Most of U.S. business is small and private: Here's how to cover that

By Amy Wilson
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- What, exactly, do we cover that isn't business?

Linda Austin, executive director of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University, was explaining to a classroom full of journalists how business coverage has tremendous community impact and builds audience.

Then she turned it over to Miley Cyrus who, via YouTube, threw her hair and her hips around and asked, a la big hit, "Who's Got Your Money Now?"

Indeed.

Austin asked the journalists gathered from Illinois, Ohio, Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky how much space, time and resources are devoted by their newspapers to business coverage.

The room seemed to universally recognize the gap. That's why they were there.

With an assist from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, the Reynolds Center and its associates took a day at the University of Kentucky to change that.

roushThe star of the day was Chris Roush, the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in business journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the director of the Carolina Business News Initiative.

Roush pointed out that the U.S. has 22.9 million small businesses, which create 75 percent of the net new jobs to the economy and account for 99.7 percent of its employers.

This sector represents more than half of the private work force, so news organizations neglect it at their peril.

Roush offered guidance from him on how to uncover public information on private companies:

State records: The Secretary of State offices have records of every business incorporated in their states. (Also every non-profit and limited liability corporation.) Search by company name, current officer or by registered agent. This will give you a listing of a business' officers or executives, a mailing address and a phone number. Has a license expired? Check.

Occupational licensing boards: Ranging from athletic trainers to teachers, these boards have websites where you can get information about businesses in these industries. You can see who is licensed and who is not. State occupational safety and health agencies conduct investigations of complaints made by workers of work-related accidents and deaths. http://www.osha.gov/pls/imis/establishment.html. Trade associations can give you industry-wide figures to put in context.

Federal records: Millions of companies register with the Small Business Administration. to get benefits or to qualify for contracts and business. Other resources include the Census Bureau, the regional Federal reserve banks, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which has detailed information about states and localities. Banks may be federally regulated. Go to http://www.fdic.gov for information.

Political records. Try www.followthemoney.org for contributions to federal candidates and committees. State agencies have information on state politics and lobbying. For federal lobbying, see www.opensecrets.org/lobbyists/index.asp Hospitals are big business and are required to release financial information. Go to www.ahd.com/freesearch.php3

Roush urged the participants to work their business beats.

"A knowledge of how to write business stories about private companies can be applied to any beat at a newspaper or any publication."

His final words were the most encouraging. "Good business writers are hard to find. Make a name for yourself writing business stories, and your career will take off."


Asking elected reps: 'What'd we buy with our money?' and other great tips for gov't reporters

The principles of covering business can also be applied to government, said John Cheves, investigative reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He shared some of the proven tips for uncovering good stores in local government budgets, taxes and contracts:

Budgets: Follow the money. Get the records, data and numbers, then ask your questions. This leaves no room for non-answers and put-offs. Don't apologize for asking. It's our money. It's helpful to use the "we" in your conversation., i.e. "What did we buy with this money?"
Always get comparable data. Try for at least five years of past budget data. Look for what comparable size cities spend or what the last guy in the job made.
Is spending is up or down? Always see who are the winners and losers.
How the biggest departments spending your money? What do outside agencies get? How much is debt service? Look at pools for discretionary spending -- who has the discretion and what is it paying for? How much comes from state and federal sources? How much is one-time spending on such things as land and projects. Don't be shy in asking, "Is X (an employee, a piece of land, a service) worth Y?"

Contracts: Who are we paying to do what? Who approves? How and when? Is it really competitive bidding? Do we need this? At this price?

Economic development: This is where government gets into bed with business. Cheves urged journalists to get the full terms of deals. What are we giving -- tax breaks, tax refunds, grants or loans, worker training, land, buildings, roads? What are we getting? And do they add up? How much are we paying per job? What kind of jobs? What's the big picture over time? Who wins, who loses, is it realistic?

Brighten those business briefs with a blog

carlieCarlie Kollath, business reporter for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, writes a terrifically successful business blog that makes quick note of any sign of impending business activity and follows it in photographs.

Kollath offered these tips for her Sunday in-print feature appropriately dubbed Homegrown. It features a local business which, she says, gives a "pat on the back to small business owners."

Here's what she's looking for before she starts:
Longevity. The business should be open for at least a year. The longer, the better.
Names people know. Write about the highest profile businesses.
Diversity in business type. Hair salons, lawn services, restaurants.
100 percent local. No franchises or chains. No owners out of area.
Diversity in ownership. Young, old, female, single, married, race.
Diversity in geography. Not just downtown.
Ask for nominations. Especially from those you write about
Include this data in all stories. Name of business, owner, location, hours, in business since, number of employees, primary business, contact (phone and email) and website., facebook, twitter and an advice quote.