By Alex Plough June 3, 2014
There are many great things about graduate study at a major university: free printing, lots of coffee shops, and the leftover food from meeting and lunches are just a few of the reasons to spend all your waking hours around your campus.
But one perk you may have missed is free access to a vast number of premium online databases available to you as a grad student. More than 1,500 are available for students at the Columbia Journalism School (where I just completed the journalism MA program). They include the same resources that financial professionals pay thousands of dollars a month to use. For those who are studying or planning to cover business and economics, learning your way around these databases can add an extra level of precision and depth to your reporting. Many major news organizations subscribe to these services as well, so the sooner you start practicing with them, the better.
Each year the business concentration students in Columbia’s MA program endure the twin ordeals of accounting and corporate finance, both demanding courses that are taught at the School of International and Public Affairs. The pain is worth it though, as knowing how to find and interpret company data – and being able to turn a series of financial statements into a narrative – will give you what business consultants like to call a “competitive advantage.”
Reports from the investment research firm Value Line give you an overview of a company’s financial health in an easy-to-digest format. All those late nights with the corporate finance textbook will come in handy as story ideas start popping up. However, Value Line falls down on the limited number of ways you can use the information. While it is easy to search for a company, reports come in pdf format, and there is no way to download or interact with the data. Here’s a guide to getting the most out of Value Line.
Morningstar’s investment research center is primarily used by professional investors who like to dig deep into companies and find undervalued or overvalued stocks. One feature in which Morningstar excels is its stock screener, a powerful tool that lets users filter the universe of stocks using any combination of criteria. Journalists can use this software to develop theories about the market and test them on the fly. Jack Hough, a columnist for Barron’s magazine, has perfected this technique, and his book, “Your Next Great Stock: How to Screen the Market for Tomorrow’s Top Performers” is a must read. If you can’t access Morningstar, there are plenty of other free online stock screeners such as Marketwatch, Finviz, Zach’s Investment Research and Backtest.
Once you decide to dive deeper into a company, it is easy to become lost in the spider web of different corporate entities that make up a modern business. Owners often structure their firms to make it hard for outsiders (especially investigative reporters and tax inspectors) to fully map out all the associated subsidiary companies.
Services like UK-based Duedil have done an admirable job untangling the threads of British and Irish companies with their network diagrams. One alternative, free to Columbia students, is Orbis. This resource holds a comprehensive library of legal and financial data about individual companies. Among its best features is a list of current managers and directors (with links to their Linkedin profiles), along with a list of major shareholders. When you select the ‘ownership data’ tab, users can access a list of all subsidiaries as well as the ultimate controlling parent company.
But Orbis’ ‘killer app’ is data on private companies that is usually off limits. While there is typically less information than public firms make available, Orbis still gives you much more than you would find on a corporate website.
The handiest resource for day-to-day reporting is The Federal Reserve bank of St. Louis’ data portal. Over the last few years it’s research division has built one of the largest collections of economic datasets available online for free.
The Federal Reserve Economic Data, or FRED for short, contains time series data on just about every aspect of the US economy that can be measured. But FRED’s real strength is easy of use. The interface lets you effortlessly create custom charts to compare up to 217,000 US and international data sets. Even if your beat is not covering business, FRED is an unrivalled resource that will soon turn you into an economics nerd.
At the micro level, economics reporting is about ordinary people and their standards of living. The Cost of living index calculator is a fun tool based on the ACCRA Cost of Living index, a widely used indicator developed by the US Council for Community and Economic Research. The interface lets you compare the cost of over 60 items in any two local areas in the US, perfect for tracking the real post-crisis economy.
The financial professionals reading your articles pay close attention to any regulatory news from the Federal Reserve. Many of their jobs rest on being able to interpret and anticipate what the government will do next. Go to the National Bureau of Economic Research to read working papers by the country’s most influential economists, if you can find a new angle on the latest policy move then readers will keep coming back for more.
As any journalism professor will tell you, the tried and tested way to become a good reporter is to read what your colleagues are writing, and have written in the past. This includes trawling though the press clippings for earlier stories about your subjects.
Factiva lets you use Boolean operators to search over 32,000 news sources from around the world, including 600 continuously updated newswires. It is not comprehensive, but when used alongside other search engines like Google and LexisNexis, Factiva is an essential tool for any kind of research.
Some of the best journalistic scoops are buried in the small print. Financial statements should be read from the footnotes up to see what the accountants are trying to hide. But when the boardroom spills out into the courtroom, many reporters neglect the huge number of documents produced during a trial – and available to the public.
PACER lets you search the US criminal justice system by names of individuals or companies. After registering for an account, users search for proceedings by the district court where the case was brought, and can browse the case docket. Take as much care as you can withstand reading the attached documents. Somewhere in that legalese will be a nugget of fact that other journalists will likely have missed. The service isn’t free, each document you download costs ten cents a page, but there is no charge for the first $15 worth used up in each billing quarter.
These are just a select few of the huge number of databases Columbia an other universities have access to. Keep reading Covering Business for the next selection of tools to give you the edge in business journalism.
Comments are closed.