Teaching journalists how to find stories in company accounts: the story treasure hunt

stormtroopers digging up treasure

“These are not the treasures we’re looking for..” image by Stavos (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last week I shared some of the tips from a class for students on my MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism and MA in Data Journalism on  how to find stories in company accounts. It’s a challenging subject to teach — but for the last couple of years I’ve used an approach that seems to work especially well: a story treasure hunt.

Here’s how it works.

What does treasure look like?

Headlines from stories based on company accounts

Before we get into the treasure hunt, it’s helpful to show what stories based on (or using) company accounts look like.

I keep an ongoing list of examples, and try to show a wide variety that demonstrate different types of leads in different fields.

That ranges from the more obvious stories reporting details in the release of new annual accounts, to stories that use accounts to shed a light on topical events, to those using accounts to establish trends or problems, and investigations which use it to identify people with potential conflicts of interest or establish the scale of a problem.

I show company accounts being used in news pieces, features, investigations and opinion pieces.

And I show stories in fields ranging from education, health and politics to fashion, entertainment and sport.

In other words, we need to show that it’s not just limited to the financial news section, and spark the student’s imagination.

The plan is that once this scurvy crew starts to see what bounty could be in store (cough), they are ready to embark on the journey we have in store…

Company/director says something newsworthy Conflicts of interest, abuse of power Context to news story Problems and warning signs Staff cuts and problems Comparisons and trends Money: tax, rising costs, profits, debt (jobs) ‘The complex web/empire’ - network analysis

X marks the spot: what do the clues look like?

Of course this is hidden treasure — and so the next step is to show what clues we might find that point the way.

A common misconception is that stories from company accounts are all about numbers. In fact, text is just as likely to provide a story lead.

The next step then is to broadly outline the three parts of a set of accounts (reports/statements; cash flow; and notes to the accounts) and what sorts of story leads they might contain.

What to look for in company accounts: Reports/statements: look out for ‘trend’/problem-type references, and ‘material uncertainty’ Money: look out for profit and loss but also trends (up, down, static), tax, problems (debt, costs) and clues for questions (unusual payments) Notes to the accounts: look out for payments to related parties (conflicts of interest), explanations of where the money is going/coming from (and why), breakdowns that provide leads for questions

Once that’s been briefly outlined, we are ready for the treasure hunt.

The treasure hunt

The treasure hunt challenge starts like this: a number of company accounts are made available to the students. Normally I don’t provide the whole document (which with big companies can run to over 100 pages), but just an extract of a 1-5 page section, so the exercise can move quickly and the “A-ha!” moments can come thick and fast.

Each extract has at least one story lead in it, most of which have been used in stories.

Students are invited to explore the extracts and write on a Post-It note the name of the company and what story ideas they can spot in the account extract (they keep the Post-It notes so no one else can see it).

This is a physical activity — it’s definitely better to print out the extracts and have students walking around the room picking up each example, moving and interacting with the documents and with each other.

Allow enough time for each student to look at more than one extract — it should be possible to compare different perspectives on the same set of accounts.

Sharing the treasure?

After that time has elapsed, get everyone to stick their Post-It to a board, or a table, and organise them into clusters for each company.

Everyone can now browse through the Post-Its and see what stories other people saw in the same set of accounts. This is a great way to be exposed to different ideas.

Often students will come up with story ideas that you weren’t expecting — and still good story ideas. This is a good opportunity to discuss the way that there are no ‘right’ answers in finding story leads, and how much of the value in journalism is in how you refine those ideas and realise them.

You could continue this exercise with some story pitching, workshopping ideas, planning and other techniques.

However, at this point I’ve still not actually taught much of the nuts and bolts of understanding company accounts, yet — and the treasure hunt is actually doubling up as a device for teaching the next part of the class…

The hook for the hardest part

The challenge in teaching company accounts is the abstract nature of many of the skills involved, and keeping people engaged.

At this point in the class we have already addressed some of the potential preconceptions (that you “need to have a mind for numbers” to get stories out of company accounts) and barriers (“it’s not going to be useful in my line of work”).

We’ve broken up the teaching with some physical activity which has ‘reset’ concentration levels.

But most importantly, we’ve created a narrative ‘hook’ for the next part: where was the treasure? How did someone find it? What happened next?

This second part of the class, then, refers back to those examples as it explains different techniques for finding stories:

  • Here was the story in plain sight in the director’s statement
  • Here was an admission of a problem which later became a big story (“don’t assume because it’s obvious that someone else has already seen it”)
  • Here’s a famous person making a lot more money this year
  • Here’s a potential conflict of interest story — and here’s how you can follow that trail
  • Here’s what ‘material uncertainty’ and ’emphasis of matter’ means and a story that came from it
  • Here are some stories about pay and where you can find that information
  • Here are some stories about tax and some signs to look out for
  • Here are some stories about debt and some signs to look out for

Along the way you can weave in useful tools, tips and techniques, such as:

  • Tools for digging into company details, connections and ownership
  • Sources of accounts data in the public sector
  • Ways of finding background information on potential interviewees by looking on Companies House for directors

More ways to get stuck into company accounts and directors

Any of these can form the basis for another workshop to get students stuck in once again.

For example, in the past I’ve organised students into groups looking at a particular sector or issue (e.g. payday loans companies or student housing) to put together a simple ‘state of the sector’ explainer.

A list of companies is provided and they simply compile data on the turnover, profit and tax paid in the last few years.

Another workshop can involve a focus on directors, tracing the business networks behind a particular organisation (e.g. a football club, or a fashion brand) or the corporate network around a particular celebrity.

In this case the students work together to compile a list of directorships (who is director of which company — often the same person will be a director of a number of different companies that operate together) and/or ownerships (which companies own other companies).

From either of these exercises students can then go on to plan the interviews and questions that might turn this from a backgrounder into something even more newsworthy.

Other ways to teach accounts

This is just one way to teach techniques for digging into company accounts. Of course you could spread this over more than one session — with the ‘hook’ returned to in a subsequent class (this might strengthen recall even more).

And this could be used as a starting point for a whole class or group project, with students using this to map a sector or organisation and moving on to interviews and profiles, liveblogging from industry events, and finding employees and experts, in order to deliver something quite substantial.

Those are just a few ideas. What about you? Do you teach company accounts — and how have you tackled the challenge of doing so? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @paulbradshaw.

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