Covering bankruptcy in a time of economic turmoil
Daniel Massey covers the economy for Crain’s New York Business, which means he’s been quite busy in the past few months. Massey also coversÂ labor, immigration, housing, and economic development.
Before coming to Crainâ€™s,Â Massey worked at the Star-Ledger, where he wrote a six-part series on a soldier nearly killed in a roadside bombing in Baghdad. He reported for Newsday on the Bronx fire that killedÂ nine children and one woman from two Malian families. And he covered Queens for the Times Ledger, earning the New York State Press Associationâ€™s Rookie Reporter of the year award.
In 2003,Â Massey produced Persons of Interestâ€”on Muslims detained after Sept. 11â€” which was an official selection of the Sundance, Rotterdam, Locarno and Human Rights Watch film festivals. His book on the role Nelson Mandelaâ€™s alma mater played in the South African liberation movement is forthcoming from the University of South Africa Press.
He holds MA degrees from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Fort Hare, South Africa and a BA from Brown University. Massey was born in Washington Heights and raised in the Bronx.
Talking Biz News talked to Massey about how he’s been covering bankruptcy court this year during the economic crisis. What follows is an edited transcript.
1. How long have you been covering the economy?
I started on the beat in February.
2. What do you find interesting about it?
It cuts into every aspect of life in the city, from the salami manufacturer in the Bronx who canâ€™t finance the purchase of new delivery trucks to homeowners in Brooklyn worried about losing their homes. As a native New Yorker, there are aspects of life in the city Iâ€™ve long observed, but before starting this beat, hadnâ€™t necessarily looked at through an economic prism. I think in the current crisis, all New Yorkers are beginning to realize that their lives and the economy are interrelated. Â Â
3. When did you start to see more stories coming from bankruptcy court?
With the sorry state of the economy, Iâ€™ve been seeing plenty of material coming from bankruptcy court pretty much from the start of my time at Crainâ€™s. One of the early stories I wrote was on a stark rise in Chapter 11 filings in the city this year and Iâ€™ve been following that story line ever since. Â
4. How has your bankruptcy coverage changed recently?
My understanding is that Crain’s New York previously covered bankruptcy court by going to the courthouse, but now you’re spending a lot of time using the online PACER system.
Thereâ€™s definitely more use of PACER. Iâ€™m not sure exactly what happened before I arrived, but my sense is coverage was more on an ad hoc basis. If there was bankruptcy-related news on a reporterâ€™s beat, that reporter would cover the story. Now, with PACER, I can feed stories to other reporters that fit in with their beats.
5. How much time do you spend on PACER each day?
I try to check filings in the two courts that cover New York City each afternoon. If thereâ€™s a filing of note, Iâ€?ll spend more time looking through documents.
6. How do you use the PACER system to find stories?
Iâ€™ve used it both to identify trends in bankruptcy filings and for stories about individual companies. For example, are there a large number of construction firms filing as the building boom slows?
7. Are there specific documents that you’re looking for?
Lists of creditors, attorneysâ€™ names, tax returns, etc. Â
8. Can you give me an example of a story or two that you uncovered using PACER that you might not have found at the courthouse?
PACER is a huge time saver. Most of the stories I find wouldnâ€™t be found without it because I donâ€™t have the time to go down to the courthouse to look through filings. Keeping an eye on bankruptcies is just a sliver of my beat, which also includes housing, immigration, labor unions, employment and economic development.
One recent afternoon, I found a filing from a high-end seafood distributor that had been the subject of several Crainâ€™s articles for questionable labor practices. Our restaurant reporter had just written about the companyâ€™s labor troubles, but hadnâ€™t been aware they had driven it to bankruptcy.
Finding the filing enabled us to add a new, intriguing element to a story that had already captured our readersâ€™ attention. Just this week, a Manhattan commercial real estate lender filed for Chapter 11 as a result of declining real estate values and a reduction in the number of loan buyers. Filings can often add meat to trends reporters are seeing the overall city economy.
9. What bankruptcy stories can’t be covered via PACER?
Iâ€™d make sure to get out of the office every once and a while. I was looking for individuals who filed for bankruptcy due to toxic mortgages and, while the filings could offer clues, it was much more useful to go down to the hearing rooms and catch people right after they completed their meetings with judges.
10. What type of trend stories have you been able to find via PACER?
Iâ€™ve done two major trend stories using PACER. One looked a sharp rise in small businesses filing for bankruptcy and the other looked at a surge in individual filings related to the mortgage crisis.
11. With the economy in New York hurting because of Wall Street’s problems, what are some bankruptcy stories that you’re hoping to do in the future?
Iâ€™m keeping an eye on construction companies that are filing as the building boom has come to an end and many of the small players who emerged the last few years could be in for trouble.
12. How do you tie your bankruptcy court reporting into reporting from other areas, like looking at real estate records or government agency documents?
Probably not as much as I should. But Iâ€™m learning.