Public Records: Form 990s

A fundraiser that bombed. A steady climb in legal fees each year. A significant increase in pay for an administrator. If you’re a student journalist at a private university or college, these are all possible stories that could be uncovered with a Form 990.

The document, filed annually with the IRS, allows the government and the public to evaluate the operations of non-profits across the country. The government uses the form to determine if a non-profit is fulfilling its mission and still deserves its tax-exempt status.

As news editor, the story pitch process with staff reporters can be like pulling teeth. S0 instead of clearly stealing ideas from the university blog, I urge reporters to take a look at the 990. If you’re creative and read it carefully, you can have great story ideas at every pitch session for the rest of the semester.

Screen Shot 2013-07-16 at 8.47.38 PMBeyond the wealth of information, though, the form allows for the comparison to similar colleges and past years. And this further research can make a good story a great story.

The forms are available through several websites, like, or

Remember: The information in this document provides contextual information. You still need to hit the pavement and the phones for the story to be publishable.

Check out these 10 ideas straight from the 990s. Trust me, though, there is definitely more.

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