Shop Notes

The back-story behind Workshop's first data project on banks

Posted: March 16, 2017 | Tags: BankTracker

“Wendell

Photoby Jeff Watts, AU

Wendell Cochran 

This month we’re celebrating the eighth anniversary of BankTracker, our long-running series on the financial health of the nation’s banks and credit unions.  

In 2009, Wendell Cochran, a founding editor of the Workshop, wanted to track the impact of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the $250 billion package that was signed into law in October 2008 by President Bush to stabilize the financial system. 

Using data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), BankTracker allows readers to search by the name of their bank or by credit union to see assets, loans, deposits, reserves, profits and real-estate holdings, among other things, for every bank and credit union in the country.  Cochran also created the “troubled asset ratio,” which compares the sum of troubled assets with the sum of Tier 1 Capital plus Loan Loss Reserves. Higher values in this ratio indicate that a bank is under more stress caused by loans that are not being paid as scheduled. 

The FDIC is an independent agency created by the Congress to maintain stability and public confidence in the nation's financial system. The agency is the chief federal regulator for most of the nation’s banks and insures deposits at all banks.

Cochran, a longtime business and political reporter, developed the project following on the success years earlier and on a smaller scale when he analyzed banks while reporting for the Des Moines Register. He also covered the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, in which more than 1,000 savings and loans institutions were closed nationwide.

When Cochran moved to Gannett News Service, an editor at the company’s flagship newspaper, USA TODAY, asked if was interested in helping to form a computer-assisted reporting team. This led to Cochran and USA TODAY reporter Dennis Cauchon writing about the S&L crisis and then on all the banks nationwide.  

“When we started the Workshop, I went back to USA TODAY and said we should do this again,” Cochran said, this time with a focus on what the recession had wrought on the banks. But USA TODAY declined to become a full-fledged publishing partner in 2009. 

“We got a lot of pushback,” Cochran recalled when looking for a mainstream publishing partner to help reach more readers. “It looked like the economy might just be ready to turn up its toes.” The recession, which officially began in December 2007 and officially ended in June 2009, was continuing to be felt in the housing and jobs markets.

Cochran turned to investigative reporter Bill Dedman, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author who is now at Newsday. At the time, he was at msnbc.com. He and his editors agreed to publish the report. 

“We were, at that point, in the Top 3 — sometimes first or second or third — largest news websites by traffic. So we had a huge traffic, and we didn’t have a huge staff,” Dedman said. “We were always looking for investigative content.” 

He recalled that it was also a period in which they were making partnerships with a number of nonprofit newsrooms. “So we were open to that sort of collaboration,” he added. He took on additional reporting and editing with his editor, Mike Brunker.

Dedman wrote stories that developed from the data and analysis, including the first one, which showed that foreclosures and bad loans raced through the banking industry in 2008, with the more than 8,000 U.S. banks registering a 149 percent increase in troubled assets.

Dedman and Cochran knew each other from their many years of involvement with Investigative Reporters and Editors. The partnership worked because “I trusted Wendell’s work so was open to it,” Dedman recalled. 

“We read the methodology and looked at the data and what Wendell was doing, and then it just seemed rather straightforward,” he said. Other msnbc.com economics reporters and the legal team vetted the work as well.

However, the American Bankers Association (ABA) wasn’t convinced the analysis of FDIC data was newsworthy. Ed Yingling, then president and CEO of the ABA, wrote in a letter to msnbc.com’s Jennifer Sizemore, then the editor in chief, “Many troubled banks regain their footing much as many sick people get well. The last thing those institutions need is a publication stepping on their oxygen supply. We urge you in the strongest terms not to publicize this list. The FDIC is the only organization whose problem-bank list should matter. The bank regulators look at numerous aspects of a bank’s condition, not just one ratio that fails to take into account other salient points about a bank’s condition.”

Yingling was concerned that the Workshop's report may be "overly simplistic,” he wrote.

In the coming days, Dedman exchanged emails regarding a specific bank in Oklahoma, and Cochran recalculated the ratio to adjust for the fact that, at some banks, a substantial portion of the troubled loans are guaranteed by the federal government. Dedman also sought additional comments from the ABA’s chief economist and from a small bank association. 

Cochran forwarded the letter from the ABA to both Executive Editor Charles Lewis and then-Dean of the School of Communication Larry Kirkman. Lewis remembers Kirkman emailing him within minutes to wish him luck with the story. The Workshop is based at American University but is an independent, nonprofit news organization.

One of the concerns both news organizations had with that first rollout was whether the traffic would cause the Workshop’s website to crash. Dedman said that was a common problem: “We would make deals with groups, and then we’d knock them flat. We had a slideshow with 75 million page views.”

The BankTracker project didn’t soar to those heights but did garner 400,000 page views and 50,000 unique visitors that first day and picked up journalistic praise from the Poynter Institute and SABEW, the Society of Business Editors and Writers, which later awarded the project for its creative use of online media. 

And neither website crashed, thanks to advance work by Matthew Waite, who was then a news technologist at the St. Petersburg Times and on contract with the Workshop. He now teaches at the University of Nebraska.

(And for the journalism junkies: Dedman explains that in those days, msnbc.com was an online company in Redmond, Washington, on the Microsoft campus, a separate, online, joint venture between NBC and Microsoft — separate from MSNBC on TV, with separate editors and a separate board. This was particularly important as MSNBC took a turn to a political point of view, while at msnbc.com, reporters were trying to play it straight, based on original reporting. Years later, msnbc.com was turned into NBCNews.com, but most of the staff was laid off and management started a new msnbc.com as the face of the online (liberal) MSNBC cable channel.)

The partnership with msnbc.com would continue for several years. 

And in 2010, a year after the first story, the Workshop and USA TODAY’s Cauchon published an analysis as well, which used the federal bank data to compare the behavior of the 940 banks that were recipients of TARP funds with the 7,400 banks outside of it. One of several key findings was that despite TARP funding, lending was down and there were questions from congressmen about whether the program had been effective.

There also continued to be privacy concerns, Cochran said, referring to the perception that sensitive data about individual account holders might be published (the data does not include such information) or that there might be a run on the banks if the Workshop’s reporting showed a dire situation in the banking industry. 

“But since 1934,” Cochran said, “when the FDIC was formed, there’s been this requirement for the banks every year to file their results publicly. And unlike many reports that just go into some dark hole somewhere, the FDIC actually uses that stuff.” 

Cochran said the FDIC data is “by far, the cleanest data you could ever hope for, which we prove every time we publish it. We’ve never had to correct one.” The Workshop continued to track and publish quarterly updates and stories with msnbc.com and later with NBC News.com. The stories are less frequent now but the data is updated.

And in 2016, Workshop data reporter Josh Benson analyzed eight years’ worth of the FDIC’s quarterly reports, and with the help of Cochran and David Donald, then the Workshop’s data editor, was able to show the widespread impact during and since the financial crisis.

Among the key findings:

• The country lost 2,350 banks in the last eight years, but big banks grew bigger and richer, especially those in the top tier. 

• Banks now have more assets, capital, deposits, profits, reserves and fewer losses and troubled assets than they did in 2007. 

• Every state was hit hard and lost at least one bank because of the Great Recession, with six states losing more than 100 financial institutions.

The project last year also included a sortable database by state.

Cochran has now retired from teaching at the School of Communication and from his role as a senior editor at the Workshop, but he has continued to work on BankTracker updates this past year with other reporters and developers, including Benson and Chris Amico. 

BankTracker remains a big reader draw. “It’s the kind of story that journalists don’t do nearly often enough,” Cochran said.




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