Sunday, July 12, 2020

List of federal Paycheck Protection Program's forgivable loans is a reporting opportunity with several challenges

Photo provided to Detroit Free Press
By Al Cross
, Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

"Lisa Freeman received a curious inquiry from a TV news reporter Wednesday, writes Mark Kurlyandchik of the Detroit Free Press. "Why had her quaint, seasonal ice cream shop — a longtime fixture in downtown Saugatuck that Freeman has owned for 2½ years — been given millions of dollars in Paycheck Protection Program funds from the U.S. Small Business Administration?"

Turns out that it only got about $100,000 in forgivable loans. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale about reporting on the PPP, a relief program that reached most American towns. The SBA database has errors, even including companies that didn't even apply for the funds, as CNBC reported, so any listing needs to be checked out before it's part of a news story. 

And it's important to remember that no local story on the loans can be comprehensive, at least for now, because the database is incomplete. Freeman's business should have even appeared on the public list, because it was supposed to include only those businesses getting $150,000 or more. Out of nearly 5 million recipients, only about 660,000 are listed.

Finally, you may have problems fetching information from the database, but The Washington Post has transformed it into a national interactive map, which can be focused by your location.

After clearing those hurdles, ask yourself: Aside from stories about connections with politicians, such as the one by Alfred Miller of the Louisville Courier Journal about the rural-development center started by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, what is the newsworthiness of the data? 

I publish a newspaper for Midway, Ky., a town that has only 1,800 people but a number of interesting businesses, including some that got PPP money. They include the local private university, four Thoroughbred horse farms, two restaurant companies, two small manufacturers, a big landscaping service and an arborist.

What's the news in all that? Sure, there's a story, but it wouldn't be fair to list the names and numbers (which are in ranges, not precise dollar amounts) without some context. That context is shifting as the pandemic continues, so we willook for inflection p loints for the timeliest "news pegs."

The university is private, so we don't get much information about its finances unless there is a crisis like the one it suffered eight years ago, from which it has recovered. It stopped in-person classes in March and is planning to resume classes Aug. 17, and it's the city's second-largest employer, so there's a story in its reopening, which should include some mention of the taxpayer money it got.

Midway is a big restaurant town, so there's a story in how that industry is coping with limitations on capacity and a recent rise in coronavirus cases that prompted the governor to require masks. The two firms got different ranges of PPP money, probably reflecting their different number of locations. We'll explore that with both, about which we've reported before. And we'll ask the other restaurants how they're doing, and if they got forgivable loans of less than $150,000, as seems likely.

The horse industry is important to Central Kentucky, but its inner workings are almost opaque, because most if not all farms are privately owned. Again, the loan amounts differed by farm, so the list gives us an opportunity to cover the industry – and perhaps others – in a way we haven't before.

So, the list is an opportunity, but also a challenge – especially for my students, who will be doing most of the reporting. Our school doesn't have a course in business journalism, so I hope this opportunity will give students some valuable training and experience in this area.

In a similar vein, business reporting has suffered at most newspapers and broadcast stations in the last two decades, and the pandemic has exacerbated that. Ironically, a pandemic-related action by the government now gives news outlets all over the country a chance to learn more about important local businesses, and tell their audiences about them. Let's get to work.

No comments: