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Tips from Pulitzer winners? Cover insurance for career advancement

Jonathan Kaufman, education editor, Bloomberg News; Paige St. John, reporter, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Paige St. John (right) of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune talks with Jonathan Kaufman of Bloomberg.

ORLANDO – The advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate” may have been “plastics,” but two Pulitzer Prize winners say “insurance.”

In separate sessions at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference, both Paige St. John of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times indicated that insurance is a good area of coverage in which to make a name for yourself as a journalist.

St. John said not to be intimidated by what may seem like a technical subject. She had to get up to speed quickly when she began her investigation into Florida’s property-insurance system that led to her 2011 Pulitzer in investigative journalism.

Take a look at the database visualization that accompanied St. John’s story: Sinkhole claims made in Florida, 2005-2010 |  And a story from March 15, 2011: Momentum to pare sinkhole coverage, Insurance industry has declared itself victim of an epidemic of fales claims

Paige St. John of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune looked into the growth in unpaid insurance claims for sinkholes in Florida.

“Approach this industry with a lot of curiosity and skepticism,” she said.

Bogdanich, who has won three Pulitzers and was a finalist for the prize St. John won, said he gravitated to insurance when he was assigned to cover personal finance at The Wall Street Journal because he saw it as under-covered.

Here’s how St. John recommended getting up to speed quickly on insurance:

  • Read everything you can find on the subject. LexisNexis is your friend.
  • Find experts who can help you. Her guides included a retired actuary from the state regulatory agency.
  • Start with very broad questions: Where’s the money, and who’s making money? “The really nontechnical questions are the best ones to keep asking,” she said.

More tips came from her co-panelist, David Evans of Bloomberg, who exposed how fallen soldiers’ families were denied cash as life insurers profited:

  • Read the annual 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission of those insurance companies that are publicly traded. “The 10-Ks lay out for you what you need to know about how they make money,” he said. St. John also recommended Webcasts, archived on company websites, of company officials “boasting about what they do and how they do it” to analysts during earnings calls.

Here are more suggestions from St. John on how to cover insurance well:

  • Read the companies’ rate filings with the state and get help deciphering them from experts such as the National Consumer Federation and former Texas Insurance Commissioner Bob Hunter. In addition to the filings, she said, “You will find letters that tell what they are planning to do.”
  • The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) collects annual financial filings to each state by insurers, including the Schedule Y, which outlines other companies the insurer owns. St. John said to call the NAIC directly at 816-783-8003 to request access to its “treasure chest” of data.
  • Ask more questions when you hear these words: crisis, losses and fraud. “Claims patterns are often exaggerated. Outrageous jury awards are rare and often overturned,” she said. “Losses are often padded with IBNR – insured but not reported” claims. And on fraud, what are the actual number of fraud cases reported to the state, not the suspected cases reported to the industry-financed National Insurance Crime Bureau?

In Basics, Best Practices, Career tips, Featured, Investigation, Investing | Banking.

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