Finding Stories in Business and Economic Data – NICAR 2020

What is the economic output of your county? What are the most common local occupations? How important are sectors like tourism or health care or manufacturing? Where can you find data on recent layoffs?

These are important questions for every local reporter to ask. Luckily, many of the answers are now available online thanks to economic databases published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and other go-to data sources.

At the 2020 NICAR conference, my colleague Paul Overberg and I gave a hands-on demo of some of these data sets for an hour-long “Finding the Story: Business Data” session. NICAR is the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting, which hosts its annual conference in March to train reporters on data analysis techniques, sources and methods. This year’s conference was held in New Orleans (click here to learn more).

Querying QCEW data

Paul gave an-in depth tutorial of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ QCEW Data Views, an online tool for viewing data collected from the bureau’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. The QCEW is a quarterly count of employment and wages reported by employers covering more than 95 percent of U.S. jobs. QCEW Data Views gives you an easy way to explore the data and get answers to various questions, such as:

  • What are the most competitive industries in your area?
  • How strong is one industry in various states, or counties within one particular state?
  • How do the number of businesses and wages in a particular industry trend over time in one area?

Paul prepared a terrific tipsheet that walks you through how to explore QCEW data. You can access it here. While you’re at it, also check out his overview of the 2020 Census, which is available here.

Localizing GDP by county

In December 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis published its first-ever estimate of local-area gross domestic product (GDP) by county. GDP measures the total value of goods and services, and it’s now available at the county level, going back to 2001 for all counties in the U.S.

This new data set opens up a lot of possibilities for localizing economic stories, such as: 

  • Tracking the impact that a natural disaster – such as a hurricane or a flood – has on the local economy;
  • Tracking the biggest contributors to your local county’s economy by industry over time;
  • Ranking economic growth by county in your state – which counties are growing the fastest, which ones are growing the slowest?
  • Mapping and visualizing economic growth by county, and much, much more

During our hands-on class, I went over how to access the data and use it to answer various questions about your local economy. You can view my tipsheet here along with a step-by-step walk-through of the hands-on class.

Tracking local layoffs

So you heard that a company in your area is shutting down production at a manufacturing facility or laying off its employees – or that it might do so soon. But when, exactly? And how many employees will be affected? And are there more details available on what caused the layoff in the first place?

You can get answers to a lot of these questions thanks to a 1988 law known as the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. Congress passed this law with the aim of giving workers affected by layoffs and plant closings some time to adjust to their job losses and seek training and employment elsewhere.

Under the law, states post layoff notices made by employers covered by the WARN Act, which give lots of details such as the date of the layoff, the number of employees affected and the reason for the layoff. Some states have more stringent reporting requirements and may share additional information (such as the letter from the employer notifying the state of the layoff), while others provide much less granular data.

This data is particularly important in a situation such as the layoffs caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which have triggered widespread business closures nationwide. To get a sense of the employers closing down in New York, see the New York Department of Labor’s WARN Act website, which lists dozens of closures tied to the coronavirus pandemic. Each state runs a similar website where they post information on local business layoffs.

Paul and I put together a tipsheet that summarizes the basics of the WARN Act and where you can find information state-by-state. You can view the tipsheet here.

So much more to learn

The best thing about NICAR is that so many talented reporters and editors from across the country come together each year and share their expertise with others. Each year, I set aside some time to go over what I learned and explore other sessions I missed. I recommend you do the same. You can check out more tipsheets from NICAR 2020 here. Sharon Machlis also puts together a curated database of tipsheets, which is available here.