How to dig for stories in financial data and documents

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Business journalists know that you can find a trove of stories hidden in numbers.

The fourth webinar in Quartz’s series on “A Better Kind of Business Journalism” focused on how to think like a data journalist, what sorts of documents and databases lend themselves to telling stories, and the questions reporters should ask when hunting down information.

Quartz’s business journalism seminars are geared towards early-career reporters and editors, and focus on the fundamentals of business journalism, how the industry is changing, and how we can make the field more accessible to both journalists and audience.

Nicole Einbinder, a senior investigations reporter at Insider, Purity Mukami, a data journalist at Finance Uncovered, and Kadhim Shubber, a reporter at the Financial Times, were panelists in a discussion moderated by Oliver Staley, Quartz’s business and culture editor.

A common thread was that you don’t necessarily need to have a background in journalism—Mukami and Shubber have a background in mathematics and physics, respectively—to succeed as a business journalist. Intense curiosity is a great starting place. The panelists took us through how they investigate stories and approach this field.

Lesson 1: You’d be surprised how much information is publicly available

Purity Mukami was interested in knowing why Kenya Airways, which is on track of being nationalized, keeps getting into debt, and why the government continues to bail them out. She had attended training with Finance Uncovered, an investigative journalism training and reporting project based in London and Nairobi (before she became an employee there), learning how to cover financial documents, cash flow, and balance sheets. Going through the company’s public filings, she found specific numbers on executive pay, expenditures, and gross margins. After charting the numbers out, she noticed that operating profit decreased between 2012 and 2015.

That led to a story, published last year, on how Kenya Airways’ profits have been declining for some time. With the airline now nationalized, Kenyan taxpayers have been taking on these losses. The outcome led to a documentary series that was hugely popular on YouTube last year, said Mukami, and further leads based on her reporting.

Lesson 2: Investigating the people behind the company is a great way to find stories

Controversies around cryptocurrency firm Tether had been so well-reported, said Kadhim Shubber, that he and his colleague at the Financial Times decided to take a different approach by  looking at the people running the company instead.

That led to a (paywalled) profile of Tether’s chief financial officer Giancarlo Devasini, an Italian entrepreneur who was selling CDs and DVDs before he ran the $60 million cryptocurrency company. Devasini had claimed that his previous business, which he sold right before the financial crisis, had earned up to $100 million in revenue. Shubber and his colleague discovered in 2017 that his business had revenues below $12 million, and that it was brought down by a warehouse fire. As a result, Devasini was coming into cryptocurrency not from a position of hugely profitable exit, but from a business that had quite literally been destroyed.

As Shubber pointed out, journalists can access records on almost every successful company. At the same time, you can speak to the people who work at the companies and scour the internet for traces of their business.

“The great thing about business journalism in particular when you’re looking through corporate records or court records and so on, you quickly discover there’s just tons of tons of stories, there aren’t not nearly enough journalists in general, there aren’t enough business journalists in particular, and there’s a ton of news to cover every day,” Shubber said. “So as a result, there’s just stories lying out there—stuff about people you heard about that you never read out. And that’s something I found quite enjoyable.”

Lesson 3: Data projects vary in length and time

Nicole Einbinder was on the breaking news desk at Insider when her editor pulled her aside one day to flag some Facebook about a popular Utah-based essential oils company called Young Living. Einbinder jumped on the chance to find out more.

She researched the company using LexisNexis, a subscription data platform, to read old clippings, then reached out to the company’s current members, and eventually secured a ticket to its large annual convention in Salt Lake City. “I knew it was a bigger story than a kind of quick feature my editor wanted me to do,” she said.

She also quickly put out requests for records from the Food and Drug Administration, as well as Utah’s state government and courts. What she discovered was troubling. She used LinkedIn and RocketReach to contact former Young Living employees, one of whom provided her a file of founder Donald Young discussing ways to circumvent the FDA. Contact “100 former employees and 10 get back to you,” she advised. “That’s pretty solid because they can connect the dots that records can’t.”

Investigative journalism can take a lot of work and time. Einbinder’s story was published more than a year after it was initially assigned. But as moderator Oliver Staley pointed out, data journalism can take a variety of forms. At Quartz, for instance, we write and chart daily on interesting pieces of information in economics that tell a compelling story.

Lesson four: Some data sources are easily accessible ways to find stories

  • Besides court filings and the US Securities and Exchange Commission filings, some places such as the UK have databases about privately held companies. So if a US-based company has business in the UK, you can look it up in the database. Look to see if they have APIs, which can be a great way to search things en masse.
  • Muck Rack provides simple templates for putting out file requests to different government agencies.
  • Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) is a nonprofit which provides information on how to do a deep dive into a topic, as well as the process of getting a story.
  • Foiaonline.gov highlights Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests which have been successful.
  • The Global Journalism Investigative Network provides step-by-step explanations and examples of stories from different journalists.
  • WayBack Machine allows you to search internet archives
  • OpenSecrets.org, a non-profit, nonpartisan research group, that tracks US federal campaign contributions and lobbying on elections.
  • DuckDuckGo: Sometimes using a search browser that isn’t Google can be helpful when working on stories, said Einbinder.

Lesson five: Not every data point or database tells a complete story

You may be trying to say something comprehensive about a trend or a company or an individual because you analyzed a dataset or you did a deep dive into someone’s background. But you also have to “sketch the outer limits of what that is and fill in all the squares,” or be open and transparent if you haven’t, he said. You want to be as thorough as possible, as sometimes you can make mistakes when you cut a corner, said Shubber.

Staley added sometimes there is the risk of looking for the big number as a way to see a huge impact, when even the small increase can have a big impact in the world.

Lesson six: A sense of purpose can keep you motivated

Mukami said she know that with her statistical background she could be making more money working at a data scientist at a bank. Why does she continue to do journalism? “I feel a certain sort of responsibility,” she said. “The moment I have enough journalists being able to dissect data to the level that I do, then I will be free to do other things besides journalism.” Having a six-year-old daughter, she said, and wanting to fight the impact of propaganda in her country, keeps her motivated to do this work.

Einbinder has pursued journalism since high school, and sees investigative reporting as a calling, allowing the reporter to shed light on injustices and hold people accountable. The work can get tough, she said, but you don’t work alone.

Shubber agreed. “You have to expect a certain amount of anxiety of being a journalist,” he said, including from having to drop stories that don’t work, or stories that turn out to be small. But hopefully you will have colleagues who will pick you back up. And the longer you stick with it, the more you will be able to keep going through any disappointments to find the story that makes all the difference.

Have ideas for a future discussion? Let us know at hi@qz.com.