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Meena Thiruvengadam

Meena Thiruvengadam is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She worked as a staff reporter for several U.S. newspapers. During the Great Recession, she covered the Treasury, Federal Reserve and economic news for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal in Washington, D.C. She is pursuing a master’s in media strategy and leadership at Northwestern University. She's online at www.meenamedia.com and on twitter at @Meena_Thiru.


Local angles in the big business of payday lending

payday loans

As the economy worsened the number of payday loans sites grew. Photo: Flickr user Taber Andrew Bain

Wherever you live and report, there’s a good chance a payday lending battle is brewing in your backyard.

An estimated 12 million Americans spend $7.4 billion a year on payday lending services, according to the latest report from the Pew Center on the States. That breaks down to 5.5 percent of adults across the country. These borrowers are mostly white females between ages 25 and 44. They borrow an average of $375 to cover regularly occurring bills and pay an estimated $520 in interest charges.

“This is a system set up to bilk the borrower,” said David Heath, an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. Heath has spent the past few years investigating online payday lending. He’s written about Indian-owned payday lenders in Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas and unearthed one wealthy race car driver funding his adventures with the proceeds of his highly lucrative and secretive payday lending business.

“It’s such an easy business to get into, particularly as the economy has created cash flow problems for so many people,” Heath said.

As the economy worsened, the ranks of payday lenders grew. Allegations of abusive practices increased and companies have increasingly altered their business models to keep up with changing regulations. Some big banks are also getting into the business. It’s a situation that makes for an endless stream of story ideas for business reporters looking to find local angles to a major story playing out across the U.S.

The Pew Center has amassed a vast collection of data reporters can use to help identify trends, better understand this growing industry and spark ideas. It surveyed more than 33,000 people to derive its data and created an interactive map of state payday lending regulation and usage rates.

National consumer protection organizations, such as the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Responsible Lending, also track the topic closely and talk about it extensively as do groups such as the Community Financial Services Association of America, a lobbying association for payday lenders.

National data on payday loans is ample, but the most interesting stories still are playing out not in the nation’s capital but in the cities and and states across the country.

Covering the payday loan boom locally

The Center for Responsible Lending suggests payday lending can be a big money business for even the smallest local storefront lenders who charge interest rates as high as 400 percent a year on what are meant to be short-term, temporary loans.

Online the stakes can be even bigger. “Online lenders don’t face the same regulations as storefront lenders, so it’s really been growing,” Heath said.

One element driving the growth: aggressive efforts to regulate local storefront lenders.

Payday lending regulations vary from state to state. While recent financial reform legislation does allow for some increased regulation on a national level, Heath said the most robust robust regulation still is found at the state level.

Cities are increasingly becoming the battleground where this debate is playing out. In San Antonio, storefronts are moving to avoid potentially onerous new regulations. Lobbyists are opening their checkbooks in an effort to keep stricter laws from being enacted.

“City attorneys are tackling this issue on their own a lot more often,” said Josh Baugh, a City Hall reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.

Baugh suggests reporters study how local payday lenders are regulated and which lawmakers operate in districts where the industry is prevalent. “You want to look for the people who have a vested interest in telling you what’s happening in the area you cover,” he said.

Baugh also recommends getting in contact with lenders to find out what attempts are happening locally to curb business practices. Also ask how it might impact not only their bottom lines but also the readers they serve. “Lenders are usually  happy to expose attempts to curtail their activities,” he said.

Heath suggests looking for business stories in local and federal legal filings and government documents. He also said reporters should scour national, state and local government databases to learn more about what local payday businesses are doing.

“If you’re looking at a company that seems to be hiding something, it potentially could be worth it to keep digging,” Heath said.

loan shop

Payday lending regulations vary by state. Photo: Flickr user A McLin


Finding the human side of the story

“So many of these people, they take out $50 to make rent and spend 5 years paying it back,” Baugh said. “These are so many of these gut-wrenching stories out there — you could tell 100 different stories like that.”

Sometimes, writing one story can lead to more literally flowing into your inbox. “As you start to run stories, particularly on this topic, you start to get a lot of emails saying ‘here’s what happened to me,'” Baugh said.

Local consumer groups can also help reporters unearth borrowers’ stories. Entities pushing for stronger regulation of payday lenders, as well as lawmakers in areas where payday lending is prevalent, are also helpful.

Heath suggests getting a handle on the personal finance side of the story by scouring consumer complaint websites, many of which contain real names, contact information and insight into the growing complications of the payday loan business.

“There is strong sense that people need to take personal responsibility, but what reporters may not always understand is that much like the exotic mortgages that caused the country so much trouble, payday loans today have gotten so complicated that most people don’t really know what they’re signing up for,” he said.


Three quick and easy paths to business infographics


You don’t need a graphics team to develop infographics thanks to several new tools. Photo is a screenshot of Kamloop Daily News’ visual created using Infogr.am.

Just because you may not have access to a full-fledged graphics department, doesn’t mean you have to be left out of the rise of the online infographic and all the extra page views that come along with it.

Several websites have emerged in recent months that make it easier than ever for business journalists to dream up quick infographics. And they’re promising to get even better.

Here’s a look at three of them:


This Eastern European site aims to make infographic creation easy for anyone anywhere in the world. The site has a selection of templates you can add your own data to and embed anywhere on the Web. Users can also add photos and text and generate popups that appear when users hover over portions of the infographic.

It’s still not as customizable as I would like, and I wish it had more templates. But it’s still a quick and easy way to add a visual pop to online business content.

That’s a lesson veteran journalist Mark Rogers and Kamloops Daily News new media editor learned the easy way.

Rogers used Infogr.am to visualize an aging population in Kamloops, British Columbia, using Canadian Census data. The Kamloops Daily News doesn’t have a full-time graphics person, so he had to find a way to come up with one himself.

He described his experience the following day on his Newsloops blog: “I made my first infographic yesterday — not because I suddenly became talented, but because of infogr.am.”

And that infographic allowed him to drive home the message that his area’s population was aging more effectively than words alone ever could, Rogers said.


This is my favorite site for quick infographics, and it might just boost your vocabulary, at least by a word.

Easel.ly offers what it calls vhemes, a.k.a. visual themes. Users pick a vheme, add their data and text and can easily end up with a pretty cool infographic.

The site, which is in beta mode, allows users to customize and edit its vhemes by dragging and dropping various elements. It also houses a bunch of interesting visuals for journalists looking for inspiration. Among them is this description of the differences between angel and venture investors.


Visual.ly is a great place to peruse excellent business infographics, but it’s not the best option for people looking to create their own visuals in just a few clicks. At least not yet.

Visual.ly allows users to create infographics using data from Twitter and Facebook accounts. The options are pretty limited, but if you’re looking to compare the social popularity of local businesses or visualize how a brand you cover is doing on social media, Visual.ly can help.

In the future, Visual.ly plans to offer new prepackaged themes and give users the opportunity to create their own designs. Those changes could be worth keeping an eye out for.

Even though he prefers tools that give him a little more leeway to create more customized visuals, Matt Stiles, an NPR data journalist and the brains behind The Daily Viz blog, suggests journalists try “all the tools they can find while also studying graphics best practices and color theory so they don’t make (too many) mistakes.”

Developing some basic programming skills can also be handy for developing simple interactive visuals, he said.


Must-follow Twitter handles for economic reporters


Creating a list of economic reporters to follow on Twitter? Make sure @BetseyStevenson is on your list. Photo by Flickr user Johan Larsson

Last week a colleague of mine asked me which Twitter handles I follow for economic news. To answer his question and help you get a head start on Follow Friday, here’s a list of 10 Twitter handles that will help you keep up with the world economy or find the inspiration you’re looking for.

  1. @BetseyStevenson — Betsey was a Labor Department chief economist but is now a Wharton professor whose spending a little time at Princeton. She tweets about about gender inequality, offers telling insights into government data and is an expert in lovenomics and lifenomics.
  2. @JustinWolfers  — Justin just looks like an Aussie surfer. He’s really an Aussie economist and a Wharton professor. He’s @BetseyStevenson’s other half and the brains behind the #FedValentines Twitter trend. He may or may not also surf.
  3. @baselinescene — This Twitter handle is manned by James Kwak and former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson. They tweet about banking, bailouts and financial regulation. They also are the brains behind the Baseline Scenario website and authors of 13 Bankers and White House Burning.
  4. @ritholtz — Barry Ritholtz has been one of my favorite bloggers for years. He has a knack for making the complex comprehensible, a sense of humor and a sarcastic, snarky streak. His Twitter feed is like his blog: straightforward, funny and brimming with data that’s worth digging into.
  5. @ChrisRugaber — One of the Associated Press’ leading economy reporters. He’s great at identifying trends, explaining US economic data in laymans’ terms and providing inspiration for local reporters sniffing for stories.
  6. @Pdacosta — Pedro da Costa is a Reuters journalist who covers the Fed and helps fuel Reuters’ Macroscope blog. He tweets voraciously about all things macro, monetary policy and international politics. He has a sharp sense of humor and deploys it smartly.
  7. @spiegelpeter — Peter is the guy to follow for European economy news. He’s the Brussels bureau chief for the Financial Times and a smart retweeter.
  8. @Reddy — Sudeep Reddy is a Washington-based Wall Street Journal economics reporter who tweets about the Fed, the IMF, US jobs, and the euro zone. You also may have heard him on Marketplace or seen him on the WSJ News Hub.
  9. @zerohedge — This sarcastic handle Tweets about banking, the global economy and the stock market, but the face behind it remains a mystery. It’s linked to the Zerohedge blog, which is credited with pioneering early reporting on flash trading.
  10. @NYTEconomix — This is the Twitter handle for the New York Times’ Economix blog. It Tweets really cool stuff like this:



A jump start on #FF: Twitter feeds to follow for financial news

twitter feed

@Meena_Thiru’s top finance news feeds

She’s been called “the best financial news tweeter extant” and a human aggregator who “always has relevant stories about Wall Street.” Marketplace New York Bureau Chief Heidi N. Moore’s byline should already be familiar to regular readers of this site. Her Twitter handle should be too.

For anyone interested in following Wall Street news online, @moorehn is a must follow Twitter handle. Here’s a look at who else is on my top 10 list of Twitter handles to follow for finance news:

  • @LaurenLaCapra —  Financial Tweeter extraordinaire and Reuters reporter Lauren Tara LaCapra tweets the latest news on the biggest Wall Street banks.
  • @LouiseStory — Tweets from New York Times reporter Louise Story focus on J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs and more.
  • @m_delamerced — The Twitter feed for Michael de la Merced, finance reporter for the New York Times and DealBook. Clicking links from his feed and colleague Louise Story’s feed is one way to access Times stories without running into its pay wall (yet).
  • @WealthWatch  — A Twitter feed with a sense of humor and links to a wide range of financial news from Suzanne Woolley, managing editor for personal finance editor at Bloomberg.com.
  • @counterparties — This Reuters feed is curated by @felixsalmon and @mccarthyryanj. They call it their “beautiful dark twisted fantasy,” part of an experiment in building a financial news site that links to the best content available from any source. It’s awesome.
  • @ft — This feed is an easy way to keep track of top headlines from the Financial Times. Unlike The New York Times, you’ll run up against a pay wall in just a few clicks.
  • @marketbeat — The Twitter feed for the Wall Street Journal’s MarketBeat blog. As it says, it “looks under the hood of Wall Street’s financial engine each day.”
  • @dealbreaker — This one is an automatic headline feed devoid of a voice of its own, but it is a good way to keep track of headlines from the snarky Wall Street tabloid.
  • @CNBC – Follow this feed to feel better about changing the channel to ESPN or HGTV while you’re working.

This list is just a start. One great way to find even more great people to follow is to see which interesting Twitter handles these top Tweeters follow. Check their lists, too. If they’re like Heidi, they’ll have neatly arranged their favorite Tweeters into lists you can follow in just a click.



Celebrity home sales: Localizing real estate secrets of the rich and famous

celebrity house

By Flickr user Ines Hegedus-Garcia

When San Antonio basketball legend David Robinson decided to move last summer, he didn’t list his house with the Multiple Listing Service as most sellers do. Instead, the Admiral opted for a more private sale. But he couldn’t keep it a secret.

“The Admiral has left 1 Admirals Way,” the San Antonio Express-News reported in July.

Reporter Jennifer Hiller revealed the 7-foot 1-inch basketball star – a Navy veteran and one of the best centers in NBA history – was selling his house in an exclusive community on the outskirts of the Alamo city.  His family had moved so his children to be closer to school, Hiller quoted a listing agent as saying.

But how did she find out Robinson’s six-bedroom house with a pool, spa, tennis court, elevator, gym and basketball player friendly high ceilings was up for sale, particularly since it’s located behind multiple layers of security in a neighborhood that doesn’t allow for sale yard signs?

“Sometimes real-estate agents will call me if they have a house on the market that belongs to one of the Spurs or someone prominent,” she said.

Hiller said she hears usually hears about high profile real estate sales like Robinson’s from real estate agents, builders and property developers. Sometimes reporters will find luck searching public records for the right name, “but it’s much easier if you have sources tell you this stuff,” Hiller said.

And even though the price tag for Robinson’s house was kept a secret, Hiller was able to help readers make a guess by digging up county appraisal records that showed the property had been valued at $3.92 million.

She used the same appraisal database to explain that Robinson hadn’t left the city for which he played his entire NBA career. Instead he and his family moved to another luxury neighborhood in the city, this time to a home valued at a mere $2.75 million, she reported.

Covering high profile real estate deals is one way for business reporters to reach readers craving celebrity news. And celebrity news is a topic readers around the world flock toward, comScore data shows.

No wonder publications like the Los Angeles Times devote significant resources to covering the real estate moves of the rich and famous.

“The bigger the celebrity, the more popular the story tends to be,” said Sara Polsky, a New York-based real estate writer for Curbed. “Stories about local celebrities like Yankees and Mets players tend to do well, too.”

Polsky said she keeps up with celebrity real estate sales by regularly checking public records.  The data includes information on buyers and sellers, which can make celebrities more easily identifiable, but there is a catch.

Manhattan real estate buyers are allowed to mask their purchases by making their purchases through an LLC. “Sometimes it’s not obvious who has made a purchase, and that’s where sources in the real estate industry come in handy,” Polsky said.

While cities like LA, New York and Chicago may be the ideal markets for celebrity real estate news, Hiller’s article shows even reporters outside those meccas can find celebrity stories with wide audience appeal in their own backyards.



The Federal Reserve: A wealth of data for business reporters

Federal Reserve

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Federal Reserve managed to work its way into Valentine’s Day hearts across the country this year.

It started with fewer than 140 characters. “You’re my long-run target; my nominal anchor,” @justinwolfers, a University of Pennsylvania economist tweeted a few days early. Within hours, #FedValentines became a trending topic on Twitter.

“My love is elastic, my commitment too big to fail,” tweeted the San Francisco Fed. “When I get that feeling I want quantitative easing,” @bretlowery wrote. “This time before you bail me out, make sure you handcuff me,” said @melaniekahl.

For days, U.S. central bank-inspired love notes have been filling up the Twitterverse. Some tweeters like the way yields curve while others simply can’t get enough of the Fed’s stimulus. Whatever the attraction, one thing the Fed’s fling with the Twitterverse shows is how the central bank can help reporters connect with readers.

In addition to providing fodder for national and international stories, the Fed offers a wealth of information for local, regional and specialty business news reporters. “The trick is to connect the flood of numbers the Fed provides to things that would actually interest people,” said Chris Rugaber, an economics reporter for The Associated Press.

“The flow of funds report is an intimidating pile of data, for example, but it is actually telling you how much money the average American holds in stocks, their net worth, how much debt they have,” he explained.

The report, also known as the Z.1, is released four times a year in March, June, September and December. To the average reader it may look like about 120 pages of numbers and charts virtually guaranteed to make anyone’s eyes glaze over. But to the savvy business reporter, it is much more.

During the Great Recession, The Wall Street Journal’s S. Mitra Kalita deciphered the Fed’s flow of funds data to explain how American families lost nearly 18 percent of their wealth in 2008 – the largest amount since the government started tracking the data after World War II. Kalita used the Fed’s data to explain why Deidre Helberg’s son turned his gaze toward state schools instead of pricier private colleges.

The Fed also publishes something it calls the Beige Book several times a year. The document details economic activity in each of the Fed’s 12 regions. Sifting through its data can give reporters insights into local housing markets, hiring trends and consumer spending. The report also contains other nuggets of interesting information. Last month’s Beige Book, for example, noted reports of government employees sharing rooms to save money rather than booking individually.

Other Fed reports track data including consumer borrowing, manufacturing activity and small business lending.

While the Fed doesn’t always breakout local and regional information, Rugaber said local and regional reporters should be mindful of opportunities to see if national trends are holding true in their areas.

It may not equal a lifetime of love, but it should lead to at least a few good stories.


Low rates help, hurt as economy recovers

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Photo: NY Daily News

The Federal Reserve last week told the world it’s in a long-term relationship with ultra-low interest rates. In the process it laid the groundwork for a lot of good stories.

The Fed: “The committee decided today to keep the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent …  low rates of resource utilization and a subdued outlook for inflation over the medium run–are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through late 2014.”

Translation: Interest rates, which are already at or near record lows, are going to stay that way probably until you start making plans to party like it’s about to be 2015.

For journalists on the business beat, that’s a cue to investigate such stories as whether readers are rushing to refinance their mortgages or waiting to see just how low rates can go. Nationally, mortgage refinance activity has been on the rise, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Mortgage refinancing now accounts for about 80% of mortgage activity these days.

“Ask economists how much lower they think mortgage rates will go,” said Martin Crutsinger, a reporter who has been covering the Fed for the Associated Press since the early 1980s.

Then look for people like Mark and Jan Sass and Gloria Putnam who are refinancing their loans in hopes of mortgage-free retirements. Take a tip from the Tampa Bay Times’ Mark Puente and ask if business is booming for mortgage servicers like Andy Wood. Or see if the rush to refinance slows as fees increase later this year.

The latest Fed decision is also a nudge to examine what a long-term low-interest rate environment does to savers like Maggie Smith.

Reuters reporters Karen Brettell and Steven C. Johnson describe her as a casualty of the Fed’s strategy.  “For Smith and other pensioners struggling to cope with inflation higher than the rate of interest they earn on their savings, all of this amounts to, as she puts it, “being punished” for being prudent,” they write.

The federal funds rate, which is determined by the Fed’s actions, impacts the yields on savings accounts and CDs. It affects the interest rates on mortgages, credit cards, business and auto loans. A low federal funds rate can entice businesses to borrow, expand and hire – as the Fed hopes it will now – and drive consumers to borrow, spend and drive business growth.

Smith, the Sasses and Putnam are prime examples of how to put faces on what could easily be faceless stories. Smith is on the losing end of the Fed’s strategy to spur economic growth and job creation, while the Sasses, Putnam and Wood stand to benefit handsomely.

Theirs are just a few of many tales that illustrate how the U.S. central bank’s actions impact real people across the country. And their stories are crucial to telling the bigger story of how well the Fed’s strategy is working to bring the American economy roaring back.