The Census Bureau is a valuable source of enterprise ideas and background for regional reporters. The statistics the bureau gathers often are fresher than the once-a-decade census data the agency is known for.
A few numbers buried in a report or spreadsheet can become the foundation for a weekender or trend piece that makes government numbers meaningful to readers. And the story can become an opportunity to work with a reporter in your home office.
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Every two weeks or so, the bureau puts out a tip sheet that lists upcoming reports and data dumps, when they're expected to be released, and what was put out since the previous tip sheet. They can be a gold mine of story ideas, especially when the reports contain state- and county-level data.
Some of the most detailed reports are available on an embargoed basis. Don't break the embargo, or you and your paper won't get subsequent numbers early any more.
Among the most eagerly awaited yearly numbers are population estimates. State-level estimates as of July 1 come out in December, often during a slow time for congressional news; in the next months the bureau breaks down the numbers by age and racial groups. County-level population estimates as of July 1 are released around April of the next year. Place-level estimates as of July 1 — census-speak for cities, towns and wide spots in the road — come out around May.
The bureau's statisticians don't have many congressionally mandated deadlines and accuracy is paramount, so release dates can change.
The Consolidated Federal Funds Report, which tallies what the federal government spent the previous fiscal year in each county, often comes out in May.
Reports on income, poverty and health insurance are issued in September, sometimes late August, using figures from the previous year.
Every five years, the Census Bureau does an economic census down to the local level. In 2004 and 2009, the agency begins to release the information, such as statistics on women- and minority-owned businesses and the number of trucks, minivans and SUVs in each state.
Lifestyle section staffers back home might be interested in the Facts for Features releases that the public information office compiles two or three weeks before major and obscure holidays like Mothers Day, Black History Month, or even the centennial of the first flight. It lists trivia in Harper's Index style, with Web links for more information.
The key to a great story that uses census numbers is tracking down real people at the local level to illustrate a trend or problem. The best census stories — such as the proliferation of SUVs in your state as gas prices continue to rise — use the numbers as a nut graf, and then add locals, academics, think tank gurus and politicians to fill out the tale. Often detailed stats work best in a graphic. Most pieces won't need to be written on deadline.
Numbers, such as the size of a town or the percentage of Hispanic residents, can add context to stories that have nothing to do with the census.
Data the Census Bureau gathers comes in several flavors, all of which can be useful in stories, breakouts or graphics. But make sure you know the kind of numbers you're seeing. Everything, except part of the once-a-decade census, is a sample subject to some sampling error that could make small changes between years or among states meaningless. Some types of numbers:
- Decennial census. A tradition since 1790, this is what people think of when they say census. It has two parts: a short form that counts U.S. population and a long form mailed to 1 in 6 households nationwide. Information gathered in the long form, which is a sample, is used to help run federal programs and dole out billions in federal dollars.
- American Community Survey. This yearly nationwide survey is designed to provide fresh local information more often than the census. If the bureau gets its way, this sampling will replace the long form in 2010. The advantage: The information won't become outdated as the long form data does now. The disadvantage: Numbers for geographic areas smaller than about 250,000 people, including some counties and most cities, aren't as accurate. Right now the bureau is gathering information so it can create a sort of rolling three- or five-year average for these areas.
- Current Population Survey. This monthly, nationwide survey of about 50,000 households has been done for the Bureau of Labor Statistics for more than 50 years. Results show up primarily in the monthly unemployment reports, which the Department of Labor generally releases at 8:30 a.m. the first Friday of every month for the previous month. (State rates lag a month behind on a different schedule; metro areas are two months behind.) Some survey questions differ each month and become the source for Census Bureau reports that contain state-level data on income, poverty, and even female fertility.
- Census Bureau, www.census.gov. The easiest way to find state or county statistics on issues such as poverty or commuting is to look in Subjects A to Z on the left rail of the page. Ask questions and see a variety of instant-link answers at the bottom of the page.
- State & County QuickFacts, http://quickfacts.census.gov. For basic population, race, education or even income numbers to slide into a story, this can act as your online almanac.
- MapStats, http://www.fedstats.gov/qf/ . Has a version of the QuickFacts site that incorporates Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Agricultural Statistics Service and National Center for Health Statistics data. One advantage: This site allows you to slice and dice down to the city, congressional district or federal judicial district.
- American FactFinder, http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml. FactFinder is designed to allow people who don't know computer-assisted reporting to have access to 2000 and 2010 census, American Community Survey and economic census data, in some cases down to the census tract or block. The menu-driven system can take some time to master on deadline, but bureau public information officers and members of Census-L (see below) can help you navigate.
- Census Bureau. Sign up for the bureau's e-mail list by sending e-mail with your name, title, news organization and e-mail address to firstname.lastname@example.org. A staffer will check your credentials and manually put you on the list that allows you to learn about embargoed news releases before they appear on the bureau's Web site. Remember, too, to ask for a username and password for access to the embargo area so you can have get information before its release date.
- Census-L. Subscribe to Census-L, Investigative Reporters and Editors' census e-mail list, for an interactive forum on census questions. Reporters nationwide, census experts in academia, census reporting pioneers who now teach, and Census Bureau officials are members of the list and can offer help to those who ask. Two big advantages: You don't have to be an IRE member to join, and list members can offer guidance at times the Public Information Office is closed. To subscribe, send an email to email@example.com. In the body of the message type: subscribe census-l youremailaddress. An automated e-mail system will confirm your subscription and you'll start receiving e-mails. You'll be able to post messages to the list at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Does this agency's information need updating? email@example.com
The Census Bureau puts out several hundred reports and data releases a year. The best way to keep track of them is to sign up for the bureau's e-mail list. If you don't want e-mail, periodically check the bureau's Web site, www.census.gov, under "Newsroom Releases" for the same information.
The bureau's Public Information Office is open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.
Call 301-763-3030 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and any one of several public information officers — they're all pretty helpful — can explain reports, help you navigate the Census Bureau Web site or lead you to people who can help make sense of the statistics.
Robert M. Groves is director of the agency. 301.763.2135, email@example.com .
Stanley J. Rolark is the chief PIO at 301.763.1544, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thomas L Mesenbourg Jr is his deputy at 301.763.2138, email@example.com.