Follow the money: Look at your school’s 990s

Document stories can make a newsroom rock.

A recent post on the Student Press Law Center blog talks about IRS Form 990. The great thing about Frank LoMonte is that he is a journalist who happens to be a lawyer. And he tells student journalists how to get information.

I have  been banging the 990 drum for a long time. Sometimes, however, we are lazy.  So here comes a complete breakdown of a story pitch I would give based on 990s.

My current employer, Missouri Western State University, is a member of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA). (So is my alma mater, Pittsburg State University, and my former employer, Missouri Southern State University.) The athletic conference serves 15 NCAA Division II schools and is located in Kansas City, Mo.

Using my free Guidestar account, I accessed the three most recent 990s for the MIAA and found some interesting numbers. LoMonte is quite right that a number of good stories could come from this easily  accessed information.

The usual push back I hear from students is that they don’t have the time to devote to pouring over three 25-plus page documents. Poppycock. I accessed all three, looked them over, printed the relevant pages and determined possible stories in the time it took my wife to take a shower.

Let me put it in journo-speak for you. Instead of updating Facebook while waiting on a source to call you back, you could have about three story ideas for the afternoon or weekly pitch meeting. You not only look industrious and smart to your editors and advisers, you are doing real public-interest journalism.

So, what did I find? Glad you asked.

  • Salaries, compensation and benefits have gone up over the past three years, yet after changing commissioners that salary expense is $14,000 less.
  • Net assets for the conference have declined each of the last three years.
  • Program service revenue has skyrocketed from $58,450 in FY 2008 to $836,878 in FY 2010 (last available 990).
  • The forms list total payouts to conference members.

I could identify at least five solid stories from the documents, and I was doing this while waiting on the wife before going to dinner. I can almost hear my old college newspaper adviser, Chad Stebbins:

“An enterprising reporter could pitch this as a series with one story coming out each week and could get all of them done in the time it would take the other guy to source one.”

Stebbins used to goad me into this stuff all the time. And it only made me a Missouri college journalist of the year and led to an eventual career.

But this is about you. So here are some practical ideas:

  • Don’t stop with athletic conferences. See what else is out there. University foundations are a big one. Alumni associations. Campus non-profits like ministerial organizations. You could drag this out for a semester and establish solid clips and a solid reputation as a watchdog/investigative prodigy.
  • Look at the bottom line. Are organizations growing or are they in trouble?
  • Look at revenues. Where does the money come from?
  • Look for trends and anomalies. The MIAA’s program revenue increase seems drastic, but the documents reveal some interesting information that would make a great story. Did the organization get one big, one-time donation that skews its numbers?
  • Look at salaries. The 990s list the salaries of directors, commissioners and other major officers. It also tells you who they are.
  • Compare the 990s of your school with other conference/similar institutions. How does your foundation stack up with other schools’ development organizations?

The bottom line here (pun intended) is that you have a great deal of information available to cover some good, hard news. And many students don’t know it is available or think it is too hard or too boring.

What a shame.

Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star requested, through state open records laws, information on athletic department budgets at the major KC region universities and wrote an exceptional piece. He had few quotes, and he didn’t need many. Documents told the story.

Kerkhoff isn’t an investigative reporter. He writes sports columns mostly. But he could be an investigative reporter. Check that. He is an investigative reporter. And I just proved it with that link.

My grandmother, God rest her soul, could cover a presser or write a gamer. You might write a great lede about Jones leading a fourth-quarter comeback, but Jones did all the work. Document stories — especially in sports — are what jump out of your clip file.

Some adviser or student in Missouri is going to read this and write about 990s.

I hope.

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