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This Tool Wants to Help Writers Break News

By Yael Grauer January 29th, 2016

Working with public documents is rarely quick or easy. Unfortunately for freelance journalists, bureaucracy is a constant obstacle, which means that digging through government documents can drain both your time and your finances.

If you don’t monitor public records often enough, you run the risk of missing newly released documents. But if you check on the status of documents too often, you’re cutting into time that should be spent writing. Plus, the costs can add up since PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) charges not only for court records, but also for searches.

A new tool called Sqoop wants to make that process more intuitive and less expensive. The program centralizes government documents such as court data, patent applications, and SEC filings into a single database. It also lets you search for information for free rather than paying PACER’s search fees, though you’ll still have to pay PACER when it comes to accessing documents.

Most importantly, Sqoop has a notification system that allows journalists to set up email alerts for particular cases, companies, and topics.

“It’s like a Google news alerts, except before it’s news,” said Bill Hankes, Sqoop’s founder and CEO.

So far, however, Sqoop only offers access to a limited amount of documents available to journalists. You’re still on your own for state and municipal court dockets; local police reports; information from the FTC, FDA, CDC; and many other public and private data sources.

Hankes said that Sqoop is primarily being used by business and investigative reporters, but entertainment reporters have found it useful as well since celebrities are often involved in federal court, including bankruptcy court.

Sqoop provides additional support for some types of SEC documents as well. For example, Form 4 is an SEC filing disclosing insider stock sales, and it happens to include a bunch of codes and numbers in it, which the program automatically translates to show the exact cost of each transaction.

“Reporters don’t have to figure out what the codes mean, nor do they have to add the numbers themselves,” Hankes said, “so they can see at a glance whether it’s something interesting or not.”

Sqoop is free for journalists, and Hankes says he plans to keep it that way. The company received $176,000 in funding last November from angel investors. Hankes told GeekWire that the company’s focus is on building the product and attracting users, not monetizing.

Sqoop begins at the 3:07 mark.

To get started, you can sign up on the site and start typing in keywords to find topics, people, and organizations you’re interested in tracking. You can also set up alerts to receive email updates based on your keywords. The Docket Watch feature will send you updates on specific federal court cases you are tracking. It’s not possible to search geographically yet, but Hankes hopes to add that feature soon.

I personally set a docket alert for the terms “malfeasance” and “encryption,” and thus far, I’ve used Docket Watch to follow two specific court cases I’m interested in. However, a lot of the information I need must be obtained through public records requests, or is specific to a region, so Sqoop wasn’t quite as useful for me as it might be for some people.

Still, as the journalist in the video above demonstrates, Sqoop could be immensely helpful for freelancers hoping to publish some strong news clips. Finding that a major local company has filed for bankruptcy is the kind of scoop that can jumpstart a career.

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