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Finding (Almost) Anybody

Tracking people down is among the core tasks of any journalist.


You've heard of a source. An ordinary individual, maybe, or maybe a doctor, a lawyer, an architect or a civil engineer.


But no one can tell you exactly where the source is.


Or you've heard a doctor has gotten into trouble before and is a real-estate magnate, to boot.


How can you find them?


What to do? What to do?


Whether you're looking for Joe/Josie Sixpack or Dr. Joe/Josie Sixpack, the process and ways of thinking are pretty much the same.


The starting point: Think through what institutions might have an interest in collecting information on a particular person. Where might records be that illustrate their activities, wealth, etc.


The trick: Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be.


In these days of instant information, computer-assisted everything and the notion that anything-useful-is-on-the-World-Wide-Web-somewhere, we tend to forget about some of the simplest and best resources.


The phone directory, for example.  Many journalists ignore this useful compendium of personal information, choosing instead to ask questions like: "Does anyone know where I can find Dr. Joe Sixpack's phone number online?"


Well, yes, probably, but why bother? As the old jingle goes: "Let Your Fingers Do the Walking."


Another example: The newspaper morgue. Some reporter, somewhere, likely wrote at some time about the person you're seeking, especially if they're some sort of professional. So check the online or off-line morgue of the newspaper in the city you think the person is in. If the morgue isn't online, pick up the phone and ask a reporter or researcher at the paper; most often they'll help you out.


Another example: The local library. Reference librarians are wonderful people whose reason for living is to help folks find out stuff. A call to the local library where you think your target is can be most useful.


As newspapers around the country make their archives available either through commercial online services or on the World Wide Web, newspaper clips are even more widely available. And services like PR Newswire make press releases available from companies around the country.


Journalists’ first stop often is the county clerk’s office or the courthouse, where there is a wealth of public records containing what they need. With the explosion of online services, the job has been made easier -- too easy, according to some, because it leads young reporters to ignore paper -- as some (but not all) of the data becomes available at the click of a mouse.


Still, paper records remain the foundation of backgrounding; virtually anything found online began it's life on a piece of paper. Journalists  who rely exclusively on what can be found online can miss revealing information. The key is to develop a “document frame of mind,” thinking about what kinds of documents might be generated by an individual or company and where they might be kept.


So, which do journalists use more often, paper or online resources? Both and neither. The pragmatic approach is best -- do whatever works. Sometimes a reporter will have time only to do a quick online check. Others times he’ll seek much more detail.


Remember that public record laws vary state-by-state so what may be available in one may not be in another. Likewise, the record custodians may vary.


Remember, too, that records often provide addresses, dates of birth, information on assets and liabilities and other identifying information not directly connected to the subject of the record, itself.


Finally, while public records are “official” documents and therefore reliable, they can be out of date, contain typos, etc. Verify, verify, verify!


Here are some of the most useful records and online sites journalists can use to track folks down, whether they are licensed professionals or civilians.





These records can be obtained in almost every jurisdiction in the country. They can be kept at the state level, the county level or locally depending on the state. Many of these records are becoming available online, especially those concerning real estate, corporations, courts and licensing, whether professional or not.


Virtually every profession has its own professional association which often will provide an address or phone number for one of its members or reach out to a member on your behalf. One way to find a professional or affiliate association is to type "american XXXX association" into a search engine and see what pops up. That's how I found many of the organizations listed here. Another way is to check the Encyclopedia of Associations, available in most good libraries. Some examples:


Air Line Pilots Association


Represents pilots in the US and Canada. Find news releases, an e-zine, a list of job opportunities, and reports on air safety.


Airplane Owners


Find pilots and aircraft owners at this site.


The American Association of Cosmetology Schools


Links to a variety of professional groups


American College of Radiology


Summary of the activities of this professional association, with details of policy, education, and research guidelines.


American Institute of Architects


Professional organization of architects.


The American Medical Association Physician Locator


Find physician addresses and credentials. From the AMA home page, click on “AMA Health Insight” and then “Physician Select.”


Martindale-Hubbell Lawyer Locator


The on-line version of the well-thumbed, multi-volume lawyers directory. Find addresses, phone numbers, professional credentials. Westlaw provides similar information through West’s Legal Directory: www.lawoffice.com/


National Funeral Directors Association Online


The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) is the largest funeral service organization in the world.


Rabbinical Assembly of America


National organization of Conservative rabbis




These sites let you look up names, addresses phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. Most are updated only as often as printed directories and most do not contain unlisted numbers. Some also include reverse directories. Inconsistent results; try more than one.







Also has a reverse directory by address. Plug in the address and it'll give you the listing.


Reverse Phone Directory.com


Exclusively a reverse directory


Yahoo People Search














A recent arrival to the people-finding scene. Finds neighbors. Requires download, installation of a small software client. Advertising supported.




Data brokers compile billions of public records on individuals, including information on property, lawsuits, vehicles, professional licenses, neighbors, relatives and more. Financial records, access to which are restricted under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, ordinarily are not available. The various data brokers have different offerings and different price structures. Some require special software, others utilize standard communications software or are available via the Internet. When opening an account with a broker make certain that all information they offer is truly public and legally acquired. Recent concerns about privacy have led some to screen subscribers carefully but occasionally arbitrarily. And privacy concerns (hysteria?) means that records once available are no longer.













Go online to research both publicly held and private businesses.


Hoovers Online


Search a database of more than 10,000 profiles of companies, both public and private. Free searches provide basic information on companies, with links to additional on-line sources. A $9.95 per month subscription enables access to more in-depth profiles.


Dun & Bradstreet


These profiles are a way to research thousands of businesses, including officer names, general business information, payment patterns, debts, liens, and judgments, etc. Most information is self-reported and must be considered in that context, but for privately held companies these sources often provide the best available information


Security & Exchange Commission/EDGAR


The SEC’s EDGAR database enables researchers to search for all SEC documents from publicly traded companies that file electronically. Proxy statements contain information on executive compensation. 8K and 10K filings contain company financial data.


Free Edgar


Another SEC search engine, one of several that allow searching across SEC records for specific names. Useful to learn how companies or people are connected. You can also create "watch lists" to track particular companies.


Stock Quotes/Business Data/Business News


Get stock quotes, finance data, news, insider trades and the like for any publicly traded company.


PR Newswire


Distributes press releases for public and private companies.




The American Journalism Review, a journalism trade magazine, maintains a Web site which lists the on-line addresses hundreds of newspapers, magazines and radio and television stations. The URL is www.ajr.org/. The Yahoo Internet index also provides a good list at www.yahoo.com. And of course Lexis/Nexis provides access to publications around the world.


Here are some major Web news outlets. Some charge for complete access



Sources of general demographic, statistical and reference info.


The US Bureau of the Census


The official source of information on the nation, states, counties, municipalities, even neighborhoods. Conducts authoritative demographic studies that can be useful for targeted marketing.



A potpourri site with links to a dozen or so federal statistics agencies.


The White House


A gateway to information on the president and all executive branch departments. See especially, “The Interactive Citizens Handbook,” which provides links to departments, independent agencies, and more.


THOMAS: Congress On-line


THOMAS (named after Thomas Jefferson) provides links to both houses of Congress. Offerings include bill-tracking and the Congressional Record.


The CIA World Factbook


A CIA handbook containing detailed profiles of every country in the world. Updated annually.


Yahoo Maps


Maps and driving directions for an address, neighborhood or a region.



World Wide Web Indices and Search Engines

Indices and search engines help researchers search huge chunks of the World Wide Web at one fell swoop. An index, such as Yahoo, is a collection of interesting Web sites assembled and maintained by human beings. A search engine, such as Google, scans every word on millions of Web pages and presents the addresses of pages meeting user-specified criteria. Always check out the “Help” links to learn how to refine and focus your searches. There are dozens of search engines, each with their own strengths. Go to searchenginewatch.com to learn about them.




Click “More” on the Google home page to see all of Google’s offerings.






Internet Mailing Lists and Newsgroups

The Internet is full of discussion groups on almost any conceivable topic. Those online conversations are archived and can be searched. It’s sometimes possible to gain insight into what makes a person tick by retrieving his or her postings.


Internet mailing lists, sometimes known as listservs, allow people interested in a particular topic to talk among themselves via e-mail. For a list of more than 50,000 mailing lists, searchable by topic, check out lists.topica.com,
where you can also create your own mailing list. 


Newsgroups are another kind of Internet conversation. Unlike listserv mailing lists, newsgroups don’t arrive via e-mail. Rather, you have to connect your computer to a news server. But you can search an enormous archive of newsgroup postings at groups.google.com. Formerly called Deja and before that called DejaNews, the archive has been acquired by the folks who run the Google search engine.


Mailing lists and newsgroup postings are often also available via the major search engines. Be sure to search both the World Wide Web and Usenet, the component of the Internet where a lot of these conversations take place. Many search engines have an option to search either.




There's this other profession, prospect research, whose practitioners do a lot of the things journalists do. Prospect researchers work for non-profit organization developing background and wealth assessments on potential big givers.Most journalists do not know what prospect researchers do and aren’t aware of some of the great backgrounding resources some of the best have put up on the Web.


The Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement


This professional group's home page provides links leading to a number of sites assembled by prospect researchers around the country.


The Internet Prospector


A terrific site maintained by Randy Bunny at the University of Wyoming, with contributions from ace researchers around the country. It includes tutorials.


The Prospect Research Page


Maintained by researcher David Lamb, formerly with the University of Washington.


The University of Virginia Prospect Research Page


Includes the best collection of online tax assessor databases.



© 2005, Neil Reisner




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