Wick Communications

SEC: More than an athletic conference

In journalism on November 11, 2010 at 5:41 pm

For my entire career, business journalism – real business journalism and not merely the regurgitation of press releases and rote stories about new store openings – has been a complete mystery. It scared me, quite frankly. All I know about large companies is that they have a phalanx of executives who make twice what I make solely to keep me from finding out the truth about them.

OK, that’s a bit dramatic, but suffice to say I never knew how to find out anything important about big businesses.

That’s changed just a smidge after I sat in on a lecture given by University of California, Berkeley, journalism lecturer Marilyn Chase.

Chase is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She is an expert in deciphering the code of government regulation on business, including understanding the ways and means of the Security and Exchange Commission. It helps to know she was a literature major as an undergrad. Apparently it doesn’t take an MBA to understand the SEC.

OK. I hear you. You have a half-dozen schools to report on, a county government – maybe even the high school golf team to write about. Who has time to puzzle through SEC filings? Well, you do – it turns out to be pretty simple…

Try this: Think of a public business in town – the top employer, maybe a new industrial player threatening to come to town, Wal-Mart … whatever interests you and might be of interest to local readers. Go to the corporate Web site and look for a tab or link called something like “Investor Relations.” This is the place where the corporation courts monied players. In order to get some of that cash, the company is willing to part with some information beyond what it gives up in its press releases.

Look for a link to the company’s SEC filings. Many companies – McDonald’s for instance — allow you to sign up for e-mail alerts every time the company reports something to the government.

How simple is that?

So a week goes by. Maybe a month. Over time, these e-mails start popping up. They are quarterly earnings reports, reports on executive stock sales, all kinds of stuff that may at first seem like gobbledygook. Well, gird yourself and open of those e-mails and take a look. You will be amazed.

Corporations are compelled to report some pretty damning stuff to the SEC. Look for four things: statements of risk, contingencies, potential litigation and Management Discussion and Analysis or MD&A.

These are the places were executives bare their souls. They must report when they foresee the potential for litigation from an former partner. They must tell investors if the CEO just sold a large chunk of stock in the company. The MD&A is a narrative of nightmares that could befall a company that only paints the rosiest outlook in press releases.

I went 25 years without taking a first step down this road. And I’m certainly not the only reporter who avoided true business reporting. Most of your peers will never do it. But like most sources of anxiety, the worrying is the worst part. Try it. Pick a company. Set up an e-mail alert. Look for risk, contingencies, litigation and MD&A. You may just find some amazing stories.

Oh, almost forgot. Here are some resources. The SEC Web site, the California Secretary of State’s Office (I am sure your state has something similar) and an online search engine that holds a trove of documents.

Clay

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  1. I use the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office Web site frequently, not just to look into businesses. Clay’s right, it’s a trove of information.

  2. One of the drawbacks of the big boxes and other national chains coming to town is the very limited LOCAL information that would interest my readers. When I’m writing a story about the local economy, I don’t want to know how Ross Dress For Less does as a corporation, for example. I just want to know whether their local sales are comparable to last year.
    I am fortunate to have a good relationship with a couple of the managers of the big stores who share some information. Otherwise I am referred to corporate offices where the flacks don’t even know where Nogales is, much less how stores there are performing.
    Are there some tips as to how to tap into information that would interest my readers or how to break through the gauntlet of media relations folks who do earn twice what you make.

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