmental violations, visit EPA’s Echo site (Enforcement and Compliance History Online). The toxics release inventory provides a lot of information about toxic chemicals discharged by a particular company.”
  • “For information about banks, including deposits, assets and financial performance, go to the FDIC’s institution directory.
  • Occupational licensing boards govern many small businesses, from barber shops to general contractors. Go to them for the results of any inspections or investigations.”
  • Elections boards: Has the CEO of the Acme Company given campaign money to lawmakers who do the company’s bidding? Start your research at www.followthemoney.org or the state elections board website and search for contributions to state candidates. For contributions to federal candidates, go to www.opensecrets.org. At that site, you can also search for information about a company’s lobbying efforts.  You can also visit the Federal Election Commission’s website, which has several searchable databases.” (The NICAR Database Library scrapes the complete FEC campaign contributions database and has it available to members.)
  • “For advance information about major layoffs, take advantage of the WARN Act. That requires employers to give notice before they close plants or lay off large numbers of employees. These notices generally are filed with state Departments of Labor or Commerce. But be aware that companies often find ways to avoid filing these notices.”
  • When one business sells something to another business on credit, you can often find out about it by checking the UCC (Uniform Commercial Code) filings. In many states the secretary of state’s office keeps that information.

For many more details and tips, check out Alexanders’ tipsheet from the workshop. Here are a few other tipsheets that touch on investigating corporations: