Expert Commentary

Covering private and small companies

Five top places to find stories about small and private businesses, which make up more than 98% of all U.S. firms

A lot of business journalism is devoted to large, publicly traded companies — perhaps 60%, and the percentage may be higher. And that’s wrong. Business news should focus more on private and small companies.

Why? Government statistics show that such firms make up 98% of all U.S. companies, and they employ more than half the workforce. Logically, you’d think these companies would get more than half of the press coverage, not the publicly traded giants. While some business journalists argue that it’s hard to cover private and small firms, the problem is that many reporters don’t know where to look for information.

Here are my five top places to find possible stories about small and private businesses:

  1. Secretary of State records. All businesses have to file certain documents every year with the secretary of state’s office where they’re headquartered. These documents range from incorporation records, which show who the officers are, to Uniform Commercial Code filings, which show how much money they owe and to whom. For example, search for the name of a well-known business person in your city and see the companies with which he or she is involved.
  2. Courthouse filings. Companies sue each other all the time. They also buy and sell real estate and file for “doing business as” or “fictitious names” licenses when their establishment doesn’t have same name as their company. Spend a couple of mornings each week in your local courthouse and you’ll be surprised at what you may find. It also help to become friends with the clerk, as he or she knows where all of the good documents are located.
  3. Regulatory agencies. Virtually every business is regulated by some sort of state agency, yet the collected documents are rarely looked at by business journalists. Have you ever bothered, for example, to look up the place where you get your hair cut with your state’s cosmetology board? Would you change you barbershop if you found it had a lot of complaints or had been fined for not following state rules? Every business is regulated by a state agency, whether it’s a barbershop or an X-ray technician.
  4. Follow the money. Check regularly to see if companies, or industries you cover, are making campaign contributions or employ lobbyists. This might tell you that there’s some pending legislation that could affect their business — and that maybe they don’t want. Also check to see what private and small businesses are getting state and county contracts.
  5. Workplace safety. Reports from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show if a company has been fined for having unsafe working conditions or if workers have been injured or killed on the job. Make a list of private and small businesses that are important in your local community, and run their names regularly through the OSHA database.

Business journalists who make a name for themselves by covering private companies are typically writing stories that no one else is writing. And they’re more likely to see their careers move upward because those stories get the attention of the business community — and other business journalists.

Chris Roush is the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in business journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. He can be reached at Tags: economy.

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