Chris Roush, award-winning professor and founding director of the Carolina Business News Initiative at the University of North Carolina, presents tips for diving into private company investigations during the free, full-day workshop, "Finding Your Best Investigative Business Story."
This training event was hosted by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism and the the SPJ Madison Pro Chapter at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sept. 28, 2013.
For more information about free training for business journalists, please visit http://businessjournalism.org.
For more tips on how to develop investigative business journalism stories, please visit http://bit.ly/investigativebiz2013.
Uncovering Public Information on Private Companies by Chris Roush
Uncovering public information on private
Chris Roush | email@example.com
University of Wisconsin - Madison
Sept. 28, 2013
• Walter E. Hussman Sr.
Distinguished Scholar in business
journalism at the University of
• Scripps Howard Foundation
National Journalism Teacher of the
Year in 2009 and the N.C.
Professor of the Year in 2010.
• Author of Show Me the Money:
Writing Business and Economics
Stories for Mass Communication
Public vs. Private
• Business reporters spend a lot of time
writing stories about publicly traded
companies who file documents with the
• Makes it easier to cover business, because
lots of information is disclosed.
• Does it make reporters lazy? In some
cases, I would argue yes.
n Smaller companies are the backbone of local
n 22.9 million, according to the U.S. Small
n Small businesses provide 75 percent of the
net new jobs added to the economy and
represent 99.7 percent of all employers.
n More than half of the private workforce is
employed by a small business, which
accounted for 52 percent of the private-sector
n Can sometimes be harder to find
information about private companies.
n If you look hard enough though, you’ll
often find what you’re looking for.
n Many private companies will disclose
the information somewhere, to
n Don’t be afraid to
n When someone
tells you no, keep
Photo by flickr user The Garden
Some basic places to look
Photo by flickr user NEGameandParks
The beauty of checking up
n A developer came to Nashville
and proposed an amusement park.
n Annie Johnson of the Nashville
Business Journal looked into his
n She found a trail of unpaid bills, bounced checks,
evictions, troubled business associates and unfulfilled
n She got to write: “In a 2006 letter related to the
purchase of the San Diego property, Peterson said he
received a master’s degree in business administration
from Harvard University. (Harvard’s MBA Registrar has
no record that Peterson attended the school.)”
n The Secretary of State’s office has
records on every business incorporated
n Here you can search by company
name, new corporations or by
Secretary of State records
n You can also search Secretary of State
records to get similar information for
n These include nonprofits, limited liability
corporations such as law firms and
limited partnerships, and notaries
n Secretary of State offices in all states:
What this will show you
n Incorporation records
give you a listing of a
businesses officers, or
n It will also give you a
mailing address and a
n Has their license
expired? If it has, that
could be a sign of
Photo by flickr user GHAVA
Occupational Licensing Boards
n There are regulatory boards that govern
dozens of industries in Wisconsin.
n They range from acupuncture to X-ray
n These boards have websites where you can
also find information about businesses in
Licensing board examples
n The Monterey County Weekly paper in
California wrote about how the state
Contractors State License Board was
finding and fining unlicensed
contractors in the county.
n In Massachusetts, the Falls River Herald
wrote about the local liquor licensing
board approving two new restaurants.
n Before any sole proprietorship or partnership does
business in Wisconsin under an assumed name, the
business name must be registered.
n An assumed name is any name other than the real
name of the owner or owners the business.
n Business names or partnerships must be filed with
the Register of Deeds Office in the county or
counties where it does business.
The WARN Act
n Employers who are laying
off or firing workers are
required to disclose such
moves 60 days before they
n This is a document filed
n Regularly check for WARN
Photo by flickr user jonathanklinvex
The WARN Act
n An employer must give notice if a plant will be shut
down, and the shutdown will result in an employment
loss for 50 or more employees during any 30-day
n An employer must give notice if there is to be a mass
layoff which does not result from a plant closing, but
which will result in an employment loss at the site
during any 30-day period for 500 or more employees,
or for 50-499 employees if they make up at least 33
percent of the employer's active workforce.
Safety and health
n Worker complaints about unsafe or unhealthy
working conditions should be made in writing
to the Occupational Safety and Health
n The division conducts investigations of
complaints made by workers, investigations
of work-related accidents and deaths, general
schedule inspections of randomly picked
firms, and follow-up inspections of firms
previously cited for OSHA violations.
n The Occupational Safety and
inspects workplace deaths
n This site allows you to look at
and inspection reports for
companies by industry.
n Found 13 open cases
involving Oshkosh between
2008 and 2013. (Lots more
closed cases).Photo by OSHA
n The Fort Myers News-Press
reported about an OSHA
investigation into the drowning of
a worker at a country club.
n The Toledo Blade reported that a
construction company in Ohio was
fined $26,100 for failing to prevent
n Who owes money to whom, and how
n These documents are available through
the Secretary of State’s Office.
n A UCC filing occurs when one business sells
something to another business on credit. The
business that sold the tractor to the farmer, for
example, filed a UCC form showing that the tractor is
collateral for the loan.
n If the business that purchased the tractor fails to pay
the loan, the other business can repossess the
tractor. UCC forms can show whether a business is
borrowing a lot of money to make purchases.
n This could be a sign that the company plans to
expand its operations.
n When the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigated a
church that wanted to redevelop a shopping center, it
looked at its UCC filings and discovered that banks
and other lenders had given it seven loans despite
the fact that it had fallen behind in paying its taxes
and other debts.
n When USA Today researched former WorldCom
leader Bernie Ebbers, it pored through UCC filings
around the country to get a detailed list of everything
he’d invested in or purchased in the past decade.
That helped show the reader where the money he’d
made from WorldCom had gone.
n Even though they’re not in operation to make
money, you can still find out financial
n www.guidestar.org is a website with
information about nonprofit organizations
across the country.
n Found the financial information for more than
3,312 nonprofits that mention Madison, Wis.,
on this site. Some of them look like
businesses to me.
Some Madison nonprofits
n The YWCA of Madison had $4.2 million in
revenue and $3.5 million in expenses in
n The Catholic Diocese Charities had $9.6
million in revenue and $9.1 million in
n The Madison Community Foundation had
revenue of $8.6 million and $10.8 million in
n Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
n Form 990 is required to be filed by tax-exempt organizations
with more than $100,000 in annual receipts or total assets of at
least $250,000. Form 990-EZ must be filed by smaller
organizations, with at least $25,000 in annual receipts and total
assets of less than $250,000.
n The forms are public documents that reveal income, expenses,
assets and liabilities; expenditures by program category;
program accomplishments; names of officers, directors and key
employees; compensation paid to officers, directors and key
employees. Most religious organizations are not required to file
n http://www.grantsmart.org -- A searchable
database for Form 990 filings with the Internal
Revenue Service for more than 60,000
foundations. Can search by name, location or
assets. More than one year may be available.
n http://www.charitynavigator.org -- Has
independent evaluations of more than 2,500
charities. Database can be searched by
category, region or keyword.
n http://www.give.org -- The Better
Business Bureau Wise Giving
Alliance maintains reports on
nationally soliciting charitable
organizations that are the subject
of donor inquiries. These reports
include an evaluation of the
subject charity in relation to the
voluntary BBB charity standards.
Small Business Administration
n Federal agency created to help small business owners.
n Virtually every small business is private.
n Millions of companies registered with SBA to receive
benefits or to qualify for contracts and business.
Small Business Administration
n I found this list of small-business
investment companies in Wisconsin on
the SBA website. (Can do a lot of other
n Many cities have dozens of credit unions. Yet
many newspapers don’t write stories about
n Credit union financial information is available
online from the National Credit Union
n http://www.ncua.gov/ Click on “Credit Union
Data” on the left-hand menu to find specific
information about any credit union. There are
16 credit unions in Madison.
n The Dane County Credit Union had $130
million in assets. Net income in the first
quarter was $113,000, up five times from the
same quarter a year ago. Loan-loss reserves
down 11 percent.
n The St. Mary’s Credit Union had $32.7
million in assets in the first quarter. Net
income of $31,200, up 100 percent.
n Regulated by state and federal agencies.
n Data on bank branches -- including private banks --
such as market share is available online.
n http://www.fdic.gov. Go here and click on “Bank
Data” to get market-share info.
n http://www3.fdic.gov/idasp//. Find any bank holding
company or location insured by the FDIC. Search
results will tell you the bank’s total deposits and
assets, as well as financial performance.
n Found five small, private banks based in Madison.
n First Business Financial Services owns First
n Only has two branches – one on Charmany
Drive and one on University Ave.
n The one on Charmany Drive has the most
assets -- $848 million.
n Bank had net income of $3.4 million in the
first quarter, up from $2.8 million in the first
quarter of 2012.
n State insurance departments have tons of financial
information on privately held insurance companies.
Can get revenues, profits and regulatory action.
n Many insurance companies set up subsidiaries for
each state because of varying insurance laws. Can
get Allstate and State Farm results for your state.
n Rate increases make great stories. They affect
everyone. Regularly check with your insurance
department about rate requests.
n Find state insurance department websites here:
Photo by flickr user Ronnnnnnn
n How much did Aaron Rogers give to
certain local political campaigns?
n What about federal campaigns?
n The last database goes back to 1980.
Can search company names as well.
n Does the company have a lobbyist, and how
much are they paying them?
n The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin
spent $10,000 in lobbying last year.
n The University of Wisconsin spent $310,000
after spending more than $500,000 in 2010.
n The Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers
spent $40,000 in 2010, $10,000 in 2011 but
nothing last year.
Hospital financial data
n I found financial information for six hospitals
in the Madison area on this site, including
University of Wisconsin and St. Mary’s
n Found financial information for Mendota
Mental Health Hospital, Meritor Hospital,
Select Specialty Hospital and the Middleton
VA Hospital as well.
n This is a subscriber site.
Patents and trademarks
n Type in a company’s name and see what
they’re getting patents for.
n Johnson Controls has 1,168 patents. The
most recent one is for a “Adjusting device, in
particular for the seat of a motor vehicle.”
n I read the application, but have no idea why
this is so important.
n Information in the patent application goes a
long way in explaining what a business does
– or is planning to do.
n http://www.epa.gov -- Click on the docket to
the left on the home page to see Federal
Register notices, support documents and
public comments for regulations the agency
publishes and various non-regulatory
n Also a nice search engine of environmental
information available by ZIP Code, which lists
n http://d1.rtknet.org/tri/ --
The Toxic Release
Inventory is a database of
information about releases
and transfers of toxic
n Facilities must report their
releases of a toxic chemical
if they fulfill four criteria.
This can be searched by
geographic regions as well
as by facility, parent
company and industry.
Photo by Flickr user Public Domain Photos
n http://activistcash.com/ -- Profiles anti-
consumer activist groups, along with
information about the sources of their
n Breaks them up among activist groups,
foundations, celebrities and major
individual players in the activist
amuse.pdf -- This file lists who regulates
amusement park rides on a state-by-state
Photo by flickr user awlyons
n http://www.eeoc.gov -- The Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission
investigates charges against
businesses for unfair employment
practices or discrimination.
n “Litigation” section on the left side of
the page has a link to a monthly report
on all of the actions taken by the
n http://www.nasuca.org -- National
Association of State Utility Consumer
Advocates, which represents the
interest of consumers before state and
federal agencies in 40 states and the
District of Columbia.
n Nice list of its testimony and filings.
n http://www.planetfeedback.com/ --
Search for complaints of
compliments about any product
and any company at this site.
n If you’re writing about consumer-
products companies, the postings
might provide some story ideas.
One last thought
n Good business writers are hard to find.
n Make a name for yourself writing business
stories, and your career will take off.
n A knowledge of how to write business stories
about private companies can be applied to
any beat at a newspaper or any publication.
n Private-company coverage will make your
reporting stand out.