A Quick Guide to Business and Economics Databases

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.

Business and company stories

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.”

Value Line

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

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.

Orbis

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.

 

Read the full article at Coveringbusiness.com

Tightening our Green Belts

I was browsing Data.gov.uk and came across some stats on England’s Green belts (protected areas of undeveloped rural land around cities) and thought I would have a play around with them.

This is not a groundbreaking piece of journalism, just me practicing the Computer Assisted Reporting skills of finding data, interrogating it and presenting it (although I couldn’t resist digging a bit further).

You can get a copy here. I am using ‘Annex 3: Regional trend in the area of Green Belt land since 1997′ to give a general overview of how Green belt land is spread through England and how much it has changed over the years.

Having got the data into an Excel spreadsheet, I used the Chart Wizard to turn the regional data into a bar chart, while the national figure for green belt land is shown as a line chart. A good tutorial on how to combine different chart types in Excel 2007 can be found here.

Here is a link to the data as a Google spreadsheet, complete with percentage changes through the years. There is no data for the year 2005, and the figures for 08/09 and 09/10 are based on estimates.

What does it show?

We can see that Green Belt levels outside London have remained fairly constant over the past 13 years. The Metropolitan Green belt makes up the highest proportion of green belt land in England, although in 2006 it reduced by 47,520 hectares (almost an 8% decrease).

This correlates with the introduction of The Town and Country Planning (Green Belt) Direction 2005 which came into force on 3 January 2006.

The Bill required local authorities to refer to the Secretary of State for approval any inappropriate planning application, that they did not propose to refuse, for the construction of buildings of more than 1000 sq meters of floor space (roughly 10 new houses).

Previously, local authorities referred such planning applications to the Secretary of State at their discretion.

The Final Regulatory Impact Assessment of the Bill states that:

“The Government gives high priority to the continuing protection of Green Belts from inappropriate development. But it recognises that there is widespread concern about the threats to the Green Belt from development pressures. It wants to ensure that harmful, inappropriate development in the Green Belt remains an exception.”

The statistics show a failure to protect the Green Belt from ‘development pressures’ in London and the South-East. The data doesn’t show how much of the development was ‘inappropriate’ or what was blocked by the Secretary of State (John Prescott was First Secretary of State from 2001-2007).

In December 2005, Economist Kate Barker was asked by the government to conduct an independent review of Land Use planning. Her report, published a year later recommended that:

“Planning authorities and regional planning bodies should continue to review green belt boundaries to ensure that they remain appropriate given sustainable development needs, including regeneration.”

Wherever you stand on the issue, new housing vs green spaces, it looks like there is a trend towards development. With cash-strapped councils looking for ways to raise funds, even England’s beloved Green Belts are no longer sacred.

 

Channel 4 news and Scraperwiki bearing the torch

On Monday Channel 4 News asked whether the 11,331 acres of ‘brownfield’ land owned by local authorities were being used effectively.

The story caught my eye because of some innovative online elements that complimented each other perfectly. It wasn’t the first instance of cross-platform journalism, but I haven’t seen it done this well in a while and it seemed a potential model for the future.

Why it worked

  • It was a story that relied on a collaboration with the guys at Scraperwiki (who really are the saviors of data-based investigative  journalism, recent work includes this excellent Guardian piece on Parliamentary lobbying).
  • Though not strictly a ‘news’ story, it provided both context and analysis for a larger issue (how councils could fill the holes in their budgets).
  • It was interactive and personal, people could type in their postcode and see what their council owned and how it was being used.
  • It was part of a much wider report called ‘Selling off Britain’, that included a live Dispatches, great looking interactive info-graphics,and even a fun and engaging online game.

As I have said previously I believe data journalism is the future, but the C4 News piece shows that for people to engage in a data story, presentation is just as important as the number-crunching.

 

The Data Journalist’s dilema

After a year-long blogging hiatus I am older, wiser but sadly not much richer.

In the past six months I went from being a lowly paid ‘junior researcher’ to being at the centre of arguably the biggest story of the decade, the Wikileaks ‘cablegate’ releases.

Along the way I’ve met and worked with incredibly talented people who pushed me further than I thought capable.

It has been a crash course in office politics, game-theory, diplomatic negotiations, psychological warfare, statistics, data-mining, law, economics and just about every facet of international relations you can imagine.

So this blog will no longer be the whining of a chippy graduate, but instead you can follow me as I teach myself the tools of data journalism.

Why data? you might ask.

Like most journalists, I didn’t get into the job to do maths. I had dreams of door stopping arms-dealers, interviewing rebel leaders, dodging bullets then flirting with the ambassador’s wife at cocktail parties.

Immature ‘Scoop’ fantasies aside, I have also always taken great pleasure in sitting down and working something out. At school I couldn’t (still can’t) do long division, but I enjoyed algebra. At University I (haphazardly) studied formal logic and felt sharpened by the rigours of philosophical argument.

I liked its precision, its symmetry and the almost ceremonial procedure you had to follow to get the answer.

So while working for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism on its first story about public sector pay, I went from adding up Excel totals using the calculator on my phone, to using nested IF functions in the space of a few weeks.

I remember interrogating some data on the gender split in the workplace, working out averages, ratios and percentages etc, and suddenly it happened. I was enjoying myself.

I confessed this to my colleague James Ball, a data journalist who now works for the Guardian, and he replied with a knowing smile, ‘So it finally happened, well there’s no going back now.’

I was hooked, but soon realised that I had only scratched the surface. So I may be an Excel ninja, but I know little about Access and nothing about SQL.

I decided to re-train my brain. Where before it would have recoiled from big numbers, I need it to be confident enough not to be intimidated and curious enough to understand the why and how of statistics.

In something akin to a montage, you can gasp in awe as I wrestle with MySQL, wince as I teach myself game-theory and laugh, relieved, as I apply my new skills on pet projects and share the results.

This blog should be a place to exchange tips, ideas, techniques and develop collaborations. It will be a way for me to share these tortured learning experiences and maybe help others trying to appreciate the joy of stats.

So, stay tuned…..

What have the NCTJ ever done for us?

Earlier this year I finished an NCTJ newspaper reporting course at Harlow college, and I’m still no closer to being a professional journalist.

This is not a bitter, chip-on-shoulder rant. I thoroughly enjoyed the course and it gave me the confidence to recognise and hone my journalistic abilities. However, I can’t help feel that I was being trained for a job that doesn’t exist anymore.

As anyone who is interested will know, the media is in a state of flux at the moment. During previous regime changes, such as the arrival of radio and then television, many eulogised the death of the daily newspaper. Now the enemy is the Internet. Newspapers survived these previous threats because they provide news in a format that is universally accessible and totally convenient to read whenever and wherever.

The Internet is a different beast to television and radio. Like a newspaper, it can be accessed on-the-go and on-demand. But unlike a newspaper, news websites have infinitely more content and, most importantly, they are free. What schmuck will buy a paper when they can get the same news and more for nothing?

The coming generations will truly be raised on the Internet, so unless the parents of today instill in their children a loyalty to buying newspapers, how can they compete in a digital world? The media is dead, long live the media.

Every major newspaper now has flashy, money-hungry website. Some are better than others, but all face the same problem. How do we make money? The current model is clearly unsustainable. Without the cash to pay journalists, news standards will plummet. As Nick Davies brilliantly exposed in his book ‘Flat Earth News’, stories get recycled and newspapers become reliant on the Public Relations industry and Government propaganda.

How about investigative reporting that exposes corruption and incompetence at the highest levels? Fugedaboudit!! far too expensive and time consuming, just stick a photo of Jordan’s tits on the front page and watch sales go up. I think the Guardian is now the only paper with a dedicated investigation team. It’s far cry from the heroics of Watergate and the ideals of the Fourth Estate, the reasons I (sanctimoniously) became a journalist.

Finally, back to the NCTJ and might I add, thank you for staying with me. From my experience, the course is geared firmly towards local newspapers. That might have been fine 20 years ago when that was the established route into journalism. Now, for every trainee job on a local rag, there will be hundreds of starving journalism students clutching their NCTJs. As a way to stand out from the crowd, it means very little.

So, what is the answer? you tell me. Starting this blog is one way I am trying to embrace the future. I encourage anyone in a similar position to do the same and get in touch when you do.