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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.


A reporter’s journey from the biz desk to the classroom


The campus of Northwestern University. Photo by Meena Thiruvengadam

When I took my first job out of college at the San Antonio Express-News, I figured I’d go back to grad school in a few years. The time passed and it didn’t happen. A couple of jobs and a few more years later, I finally traded my employee badge for a school ID.

At the time, I was working as a reporter covering Treasury, Fed and economic news for Dow Jones Newswires and contributing to The Wall Street Journal in Washington.  There were frequent early mornings, lots of late nights and countless trips to the Carolinas and Virginia. I generated thousands of bylines, made dozens of videos and learned so much about economic and monetary policy that I might be able to win a few bucks on a game show one day. It was a great adventure, but I knew combining a wire service job with graduate school would make for a long, tough juggle — one whose demands I knew I didn’t have the patience and energy for.

So I decided to use the economy’s yawn as a chance to step out of the workforce and go back to school. I wanted to learn more about my business, my craft and the topics I cover.

Journalism isn’t medicine. It isn’t law, and it isn’t rocket science, but good journalism still requires skill and subject matter expertise. Journalism school can be a good place to develop both.

While journalists are required to be subject-matter experts, technically proficient and to juggle the sometimes competing demands of multimedia newsrooms, journalism is one industry where advanced education isn’t as highly valued as in other sectors. Most journalism jobs don’t require graduate degrees, and some of the best and brightest careers have been built on undergraduate degrees and long climbs into bigger and better news markets.

But journalism today isn’t what it was a few decades ago.

“When I entered the business, the only technical skills you needed were to know how to operate a keyboard and a pencil,” said Gabriel Kahn, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, now a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. “That’s no longer the case. Multimedia storytelling skills are a must.”


Meena Thiruvengadam

Journalists need more technical skills than ever before, have fewer newsroom mentors and are working in an industry grappling to figure out its future. Graduate journalism schools can offer a path to developing the reporting, writing and multimedia skills necessary to be more effective storytellers, to picking up new technical skills and to researching how to build a more sustainable and stable industry. It isn’t the only path, but for career switchers and career journalists alike, it can be a good one.

I chose graduate journalism school because I wanted to lay the foundation for a career on the business side of journalism and pick up some new multimedia skills. Ultimately, I enrolled in Northwestern University’s Medill School because it allowed me to best tailor the curriculum to my interests. A scholarship allowed me to make it affordable.

While at Northwestern, I didn’t take a single reporting course.  Instead, my degree combined interactive, video production, audience engagement, and business courses. I completed a series of media management classes and a macroeconomics class at the Kellogg School of Management. For my final capstone project, I studied ways in which publications can use online archives to generate additional revenue and increase audience engagement over longer periods of time.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. I’m really interested in the economics of content, in audience engagement and in social media strategy.
  2. I find product pricing and valuation fascinating. A finance course exploring pricing problems and valuation approaches provided some of the best insights into the current state of the media industry.
  3. Writing is one of the things I do best. The most consistent positive feedback I received during school was about the strength of my writing, which also improved as a result of having more time to think more critically about what I was writing.
  4. I am good at interpreting audience analytics, devising audience engagement strategies and can pull off complex video projects, but writing JavaScript will likely never bring me joy or great success.

Leaving a job to go back to school wasn’t easy, but I’m now smarter than I was before, and I feel better prepared for the jobs I want in the years to come. That’s made journalism grad school a worthwhile piece of my career puzzle.



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:



Can’t miss data for travel-minded business reporters

Airport traveler

By Flickr user Victor Bayon

I love travel-related business stories — reading them and writing them. I just wish I would have started searching for local business stories in national transportation statistics earlier.

The latest data on domestic airfares from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics offers a great opportunity for business reporters to find local consumer stories.

Nationally, airfares rose 10 percent in the last quarter of 2011, bringing the average price to $368. But in Cincinnati the average price for a plane ticket was up to $502. Cincinnati, the country’s most expensive place to fly in or out of, is usually pretty pricey this time of year. Ten years ago, a flight to or from Cincinnati cost an average of $466.

Atlantic City, meanwhile, isn’t so pricey. The city had the fourth quarter’s lowest airfares at a rock bottom $189. That’s cheaper than the $227 average fares it had during the same quarter more than a decade ago.

Fares in Indianapolis rose twice as quickly as the national average while fares to and from Chicago’s Midway Airport climbed by just half the national average. On an annual basis, airfares rose the most in Fort Myers, Fla. — more than 26 percent. They fell the most in Charleston, S.C. at about 8 percent.

The Los Angeles Times and Dow Jones Newswires covered the national numbers. Publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nashville Post, The Huntsville Times and the Memphis Business Journal revealed how their area fliers fared.

But few publications dug deeper than the bureau’s press release to explain what was happening behind the numbers. As a reader, I was left with multiple questions. Were price declines in South Carolina drawing more people to Charleston? Did  low-priced flights help Atlantic City hotels and casinos? How much are rising airfares actually keeping people from moving about the country?

James Pilcher, who for years covered aviation for the Cincinnati Enquirer, routinely used the bureau’s data as a source of inspiration for larger enterprise projects. He suggests reporters look for patterns in the data and use their findings to explore how airfare changes over time are affecting both readers’ pocketbooks and their lifestyles.

In 2003, Pilcher wrote an article for the Cincinnati daily on how the city’s airport was able to remain a major hub even though 25 percent of local travelers were choosing to drive to other nearby airports to trim their travel costs.

A view of Chicago from the Willis Tower. Airfares at Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports rose at half the pace of the national average in the last quarter of 2011.

“It really started with paying attention to the patterns in the airfare data,” he said.

One thing to keep in mind about the government’s data is that it doesn’t include fares to Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico, which are typically higher than flights within the continental U.S. It also doesn’t include the fees airlines charge for bags, printed boarding passes and the other items that once were built into fares.

Fee information is publicly available. And when combined with the BTS data, it can help readers better understand what’s happening to their travel budgets.

Telling that story well is just one way business reporters can increase their value to the millions of readers who take off from U.S. airports each year.


The many paths for finding a job in business journalism

simon constable As if being at the center of the biggest story in recent years isn’t enough, business journalists also tend to earn more than the average reporter. The hours may not always be better, but the jobs are there. And there are lots of ways to get them.

Wall Street Journal reporter Simon Constable, host of the Journal’s afternoon News Hub, got his start in business journalism with an internship. After years of working in the business sector, Constable attended New York University and earned a master’s degree in business and economics reporting. He then signed up for an internship with TheStreet.com, which quickly led to a full-time job.

Constable’s significant work experience and an MBA he had obtained years earlier gave him an edge. “I didn’t have to learn the topic,” he said. “I only had to learn the medium.”

But his path wasn’t without its challenges. “I was among the last to get an internship,” Constable said, noting he was among the first in his class to get a job offer.

“A lot of internship programs are set up for quite young people, and there was some resistance to getting hired in some positions because of that,” he said.

Specialized knowledge, like Constable’s, can be a real benefit to journalists seeking business reporting jobs, according to Daniel Duggan, deputy managing editor for Crain’s Detroit Business. “Business media has room for a lot more specialty than general news. Media companies are looking for people who have a history with something,” he said.

Some financial news agencies even look for people with investment banking or accounting backgrounds when recruiting new hires.

Duggan suggests student journalists interested in business reporting take business classes and pursue internships in fields like private equity and economics. “Then you have something that everyone else doesn’t have,” he said.

If you’ve already graduated and an internship isn’t option, small newspapers could provide a path toward the business pages.

Emery Cowan

Emery Cowan

Emery Cowan found an education reporting job in Durango, Colo. that allows her to cover business on the side in the ski town of about 17,000. Instead of searching for a job like many recent college graduates, she is writing about her peers’ employment outlook.

Beyond internships and entry-level newspaper jobs, aspiring business reporters should seek out any opportunities they can to write stories, Constable said.

“Find a local paper that needs content, and write for them for free if you have to,” Constable said “Get some clips, then try to get some more clips and get paid for those.”

He recommends business reporters also find a mentor and follow their advice.

“Do more and get better,” Constable said.


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.



The student-loan debate: Tracking borrowers left out of low interest rates

student loans

By Flickr user Bob Jagendorf

One class of borrowers may never benefit from today’s near record low interest rates: students.

Interest rates on federal student loans are scheduled to rise to a minimum 6.8 percent on funds borrowed after June 30 from the now minimum 3.4 percent for undergraduates. Christian Science Monitor estimates the rate hikes could add more than $5,000 to students’ loan payments after graduation. This comes as the total volume of outstanding student loans in the U.S. is estimated to be above $1 trillion dollars and as higher education costs are rising faster than inflation.

Student borrowers are largely a forgotten part of the U.S. interest-rate story. Yet their tales provide an opportunity to localize a national economic story and to make financial news more accessible to a wider audience.

Two out of every three college graduates has student loans, according to the Project on Student Debt. The average graduate leaves school with a bachelor’s degree and about $25,000 in loans, said the project, part of the non-profit Institute for College Access & Success.

More than 10 percent of borrowers owe more than $50,000 by the time they walk the stage, according to the New York Federal Reserve.

The switch to variable interest rates gave the federal government an opportunity to profit from student loans when rates rose and to improve other student loan programs at no cost to taxpayers, said Mark Kantrowitz, one of the country’s leading experts on student loans. But the government never anticipated student loan interest rates would fall as far as they did – as low as 2.875 percent in mid-2005, he said.

At the time, student loan interest was tied to the interest rate on 3-month Treasury bills. Those rates are influenced heavily by the federal funds rate, which has since fallen to a record low of 0 to 0.25 percent.

“The switch to fixed rates was partly an attempt to close the barn door after the horse had already escaped,” Kantrowitz said.

He said the government settled on a rate of 6.8 percent because it was close to the historical average for federal student loans. Still, the rate at which the government breaks even on the current student loan program would be about 6 to 7 percent using the same accounting measures as the Congressional Budget Office, Kantrowitz said.

Students already are protesting higher rates. Hundreds of thousands of students have bombarded lawmakers with letters urging them to keep interest rates where they are.

For journalists, this conflict creates a prime opportunity to better help readers understand why financing an education might cost more than refinancing a mortgage. It also is an opportunity to question how much the government should profit – or spend – on education finance.


Inside Pinterest: Business angles worth exploring


By Flickr user ohmeaghan

Pinterest is worth paying attention to even for business reporters outside of the tech beat, but scarce specifics can make localizing the hot social media trend a challenge.

Over the past year, Pinterest has grown from a relatively unknown Palo Alto startup into one of the world’s top social media networks. More than 10 million users now look to Pinterest for fashion, beauty, cooking, decorating and travel ideas. Retailers are paying attention and for good reason.

“Pinterest has quickly become one of the most popular social media portals for customers to visit prior to visiting retailers’ websites,” says Monetate, a tech marketing company that specializes in building web traffic for retailers.

Same-store referral traffic from Pinterest to five specialty clothing retailer websites rose nearly 300 percent in the second half of 2011. Describing how traffic flows from Pinterest to retailer websites, Monetate says Pinterest could be “the social commerce game changer.”

Of course, Monetate hasn’t yet let slip any specifics about just who is profiting from Pinterest. But if a reporter can determine if a retailer he or she covers is among the pioneers profiting from the emerging social network, Pinterest might find a pathway to a fascinating local story with wide international appeal.

In 2011, Pinterest was named one of Time’s websites of the year. Now, it is the 16th most visited website in the U.S. and 45th most visited site in the world, according to Alexa, a site that ranks global web traffic.

Pinterest allows users to “pin” images of things they like onto virtual pin boards.

Semil Shah of TechCrunch says Pinterest’s most salient feature “is that it has deeply tapped into an important shift in consumer and purchasing behavior.”

For reporters who can use Pinterest to gain similarly deep insights into their readers’ behaviors, the site could provide an opportunity to try and get ahead of consumer trend stories.

But Pinterest is still limited in its usefulness as a tool for business reporters. It might become a stronger business reporting tool if metrics better gauge product sales related to pinning emerge, said Anthony De Rosa, Reuters social media guru.

At the moment that’s not something that’s easy to track.

One source of revenue for Pinterest – at least for a while – was its involvement in an affiliate program through which the third-party service Skimlinks tracked purchases referred to retailers by the site’s users, VentureBeat reported.

Several reports suggest that relationship may have ended in recent days, but somebody still has to be watching exactly who is profiting from Pinterest.

Media reporters, meanwhile, may find data about Pinterest referral traffic to publishers is more readily available.

Pinterest in February drove more referral traffic to publisher websites than Twitter, a study from the third-party social measurement service Shareholic found. The study was based on data from 200,000 publishers whose websites garner a combined approximately 270 million unique visitors month.

The Pinterest buzz is definitely worth exploring. It just may not be worth poking yourself over.