It’s hard to believe there are only a few weeks of 2011 left – and what a business news year it’s been, from the ongoing stagnation of the jobs and mortgage markets to international debt crises to the federal budget crisis to gold prices soaring toward the stratosphere. Throw in a Tilt-a-Whirl stock market, corporate scandals, the death of a Silicon Valley star and wild, crop-killing weather and it’s a wonder any financial journalist ever got a break from the keyboard this year.
As 2011 winds down, here are a few ideas for tying up loose ends and clearing the decks for 2012, which promises to be even more frenetic than the past 12 months.
Last-minute features you might want to tackle include perennials readers love, like the post-holiday business wrap-ups, the year-end tax tips (for small businesses as well as individuals; enlist a couple of CPAs to help) and a look at cold-weather industries like snow removal firms and ski resorts.
A regional economic wrap-up isn’t a bad idea, and you can tackle it in a number of alternative storytelling formats that convey a lot of information in a short amount of space. Chart, for example, your state or county’s unemployment rate for 2011, along with a box noting any large layoffs or corporate closures that exacerbated the problem. Add a “what’s ahead for 2012″ blurb quoting an analyst; maybe from the Federal Reserve or a regional economic forecaster. Home prices, housing sales, new residential construction, building permits and the financial performance of your area’s biggest employers are other chartworthy metrics that will help provide a snapshot of where your market stands as we head into a new year.
Q&A with area business leaders, focusing on the 2012 outlook, are an interesting way to end the year. Try to get them to go beyond sound bites about lowering taxes and regulatory interference to speak specifically about challenges facing the growth of jobs and capital investment in your area.
Planning for 2012
It’s worth noting, as the New York Times did, that we’re in for the “quadrennial effect” in 2012 – the every-four-years recurrance of big events like a presidential election and the Olympics. What other cyclical events specific to your region might affect business and industry — big conventions? Major sports events? Product revamps at area manufacturers? Take time to chart events on a calendar and mentally walk through the year; you might come up with ideas for themed packages, local tie-ins to international events or other ways to spin off expected happenings. Note earnings releases, proxy statement releases and other corporate filings.
And if you’ve wanted to do a longitudinal feature, in print or online, now is the moment to seize, while you still have several weeks to plan. Nothing is more maddening than saying “I wish we would’ve followed a college grad’s job search” or “We should track the price of groceries for a year” in March when it’s too late to get a full calendar year’s worth of input. Follow a would-be home seller or mortage refinancer, or a small business start-up. Set up a standing panel of experts, analysts or small business folks who can weigh in on big stories. Brainstorm something that you’d find fascinating to monitor for an entire year and set it in motion.
Here are some other stories worth planning to hit in 2012; I’ll address them all in detailed blog posts but you can start mulling regional angles now:
- The business of elections. Printers, delivery firms, consultants, marketing pros — what small- and medium-sized companies are counting on a boost from supplying the nitty-gritty needs of the 2012 presidential and senatorial elections?
- Commodity prices, including petroleum, food, cotton and precious metals. How are area firms hedging against raw ingredient costs, or changing their business models? Are bacon bits disappearing from salad bars (they are where I eat) and electric utilities paying more for copper wire?
- Health care. Obviously the biggie is the pending Supreme Court ruling on health care reform. But I’d take a good hard look at the ever-expanding business related to the ‘epidemics’ like obesity and diabetes. As the prevalence of these conditions soars, it seems more related for-profit firms spring up to deal with them, from mail-order blood testing supplies to counseling services.
- Defense contractors. Between the federal budget battle and the withdrawal from Iraq, defense contractors and their subcontractors must be hurting. What companies in your area have lost business due to these developments and related things like the shutdown of the space shuttle program? You might have more local ties to defense than you think; how are they planning to make up the slack — and if they can’t, what jobs are in jeopardy?
- Employment. On ongoing problem from the 99-weekers who have exhausted jobless pay to new law school grads who can’t find a berth. One story I think will burgeon even more in 2012 is temp staffing and freelancing/contracting. It seems to be the new model for garnering a paycheck, especially for middle-aged or mid-career folks who have a hard time selling themselves into full-time work.
- Commercial real estate. The Urban Land Institute says this sector faces a long grind to recovery with apartments and urban office space leading the way, while power centers, malls and suburban office centers are lagging. How does demand in your market reflect these trends via occupancy levels, leasing rates and other metrics? What major properties are languishing or becoming eyesores? How has the glut of commercial space affected the building trades and vendors?
And that’s just scratching the surface of what’s bound to be a turbulent and interesting year in business news.