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Melissa Preddy

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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Doctors, clinics and the pent-up demand from newly insured patients

President Obama last week relished his announcement that some 8 million people already have signed up for private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and that milestone sets the stage for a number of business angles related to the demand for and delivery of  health care services:

Where’s the pent-up demand?  Curiously, a number of reports say that clinics and doctors’ offices are not seeing the surge of new health care consumers that had been expected.  This column from the San Francisco Business Times, “Bay area Obamacare: Where are the patients?” reports some interesting observations from local health care systems; the absence of a big patient influx may be attributable to both a healthier cohort and new patients’ unfamiliarity with navigating a health care system.

What are your area’s primary care and specialty clinics and doctors seeing in terms pent-up demand, and is it what they expected?

Helath Clinics Seattle Times

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has sparked disruptions in healthcare business-as-usual. PHOTO: Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times

Clinics.  Here’s an interesting Seattle Times read about a “David and Goliath” partnership to create an after-hours clinic next to a hospital ER; the clinic space was donated by the health care system but it’s staffed by the health care providers of a community-centered organization that now can afford to operate the clinic because more of its low-income patients will have insurance.  Poke around your area for any similar initiatives.

Quickie clinics in retail stores, like the CVS Minute Clinics, are another fascinating area to watch; the Wall Street Journal in “Drugstores play doctor,” recently reported that the nation’s 1,600 no-appointment-needed retail clinics are expected to double over the next three years, with some of the nurse-practitioner-staffed treatment centers even expanding beyond the flu and sore throats to management of chronic conditions like diabetes (which is no doubt a lucrative area for expansion)  The WSJ report cites this 2013 study by the consulting firm Accenture.

Clearly you can take a look at the clinic growth in your area and talk with your state’s biggest insurers about growth in patient claims that come via these operators.  Are they cost-effective from the insurers’ point of view?  We know doctors’ associations don’t like having their patients usurped but here’s a Houston Chronicle report on why consumers like them and why their share of pediatric patients is growing.  What are doctors’ practices – with traditionally are open only during business hours, require appointments, keep patients waiting in exam rooms and otherwise discouraging would-be customers — doing to compete and win back patients?

Big bureaucratic health care systems seem to be getting the message; here’s a piece about a regional medical center opening a retail clinic in a Meijer general merchandise store.

And (anecdata alert!)  I used a retail clinic New Year’s Eve for what turned out to be the flu – got there, examined, home and back, clutching my cough-syrup prescription, in 45 minutes flat — compared to a multi-day wait for an appointment at my regular doctor, a long sojourn in the waiting room and exam room, and then a separate trip to a pharmacy.  It was an amazingly smooth and low-cost experience.

The nurse-practitioner seemed to really enjoy her job, too, from the patient care to being the solo manager of her own little clinic in the dynamic environment of a bustling store.  You might take a look at the career possibilities these clinics offer for practitioners, as well.

And on a related note, this Forbes column highlights the expanding role of the pharmacist in health care delivery; it emphasizes the pharmacist as medical advisor, champion of adherence to prescription drug regiments (because non-compliance can lead to costly medical issues) and even giver of immunizations.  The Pharmacy Times, an industry publication, asks “Is another credential in your future?” and notes that certification in areas like “geriatric pharmacy” is on the rise.

 

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Security firms thrive as safety standards tighten for public events

According to news reports, some 4,000 security personnel were on hand for Monday’s Boston Marathon, the first since the 2013 bombing at the event killed three people.  From cameras to cops to bomb-sniffing dogs, and through bans on backpacks, face masks and more, officials are determined that this year’s event won’t be marred by tragedy, as Boston’s WQAD reports.

Boston Marathon 2014 security

Security was ramped up at Monday's 2014 Boston Marathon. Photos: WBUR

Authorities won’t say how much the extra safety measures along the 26.2 mile course are costing, but we can imagine.  And with similar public events, from fun runs to patriotic parades to summer concerts to Fourth of July fireworks about to take center stage as spring rolls toward summer, it might be worth taking  a look at the events security industry in your area and how stepped-up concerns might be creating business opportunities for some companies.  Recent news of more shootings in public spaces from courtrooms to community centers, and a stowaway who somehow made it around airport security in San Jose, Calif. also will give the security a higher profile as summer vacation season kicks off.

Of course, you’ll have to approach it a bit tactfully; few businesses are going to boast about reaping revenue from others’ misfortune.  But the latest in crowd control techniques, surveillance, security technology and jobs possibilities in the industry all can make for good, timely stories this season.

WLWT in Cincinnati touched on the topic with this report about the  upcoming “Flying Pig” run in that community; precautions there include the banning of bags and backpacks in favor of see-through plastic bags for runners’ clothing and other supplies.

And this is interesting:  StLouis Today reports Security lessons from Boston one year later that among other tactics, local police had background checks run on race volunteers.  Who was paid to do that?  Are similar efforts afoot leading up to big events in your area?

Boston Marathon 2014 CNN image

Stories about the 2014 Boston Marathon were filled with tales of perservance, survival and security.

The trade publication Security Info Watch says the demand for physical security equipment and services (vs. cybersecurity, which also is a booming industry) is already a $110 billion global market and projected to grow to $170 billion by 2017.   There are angles for a variety of business beats, from technology (video surveillance is hot and growing) to careers to small business / franchises.  Another report by Transparency Market Research has a slightly different forecast but notes that fears about terrorism have boosted security budgets nationwide.  This press release and the related detailed report are worth a read because they illuminate different facets of the industry you might want to pursue.  Biometrics also are a growing field, and

And there are interesting niches to the business; who knew that not only is crowd management a security specialty, it’s got big players like these two, Staff Pro Inc., which was just acquired by U.S. Security Associates, a contractor that claims 160 offices and 52,000 employees nationwide.  Who knew?  The press release says Staff Pro Staff Pro “specializes in crowd management, licensed security, ushers, ticket sellers, ticket takers, alcohol enforcement, event managers, and special event consultants.”

Music and arts festivals, like the recently wrapped Coachella festival, are a growing clientele for security contractors; if you’ve got such an event coming up you can give readers insight into the costs and concerns of both parties.

Here’s a link to major industry trade shows and associations; perusing the member list, programs and speakers will help you become familiar with industry concerns and find experts to interivew.    And SourceSecurity.com bills itself as a major industry resource; if you click the companies tab you’ll find an item in the dropdown menu that leads to events security firms.

 

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Money Monday: Don’t overlook personal finance stories for low-income families

college students in lab

A 2013 survey indicated that 80 percent of U.S. college students are shouldering some or all of their college costs Photo: Jeremy Wilburn

One of the biggest limitations and frustrations of mainstream personal finance reporting is that it often includes nothing helpful for the people who need help the most: the poor and low-income people amid our audience.

With a few days yet to go in National Financial Literacy Month, why not consider a round-up of services and institutions in your market that do offer assistance to people of limited means?  

Counseling. 

Low-income people often can benefit from help in locating resources, planning a budget, finding creative ways to meet emergency expenses and navigating complex insurance, health care and credit systems.  Where can they find it in your market?  In addition to credit unions, members of the Jump$tart Coalition and community health agencies, I’d start checking with the state and county extension services; many of those I spot-checked offer financial literacy workshops for teens and adults. Others offer websites, booklets and podcasts.  If your area universities have departments of family and consumer sciences – the modern-day equivalent of home ec — they may also be a resource for programming or expert commentary.  Many churches have “money ministries” that offer counseling and support, as well. 

Financial services.  

As a number of national articles have pointed out over the last year, it’s expensive to be poor.  People with a tattered credit history have a difficult time opening bank accounts — as many as 10 million households are ‘unbanked,’ according to the FDIC — and instead of the free checking and savings accounts enjoyed by those who maintain minimum balances, they pay costly premiums for check-cashing, wire transfers, money orders and more, in addition to finding it more cumbersome and difficult to pay utility bills and other obligations in a timely fashion.  Fees mount up. 

What services in your region offer low-cost banking to poor people?   Here’s a fresh U.S. News & World Report article, “Options for the unbanked,” about “second chance” programs for people with bad banking histories, or other products like pre-loaded debit cards and secured credit cards.  Just be sure to point out the fees.   The low-income credit union initiative might make more sense for many poor people; here’s a press release from the National Credit Union Assocation about the project which supports local credit unions by allowing them to accept deposits from non-members and make loans. 

Unconventional financial services.

It might be most useful to look for alternative financial services that people with limited resources can tap.  One interesting concept is money pooling, in which individuals with bank accounts but poor cash flow combine their resources, with each person taking a turn at using a larger lump sum.  Some online sites claim to facilitiate the process, like eMoneyPool, which does it for a fee of $25 per $500.  The site also said it will make up shortfalls for people who don’t make their promised payments.  (Defaulters get a black mark on their credit reports, too.)  Crowd funding, micro lending and payday loan places are also markets to look into.  Here’s an extremely detailed June 2013 report from the FDIC (including demographic and state-by-state data) on the use of “alternative financial services” like money orders and check-cashing firms, too.

It’s worth noting that recent reports say Walmart is getting into the wire transfer business, planning to offer a store-to-store money transmission for fees that are far below what Western Union charges but still around 10 percent of the amount of the transaction.  You might take a look at the wire transfer companies in your neck of the woods; who is using them and why? 

 

 

 

 

 

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Helping consumers spot phony ‘green’ claims on Earth Day and beyond

Earth Day is April 22 and it’s not just for environmental writers.  From solid waste to clean energy to careers and more, there’s an ecology claim to scrutinize on pretty much every business beat.

NASCAR

NASCAR and the Daytona 500 say they continues to look for ways to be environmentally friendly.

Even NASCAR, the embodiment of internal-combustion engine worship, tries an earth-friendly spin:  Its Race to Green initiative is encouraging tree planting to offset carbon emissions and installing electric-vehicle charging stations at tracks, among other tactics; the Twitter handle @NASCARGreen offers up other examples like racers helping schoolkids build nesting boxes.  The program bills itself as the largest sustainability program in sports and last year’s NASCAR Green Summit featured Al Gore among other environmental advocates.

If you cover the business of sports, or economic development, or anything related to large public venues like arenas and convention centers, why not check out the latest in recycling and econ-friendly initiatives at those mass gathering spots?  Are they for real or just damage control to deflect attention from polluting practices?

Whatever industry you cover, there’s a green story waiting to be investigated, like hotels that “go green” by asking you to re-use towels (thus saving on their own laundry costs) .  I’ve received self-congratulatory messages from a casino chain about their new “green” e-newsletter to replace a printed mailer.

If you’re in a skeptical frame of mind, you might even produce a round-up of your area’s most blatant “greenwashing” initiatives by local companies seeking green credit for shrewd business moves; you can model it after this 24/7 Wall Street feature “The Green Hypocrisy,” which exposes the polluting practices of 10 major companies that were spinning their sustainability story while in violation of EPA regulations, or actively lobbying against climate-change science, and so on.

Here, for example, is a Union of Concerned Scientists report from 2013 which claims that companies hide their climate-change denial lobbying by doing so through trade groups.  Might be interesting to see the trade and lobbying group activity for or against green efforts, relative to any eco-friendly image campaigns at the corporations you cover.

Sustainabilty without compromise sign at worksite

This company shares its green intent on the entrance to its worksite. Photo: Richard Eriksson

And here’s a site, GreenwashingIndex.com, that lets submitters call companies on suspicious green claims in advertising.  You might scope out local ads and direct-mail pieces; I’ve seen green claims lately from service firms ranging from carpet cleaners to diaper services.  Some years ago a lawn-care firm near me was touting itself as “organic” — for some reason it sounded fishy and I ended up with a front-page story after learning that the state natural resources department was looking askance at that claim, because the company was using the same toxic pesticides chemicals as every other turf care business.  (As a state official said to me, ‘Technically gasoline is organic, but I don’t think that’s what the consumer had in mind.’)  You might do a consumer-friendly piece about how to question the green claims of companies they hire, like these consumer caveats  from Environmental Protection magazine.

Even businesses can be harmed by false green claims; here’s a fascinating anecdote from the site Business Insurance about a commercial landlord who lost tenants — and whose property and financing were jeopardized — because of fake green claims by a construction firm she hired.   Avoiding misleading greenwashing claims — or pursuing action against those who do — is even a bit of a legal specialty, if that’s your beat:  Here is the American Bar Association’s guide to “Greenwashing: What your clients should avoid,” which outlines FTC rules and other curbs companies should beware of.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement portal includes an interactive map of closed enforcement cases and ZIP-code searchable database that will show you any company in your area falling under EPA regulations, when they were last inspect and violation.

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A new way to look at housing prices: NYT’s shows what a buck will buy

I always admire alternative storytelling, from video to maps to interactive graphics or just clever ways that writers use prose.  A a recent business story in the New York Times recently caught my eye and I think it’s just ripe for biz reporters nationwide to localize.

In “The buck shops here,”the NYT columnist Ben Schott came up with a really clever way to display relative housing prices by district or neighborhood.  If you click, you’ll see a series of little grey boxes labeled with the name of various New York City neighborhoods, along with a few in other cities nationwide like Dallas and Philadelphia.  What are those boxes?  In actual size, they show the amount of residential floor space $1 will buy in all of those area.

Buck Shops Here NYT real estate feature

Ben Schott's illustration (click the image to see the original) shows the actual floor space $1 will buy in New York neighborhoods.

The smallest box, less than one square inch, represents what four quarters will buy in New York’s Flatiron district; by contrast, about 64 of those tiny Flatiron squares will fit inside the space $1 bill buy in Memphis. (My eyeball estimates of the relative size of the boxes).

Quite interesting and while the city-to-city comparison in enlightening, I think readers/viewers in a local market would love a more drilled-down estimate.  You could go street-by-street logging recent home sales — say, in the last six months or year — or block-by-block, by subdivision or by quadrant depending on the size of your market.   The NYT graphic is based on actual sale prices as of January 2014 and credits Zillow for the data.

And indeed, Zillow does offer a great search engine of recently-sold homes; I did a ZIP code search and then quickly zoomed in on my neighborhood; price and square footage of houses and condos involved in recently transactions popped up quite handily.  I would caution though — a recent sale right on my street reflected the accurate price – I was nosy and asked — but the listing represented on Zillow’s site referred to an older, smaller house that was on the premises before it was razed and replaced by a much larger dwelling.  So if I used the published square footage as the basis of calculations, it would be off.   You probably ought to double-check any recent transaction info with the real estate agent involved in the deal, or perhaps the title company.

Another good search engine is on Realtor.com, the site of the National Association of Realtors.  It reflected sales that closed as recently as two weeks ago and of the ones I recognized, the photos seemed more recent and the specificiations up to date.

With both new and existing home sales on the economic release calendar for the week of April 21, the topic will be at front of mind for a lot of consumers, and showing them this novel way to compare what a buck buys in area real estate will make for a useful and educational feature.   You can either drill down to the NYT’s “square inches per dollar” level or just illustrate the average price per square foot of living space for the examples you select.

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So just why is 4/20 a day to celebrate pot .. and other marijuana stories ideas

Not all of the grass enjoyed this coming weekend will be that bright green stuff cushioning dyed hard-boiled eggs.

In an interesting confluence of events, Easter Sunday shares April 20 with what’s come to be known as National Weed Day, when marijuana is smoked and publicly celebrated in parks and plazas nationwide; Wikipedia calls it a “counter-culture holiday” (wonder how long that moniker will hold up as legalization efforts spread) and explains the lore behind the notion that 420 (or 4/20 or4:20) is code for for marijuana.

Boulder 4-20 celebrations

Boulder's 2010 4-20 celebrations attracted a crowd. Photo: Colleen Whitfield

Just in time to meld the chocolate treats of Easter with some Rocky Mountain highs, the first marijuana- related vending machines are being unveiled that can dispense brownies or other pop products, and use biometrics to make sure the purchaser is of legal age.

It’s an opportune moment to review the legal status of smokers in your neck of the woods, any pending legislation that might open up the pot industry and quirky stories related to the sale and use of the plant.   The Cannabis Country enthusiasts site (which features a Buds of the Week photo contest) has compiled a list of …yes, 420 events that will commemorate what it prefers to call National Pot Smokers Day.  Gatherings range from legalization protests to public “smoke outs” and cover a wide range of the United States and beyond; check the list for organizers of the one nearest you.

The range of laws and attitudes toward marijuana varies widely by state; Maryland’s governor just signed two related bills; one resurrects the state’s medical marijuana program and the other decriminalizes owning small amounts of pot.  But in other jurisdictions, owning a few  can land you in prison for a dozen years or more.  Take a look at the advocacy group NORML’s interactive map of state laws.

We all know what the law is in Colorado, and you can bet pot is going mainstream when it gets its own newspaper blog;  the Denver Post jumped right on it with The Cannabist and I must say the blog is a trove of interesting angles, from a call for a new marijuana critic (yes, get paid to review weed — must authoritatively known marijuana) to an article about conflicts with neighbors who don’t like the odors emanating from your bongs.  More to the point for a business writer, the blog features roundups of products and small business profiles.

By Flickr user Laurie Avocado

And in Colorado they’re not just celebrating 420 day — they’ve got 4/20 Week coming up with concerts, pet expos and more.  (Canabist Tip: Out-of-staters, don’t leave your leftover smoke as a tip for the hotel housekeeper when you leave town; you’ll both get in trouble.)

Irreverence aside, you can see how legalizing marijuana sends financial and jobs creation tentacles throughout a community’s businesses, from tourism and hospitality to retail to health care.  Business leaders and lawmakers nationwide must be looking at Colorado and licking their chops at the potential tax revenue; Reuters just reported that Colorado will rake in $98 million this year in marijuana related taxes – 40 percent more than forecast — and of course that’s not counting the other forms of spending that locals and tourists are doing on everything from bed & breakfast inns to Girl Scout Cookies.  Are these industries lobbying in  your area for marijuana law reform, or are they worried that marijuana tourism might be siphoning interest in their offerings if it spreads?

Miracle Gro Marijuana business

In 2011, Scotts Chief Executive Jim Hagedorn said he was exploring targeting medical marijuana to help boost Miracle-Gro sales.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are due for another look, too, and if it’s legal in your state, check around for any publicly traded companies like Medical Marijuana Inc., or other opportunities for those who want to get in on the ground floor; one analyst calls it the “single best investment opportunity for the next 10 years.”  You might talk with local brokerage firms, investment advisers, financial planners — are they getitng any inquiries from institutional or individual clients?  And what are pension funds pondering about pot?

Another grey area as pot slowly loses its stigma — what happens to people who’ve been imprisoned for using or selling the drug, and what happens to the legal practices of attorneys who specialize in that area?  Talk with your area’s bar association and niche lawyers about their profession’s concerns regarding those and other issues stemming from a contradictory patchwork of  state, federal and local laws. Other professional practices — like this firm of CPAs that specialize in legal marijuana – are springing up as well.

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Money Monday: Making sense sense of the financial advice industry

We’re midway through National Financial Literacy month and our look at resources and story ideas for addressing personal finance coping skills at various life stages.  This week, middle-age — the group that’s coping with myriad financial concerns from their kids’ (and perhaps their own) student loans to elder care to planning for their own old age, while juggling current expenses, job worries and real estate issues with one wary eye on the stock market, as well.

personal financeIt’s a lot to digest and few people are financially literate enough to step back and objectively evaluate their own financial picture.  It may not make sense, for example, to bail out struggling adult children if it jeopardizes one’s own retirement — the younger set has more time to work and recover than their Baby Boomer parents, but many moms and dads are doing exactly that sort of bailing as we speak.  Same with retirement savings — you can borrow funds for education but you can’t make up lost time in building a nest egg, or borrow to fill it.  And we know now that many households that “lost it all” in the economic meltdown of 2008 really would’ve rebounded quite well if they hadn’t sold off investments in a panic.

But people respond emotionally to money-related situations, and don’t always pick the sensible path.  So one service you can do for middle-income, middle-aged readers is a primer on finding the most cost-effective financial advice for their situation.

KEEP IT BASIC

Start with the basics — an info-box defining the credentials various advisors use, and what they mean. It’s easy for consultants to toss out Securities & Exchange Commission terms like “Series 7 license” and such that sound impressive — but the fact is many employers that require such a credential spend more time training their reps in sales tactics than in fiscal expertise.   And contrary to what some consumers assume, there is very little government oversight of people operating at the general “financial adviser” level.  As this  U.S. Government Accountability Office report points out, what regulation that does exist covers products, such as insurance, but not necessarily the education and quality of advice given by consultants.

CNN Money reported that there are 100 or more credentials used by financial advisers and some of those initials are no more than marketing tools doled out by trade groups.   Most personal finance writers will agree that the most reputable credentials, which require substantial education, exams and adherence to ethics codes, are the Certified Financial Planner and Chartered Financial Analyst.  I would include those in any list you create, and point out that many advisers also are lawyers, CPAs or have other credentials as well; it’s up to consumers to find someone with the right mix of skills, expertise and education.  This U.S. News & World Report piece, “How to find a financial adviser if you’re not rich,” may be the tack to take;  though it does seem to focus on commission-oriented investment advisors.

SNAPSHOT & RESET

Sometimes, rather than ongoing money management, all a middle-income household needs is a one-time or two-time snapshot of where they are, some changes they can make (shift IRAs to lower-cost index funds, for example, and adjust asset allocation to match their age & goals) to maximize their returns.  The adviser should be able to provide advice about must-do steps like wills and health-care powers of attorney, a forecast of retirement income based on current savings rates and an evaluation of the household debt picture, as well.  Talk with some reputable advisers about what this sort of financial check-up should cost, and what services should be provided — as well as a checklist of questions/topics consumers should be prepared with.  The Garrett Planning Network is a professional associaton of fee-only financial advisors that aim to be accessible to people at many income ranges; use their search engines to find local members as experts for your story.

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ON ONE CARD

 

NON-PARTISAN ADVICE

Here’s a (PDF) booklet called “Know your financial adviser” from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau you might use as a template for sidebars; it’s aimed at older consumers and makes the point that people in specialized situations, such as military retirees, need to seek out specialists in that area.  And as we have seen over the past year, financial and estate-planning advice for same-sex couples, whether they are legally married or not, is a complex issue and one that is becoming a growing niche for experts.

People who aren’t in a position to save might need a different sort of assistance; try to offer help to them, to, always keeping an eye out for helpers without a profit motive.  Credit unions sometimes sponsor low-cost budget counselors and volunteer tax assistance organizations might help families with tangled back-tax problems.  Also check with your state’s financial regulators, attorney general and other agencies about any ongoing enforcement actions or examples of prosecutions they can point to, which you can use as narrative examples for readers.

 

 

 

 

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Quicktips: Mad Men kitsch, real-estate glitch, Passover product pitch

We’re amid one of those stimulating times of year when the seasonal news pegs are so numerous it’s hard to keep up.  I missed National Love Your Produce Manager Day and going to have to take a pass on National Garlic Day; hoping to squeeze in some Earth Day ideas but meanwhile here are a few quicktips on upcoming stories you just might want to spin into local biz features:

Mad Men.  The beginning of the end of the popular retro soap kicks off Sunday, April 13as the first half of the oddly birfurcated final season begins; hard to believe that seven years have gone by since Don & Betty Draper and their swingin’ 60s circle created such a martini-fueled stir.

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in Episode 6 Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in Episode 6 Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

The show’s aesthetic launched calendars, cocktail recipes, a Banana Republic fashion line, fan books and more.  Now some of those items have become collectibles – and the very name of the show now is appended as a keyword to unrelated products on sites like eBay and Etsy to convey a certain vibe, much like the Shabby Chic trademark phrase was co-opted by sellers of other vintage goods.

Newsday got a neat little feature out of “Where to find Mad Men fashion and décor on Long Island.”  You could do the same and perhaps delve a little more into the supply and demand of vintage and retro-style goods.  Talk with bartenders, liquor store operators, e-cigarette and smoke shops and more about how consumers get into emulating the dressier era of decades gone by.  And here’s a just-published Upstart Business Journal piece about “How Mad Men inspired an architecture student to start a fashion firm.”

If you want to tackle something a bit meatier, how about a sit-down with your region’s marketing and advertising gurus; how has the industry changed in the past few decades?  Is copywriting still in demand or would Peggy Olson be mastering search-engine optimization skills and the new business of targeted Twitter ads – what are the skill sets aspiring gurus should be mastering and how has the billing/business model changed in the past decade for advertising agencies?

Passover.  The Jewish observance runs March 15-22 this year and commemorates, as Chabad.org explains, the emancipation of Israelites.  Although a period with very solemn origins, its traditions have not escaped the attention of the same marketeers who have co-opted other religious observances; this year for some reason seems particularly ripe with products capitalizing on Passover’s prohibition on leavened goods and many grains and legumes.

That includes high-fructose corn syrup, one reason why Coca-Cola and other drink makers produce a special sweetened-with-sugar version for Passover consumption; it’s turned out tobe a hot item with Coke fans of many heritages.  Now Ad Age reports that packaged food makers are producing kosher versions of cake mixes, potato pancake batters and other goods that individuals on gluten-free diets are snapping off store shelves.  Why not talk with grocers and with people on restricted diets about the growing availability of and appeal of Passover foods for Jews and non-Jews alike?

Real estate RIP.  Tired of perky real-estate stories about sellers wooing buyers with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and neutral wall paint?  How about a site that lets easily creeped-out would-be owners check on the dark side of the houses they like?  DiedInHouse.com is a for-pay search engine that lets property seekers (or sellers, I suppose) plug in an address and find out who’s on public record as having died there.  It would be interesting to run the report for a number of current listings or recent sales and talk with the parties about how a ghoulish event or even an ordinary death might affect the transaction.

On a more serious note, disclosure notice requirements vary from state to state; some really do mandate that deaths (violent ones, anyway, or crimes) be disclosed to potential purchases.  Why not a story on the local legal requirements, along with tips for making the best of your home’s image problems (known as “stigmatized property in the trade) and otherwise checkered past?

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Follow-up ideas to the gender-wage gap headlines

President Obama commemorated Equal Pay Day by inking an executive order that addresses the wage gap between men and women, at least at federal contractors. 

And while Equal Pay Day (the day a female worker catches up to a male worker’s total wages for the previous year) has come and gone, the issue remains along with a number of other developments regarding women in the workplace. 

Women at work Tshirt

Women at work on a Habitat for Humanity project in Miami. PHOTO: El Gringo on Flickr

So, I’ve compiled a variety of resources and story ideas you might use now and over the next few weeks; the issue likely will be highlighted again in May when Mother’s Day typically shines new light on parenting/workplace matters.

On the equal pay front, the White House itself was dinged this week for what critics claim is its own wage-gender gap; critics say female workers at 1800 Pennsylvania Ave. are paid only 88 cents for every dollar that male workers earn.  The awkward moment for the White House highlights what some analysts say are reasons for the gap that go beyond simple discrimination; when you mix in hours worked, the higher likelihood that women will take a career hiatus at some point and other factors, it’s a very fraught subject to report. 

For example, this PolicyMic report uses the same 77-cents-to-one-dollar figure the White House uses to describe the female/male pay discrepancy, noting that can add up to a $400,000 deficit over a working woman’s lifetime.  And as PolicyMic notes, citing the National Women’s Law Center fact sheet from November 2013, the gap is even worse for women in some demographic groups, especially Hispanic and Latina women.

The National Partnership for Women and Families also uses the 77-cent figure as a national base line and offers an interactive map of the state-by-state wage gaps; click on your state for more detailed info and analysis. 

On the other hand, some analysts disagree with the oft-cited numbers and the conclusion that women are being unfairly paid.  This Slate article, “The Gender Wage Gap Lie,”  delves into factors like education, occupation and hours worked and says the gap is as narrow as 9 cents on the dollar (meaning women earn 91 percent of what men do.) The article cites this Freakonomics analysis of MBA-d workers, which says starting salaries are on par but maternity leave, part-time work and other choices eventually led to a 40-percent pay gap between men and women.   

Obviously getting real-time wage-by-gender information from your area’s employers is going to be difficult but you might be able to obtain some stats from unions.  Perhaps taking a look at the proxy statements now emerging from publicly traded companies would be interesting; at least you can compare the salaries and fringe benefits of female senior managers to their male counterparts, and ask about any discrepancies. Bloomberg last year analyzed proxies of the S&P 500 companies and found that female execs were earning 18 percent less than men.  Why not do the same analysis for your local public companies and then ask them a) why and b) if the trend holds true among their rank-and-file workers. 

A new report CBS News cited, by the office of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) points out the long-term effects of the pay gap, including a fascinating state-by-state chart of women’s earnings and eventual Social Security benefits, which of course are pegged to wages.  This is an interesting angle because a common reason women give for dropping out of the workforce to care for their children is the cost of day care which often is nearly the same as the family’s second income. 

You might talk with financial advisors about the pros and cons of biting the bullet for a few years in order to stay invested in a career, even if it means treading water until the kids are in school.  It may be that the eventual gains realized by staying employed outweigh the seeming futility of working in the pre-school years – not just in terms of closing the wage gap during working years, but for a woman’s old-age security.  And this would be a very timely approach in light of the just-out Pew research which finds that the percentage of mothers who do not work outside the home was up to 29 percent in 2012, after decades of declining.

It might be interesting to see what your area’s major employers say about the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill in the Senate that would change how discrimination suits are handled.  Many critics say it would be more of a boon to plaintiffs’ lawyers than to actual workers and some trade groups like the National Retail Federation are publicly opposing it. 

And here as context is the World Economic Federation’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report.

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