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Updated: 14 min 17 sec ago

Searching for the economy's new normal

Wed, 2015-02-18 09:11

The first quarter of 2015 is not starting out with a bang. Several new economic indicators came out this week, which, taken individually are not overly noteworthy, but if you bundle them all up, they begin to indicate that tales of the resurgent U.S. economy might be slightly over-exaggerated.  

Industrial production rose just 0.2 percent in January, slightly less than expected. Housing starts also fell 2 percent in January, and add to the mix the tanking price of oil which dragged producer prices down to a five-year low.

So is the overall trend of positive economic forecasts still on track, or starting to stumble? Well, half the country is still buried under snow to think about spending all that extra gas money we’re carrying around.

“You know, it really is an issue of where you lose and where you win,” says Diane Swonk, Chief Economist at Mesirow Financial. “There's no way to recoup the wages lost in some areas where you just couldn't get to work because of the weather, or stores couldn't open or had to close.”

Swonk points out that cold weather may be slowing home building. An ongoing strike by longshoremen on the West Coast is also holding things up.

"Suppliers, retailers, a lot of people who can't get the goods they need to distribute them, all of this disrupts and displaces economic activity," says Swonk.

Producer prices are falling, which means it’s cheaper for manufacturers to make things, which if continued over the long-term, can actually restrict economic activity — but at this point, that remains a pretty big "if."

"In fact, the decline in producer prices is actually hiding a good thing, it’s driven by declining oil prices,” points out University of Michigan Economist Justin Wolfers. Overall, he says he’s still bullish on the U.S. economy.

"The most reliable data we have shows that firms have been hiring and hiring pretty rapidly. So, I think there is probably at least as many people worried that the economy is growing too fast, as those that think we're on the cusp of a downturn any time soon," says Wolfers.

Other indicators, such as unemployment, continue to trend in a positive direction. A big problem for economists and policymakers going forward is just trying to establish what a “normal” data looks like in the post-recession economy.  

“I mean I definitely think we shouldn't panic about the old normal not being the same as the new normal, that doesn't mean it’s a bad normal,” says Diane Lim with the Committee for Economic Development.

What Lim is saying is the Great Recession changed household behavior, around things housing and spending, and we might just have to wait a little while yet to say precisely how.

"It’s a tricky thing to conduct policy around, but a lot of it is not in policymakers control. A lot of it will be, 'Let's wait and see where the economy seems to settle after the recovery is through.’"

Quiz: Teens get fewer zzzzzs

Wed, 2015-02-18 08:00

Teens have been losing sleep for two decades, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

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PODCAST: A good time to be in the air freight industry

Wed, 2015-02-18 03:00

The attorney general says the time is approaching to prosecute Wall Street ... or not. Plus, dock workers at West Coast ports haven't had a contract since the end of June and somehow they haven't been working quite as fast. This has caused bottlenecks for months that are starting to really hit factories and retailers across the country. One winner here already: the air freight industry. The International Air Transport Association says global air cargo rose 4.5 percent last year, due in part to the congestion at these shipping terminals. More on that. And fair trade coffee is meant to give smaller growers a larger share of high retail prices. You may have seen other fair trade crafts in hipster boutiques but some of that merchandise is now coming to a department store near you. We head to Guatamala to find out more.

Exiting U.S. Attorney General's last act

Wed, 2015-02-18 03:00

Before U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder rides into the sunset—to be succeeded (pending Senate confirmation) by President Barack Obama’s nominee, Loretta Lynch—he is acting the lawman one final time.

In a speech at the National Press Club this week, he said he’s instructed Department of Justice lawyers to decide in the next 90 days whether they can bring viable civil or criminal cases against individual executives for actions that helped precipitate the financial crisis in 2008.

Holder has been criticized for launching few successful fraud or money laundering prosecutions against individuals in the aftermath of the mortgage meltdown. Holder has denied that his department has followed a de facto policy of ‘too big to jail’ in pursuing big banks and their top executives.

Karen Petrou at Federal Financial Analytics says dragging individual executives into court at this point might help deter future bad behavior by bankers.

“If you prosecute a few high-profile individuals and make it clear it’s not good enough to just make speeches about corporate ethics, that could well bring it home,” says Petrou. “That’s as opposed to abstract corporate sanctions which are ultimately paid for by taxpayers and shareholders.”

Under Holder, the DOJ has been aggressive in the past few years in pursuing civil settlements with big banks for alleged financial wrongdoing—levying $36 billion in aggregate penalties against JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, and Bank of America. 

Growth of fair trade brings benefits for artisans

Wed, 2015-02-18 02:00

Since ancient times, the women of Guatemala’s indigenous communities in the western highlands have used hand-dyed thread to made clothes on back strap looms. Now, they are using those same techniques to make clothes and accessories for Nordstrom, J. Crew and other mainstream brands.

Yolanda Calgua Morales, 45, leads a group of weavers is the remote mountain community of Quiejel, near Chichicastenango.

Growing demand for traditional handmade textiles has changed Morales’ life. She’s been able to build a house and educate her two children.

Morales learned to weave when she was seven. She has taught her daughter, nieces and cousins. 

“I teach them to weave because I don't want them to lose the culture,” Morales says. “I love the work and I don't want it to disappear.”

Morales says her grandmother passed down designs using four colors. Now, the Quieiel community uses 12 colors and new designs, many of them created by Morales. “I always think about what needs to change and how to improve,” she says. “When it's ready I give it to the group; that's why they call me the representative.”

Morales and the other Quiejel weavers work with a non-profit organization called Maya Traditions, which helps them sell their work for a fair price.

"We’re providing a product people want to buy with a story they support,” says Alison Wandschneider, director of sales and marketing for Maya Traditions.

Maya Traditions works with about 120 weavers from six areas in Guatemala, including Quiejel. There are many nonprofits like it, especially in Panajachel, a beautiful and touristic town of about 12,000 that anchors the indigenous villages around Lake Atitlán.

The nonprofit organizations court customers like Piece & Co., a Chicago-based for-profit company with a mission to improve artisans’ lives around the world “by partnering with leading fashion and retail brands,” according to its website.

“We're the link between the artisan groups and these mainstream brands,” says Danielle Huffaker, the company’s Guatemala representative. “There’s all sort of expectations that brands have that artisan groups may not be accustomed to working with.”

On a recent Monday, Huffaker brought her laptop to the offices of Maya Traditions. She had a long list of questions Piece &Co. uses to vet artisan groups all over the world. Among them: How often do you meet with your artisans? How old are they? What is your bank? How do you define living wage? How many Guatemalans are on staff? How do you certify dyes are chemical-free?

Maya Traditions has answers to many of the questions, but some still need to be figured out. For instance, the industry talks about fabric in yards. But what comes off a back strap loom is not a yard. It’s the width of the weaver’s waist; more like 20 inches than 36. It’s called a lienzo. As Huffaker looks at the intricate product samples from Maya Traditions, she thinks out loud:

“There's advantage to us in the sizes being in yards so we can compare prices between different countries,” she says. “We can definitely do this in lienzos as long as it’s really clear what unit we’re measuring so we can do conversions on our end.

The women say shoppers want fair trade products in mainstream stores. And consumer demand is driving both retailers and artisans to change the way they do business. For Piece & Co.'s customers, the goal is predictable high-quality supply. Sellers like Maya Traditions want to get a fair price and keep traditional ways while growing an export business.  

“We have had a lot of tough conversations and missed some deadlines,” Wandschneider says. “But I think it's all at this very interesting point of tension and out of it will come something really awesome.”

Back in Quiejel, Marisol Morales Calel, program coordinator with Maya Traditions, is explaining this year’s contract to 18 weavers in K’iche, an indigenous language. Some weavers don’t speak Spanish, some will sign with a thumb print. The deal spells out deadlines and deliverables; it promise fair pay and benefits. It may turn out to be a binding agreement between the past and the future.









Postal Service wants a redesigned mail truck

Wed, 2015-02-18 02:00

Representatives from auto companies and the U.S. postal service meet in Washington D.C. on Wednesday to discuss replacing the postal service's fleet of mail trucks.

The trucks, manufactured by a fighter jet maker, were designed to last but not for 30 years. They are guzzling fuel, are requiring too much maintenance, and aren't big enough for the postal service's growing e-commerce package business.

The contract for a new fleet of trucks could be a $6 billion bonanza for the winning manufacturer, but it also has its challenges.

Click the media player above to hear more.

Who is Goliath?

Wed, 2015-02-18 02:00

Today on our From the Hills to the Valley series, we take a look at internet piracy and whether or not tech companies are doing enough to stop illegal downloads.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which represents six of Hollywood’s biggest studios, including Sony, Warner Brothers and Walt Disney, believes Silicon Valley can do more.

“We believe that the whole ecosystem should engage in voluntary measures to prevent online theft and distribution,” says Mike Robinson, who is the head of content protection at MPAA. The internet, says Robinson, is vital to Hollywood, not least for marketing and distributing content.

But the MPAA and Silicon Valley are still at loggerheads with each other over piracy. In fact, leaked emails during the hack on Sony Pictures suggested that the MPAA and several Hollywood studios had identified a “super enemy” in their piracy battle. It was rumoured that the enemy, referred to as Goliath, was Google. Is Google “goliath?” Robinson wouldn't say.

Meanwhile, the MPAA is watching a court case involving the International Trade Commission (ITC) in which the ITC is pushing for a mandate to stop pirated content at the United States border. “It’s an interesting proposition, whether or not those singles coming to the U.S. should be subject to some form of blocking,” says Robinson. However, he says, he would rather everyone involved, including Silicon Valley, voluntarily come up with a joint plan to beat piracy.

“Thats our desire with ISPs and folks from Silicon Valley, to find ways that work for all of us.”


Chinese New Year by the numbers

Wed, 2015-02-18 01:30
2.8 billion

That's how many trips the Chinese government estimates citizens will make for the holiday. Bloomberg points out that dwarfs Thanksgiving in the U.S., which AAA projected spurred just 46.3 million Americans to travel. More than six times that many will travel in China by train alone.

21.5 million

Speaking of the impressive number of Chinese citizens traveling for the holiday, larger metropolitan cities turn into ghost towns as people leave the city for the new year. For example, Beijing, which normally boasts a population of 21.5 million people, becomes largely empty. Over at Quartz, they've collected some of the haunting pictures taken by people who stayed in the city and are enjoying some peace and quiet.

942 stores

Fireworks are a big part of the Chinese New Year celebration, but they can also be hazardous to people's health. Chinese officials worried that this year's mild weather may mean that pollution from fireworks would stick around as opposed to being blown away. As reported by the IBT, the city of Beijing has allowed just 942 stores to sell fireworks this year, down at least 100 stores from last year.

260 million

The approximate number of migrant workers in China, according to the Washington Post. Those workers are flooding out of China's biggest cities to return home to their families, and search engine Baidu is charting many of their trips. "It's not just the world's biggest human migration," a company spokesman told the AP. "It's the biggest mammalian migration."

100 tons

That's how many live lobsters will be exported from Canada to China each week at peak this year. Spurred by concerns about domestic seafood, Chinese demand for the luxury shellfish is so high that Canadian exporters are having trouble keeping up, the New York Times reported.

20 percent

The increase in C-section births one doctor reported in the lead up to the new year, mostly by mothers wanting to give birth in the current year of the horse instead of the upcoming year of the goat. The International Business Times reports that uptick is reflected throughout China and elsewhere in Asia. C-sections were up 35 percent in Singapore, for example.

Chinese factories move to a new frontier: America

Tue, 2015-02-17 14:50

You’ve heard the story before: U.S. factories move to China, jobs are lost, whole towns shattered. But lately, things are shifting: Chinese ventures in the United States have spiked.

In 2014, Chinese companies invested more than $12 billion in projects in the U.S, including a handful of big investments in manufacturing. That’s up from about 0 in the mid-2000s.

This shift is obvious in Dayton, Ohio, where a Chinese auto-glass maker is taking over a former General Motors plant, a cavernous building that was left behind when GM closed up manufacturing operations at its Moraine plant in 2008.

Fuyao Glass America, a subsidiary of one of China’s biggest auto-glass makers, bought almost half of the old plant about one year ago, and announced it would be bringing manufacturing operations — along with 800 jobs — to the area. Recently, the number of jobs nearly doubled to more than 1,500.

The former GM Moraine plant was the subject of an HBO documentary, \"The Last Truck,\" about the workers who lost their jobs in 2008. 

Lewis Wallace/Marketplace

Rebecca Ruan-O’Shaughnessy, one of the first employees of Fuyao Glass America, says employees got the keys to the giant maze of a building in July.

“We didn’t know where to come in,” she says. “We just see this big building and had no idea how to get in.”

Just a few years ago, Dayton’s economy was in shards, and the Moraine plant stood as a sometimes painful symbol of the past. Now, a mix of Chinese and American workers are set up at tables and chairs that Fuyao repurposed from GM’s leftovers.

Ruan-O’Shaughnessy opens the door to a classroom filled with dozens of attentive workers in safety vests. It’s the first day for the first 40 production workers, who were hired through a temp agency. She says the company already has had 1,800 applications just for temp jobs here that could turn into permanent, full-time jobs with benefits after 90 days.

Sitting in a bare office, John Gauthier, the president of Fuyao Glass America, says the symbolism is clear: The recession is in the rear-view mirror for this company town.

John Gauthier, president of Fuyao Glass America, gestures towards a chart of leadership positions still to be filled at the company.

Lewis Wallace/Marketplace

“It means something to us here, to be able to come here and reoccupy this [and] bring this factory back to life,” Gauthier says. He moved from Mt. Zion, Illinois, where he was the manager of a glass plant that’s also been acquired by Fuyao and will remain open as a supplier to this plant.

But this Midwestern story also reflects a trend: Chinese companies are opening up shops from Texas to Indiana, with more on the way. Experts say that’s partly because wages are on the rise in China — but in the United States, real wages for manufacturing workers have been in steady decline, particularly in the case of auto-parts workers.

Thilo Hanemann is the research director at the Rhodium Group, a research firm in New York. He says China is also less dependent on cheap labor in general.

“The growth model in China is changing very rapidly and so companies are moving from low value-added goods, [such as] socks and underwear, towards more advanced goods and services,” he says.

So Chinese companies need more of the kinds of skilled labor available in the United States. Plus, they want to be close to their customers — in this case, U.S. automakers. Between that and changes in U.S. and Chinese policy, companies like Fuyao calculate they can actually cut costs in the long run by setting up here.

Mike Fullenkamp, a supervisor at Fuyao, takes me outside the plant on a golf cart. He says not long ago, this place looked bad — a parking lot with cracked cement, overgrown with weeds.

“The guards said they used to see a bunch of coyotes running across and all that,” he says. “We’ll probably still see that, but we’re trying to tame them down a little bit. Let 'em know it’s our home now instead of theirs.”

Fullenkamp says the company hopes to have nearly 20 lines up-and-running, shaping and finishing glass for almost all the major auto makers, by 2018. At five o’clock, the workers on their first day file out to their vehicles and drive off, looking ahead through glass that could, soon enough, be made in Dayton.

Is the NSA monitoring foreign hard drives?

Tue, 2015-02-17 14:48

A report released Monday by Russian software company Kaspersky Lab finds that more than 500 computers in 30 countries have been infected by a new form of malware.

Security researchers say it is the first time hackers have used a method of reverse engineering to hack into the computers' hard drives, or "firmware," code that operates beneath the surface of a device. Because of the hack's scope, sophistication, targeted nature and similarities to the Stuxnet attack on Iranian centrifuges, security researchers suspect it is the work of a state actor such as the National Security Agency.

The hack targeted hard drives made by more than a dozen companies, essentially the entire hard drive market.

Stephen Cobb, senior security researcher at ESET North America, says that hacking firmware can be particularly effective because it is so hard to eliminate.

It's also particularly challenging to do, says Jean Taggart, security researcher at Malwarebytes. "Doing this on just one brand of hard drive would be an almost Herculean task," he says. "You have to understand the hardware as well--if not more--than the original manufacturer."

Vincent Liu, a former NSA analyst and partner at security consultancy Bishop Fox, says the hard-drive makers will now have to pay not only to secure their systems, but to demonstrate that security to foreign customers.

Brussels finance talks have Greeks feeling cornered

Tue, 2015-02-17 13:53

Greece will soon run out of money, and while finance talks in Brussels are ongoing, there's still no answer yet as to whether Greece will remain a part of the Eurozone or if it will break away and go back to using the drachma currency. 

"It's what everybody is talking about at cafes at taverns. Whenever friends meet, it's the number one topic," says Giorgos Christides, a correspondent at Spiegel Online based in Thessaloniki, Greece.

According to Christides, the finance conflict is actually increasing pro-government sentiment.

"Everyone is cheering for the government, whether they belong to the left, the center or the political right," says Christides. "Most people feel they are being cornered by the 18 other members of the Eurozone."

Christides thinks many Greeks would see a Greek exit from the Eurozone — or a 'Grexit' as it's called — as a huge waste of time and money.

"I think the general consensus, both among the people and the government, is that, after five years of recession, huge unemployment rates and 240 billion euros being spent bailing out Greece... it would be suicide to say Grexit is the only way," Christides says.

The blueprint for Oscar winners

Tue, 2015-02-17 11:00

Months before any cameras roll, sets are built or lights are set up, Alex Hillkurtz is making the movie.

As a storyboard artist, Hillkurtz sits down with the director to create a detailed blueprint that's used throughout production, drawing the major beats of the entire movie.

"Storyboards are kind of a comic book version of the film," Hillkurtz says. "I'll do little thumbnail sketches, I'll flesh them out a little bit and basically I'll come up with a stack of drawings that represent all the camera angles for any given scene."

And the storyboards dictate more than just where the camera should sit. Hillkurtz is one of the first people to apply the specific, movie-making craft to the script and the director's vision, so his work can have ripple effects on every aspect of the production.

He's done this for dozens of movies, including "Argo," "Vanilla Sky," "Anchorman," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Almost Famous" and most recently "Unbroken," which is nominated for three Academy Awards. There's no award for storyboarding, but that's why Hillkurtz is the first in our series of unsung heroes of the Oscars.


Landlords have the upper hand in many rental markets

Tue, 2015-02-17 10:11

The vacancy rate for apartment rentals is at an historic low nationally, while demand is high. That puts landlords in a strong position.

Renters ... not so much.

“We're just sitting ducks in the rental market,” says Charlie Blasky, a 28 year-old renter in Minneapolis.

Blasky says his landlord gave notice in January that his rent would go up this spring if he and his wife renewed their lease on their one-bedroom apartment. Blasky says the cheapest option, a 12-month lease, would push the rent from $795 a month to $875, a 10 percent increase. That didn’t appeal to Blasky, who found the landlord to be inattentive to complaints about problems like noisy neighbors.

“Sure I could try to haggle,” says Blasky. “But when everyone's trying to rent, what's to stop the landlord from saying, 'Yeah right. I've got someone who will pay that and won’t argue about it.'"

“Clearly, the pendulum has swung in the favor of landlords,” says Ryan Severino, senior economist with the real estate research firm Reis.

Severino says there's a squeeze on apartments in many metro areas around the country, in big coastal cities and as well as metros like Minneapolis, Detroit, Knoxville and Omaha, to name but a few. Low vacancy rates in those cities are pulling the national average down to about 4 percent, by Severino's measure, a level last seen — and only briefly — during the dot-com boom-and-bust days.

Severino says the reasons for the dynamic are clear: More people are renting these days. Despite low interest rates, mortgages are harder to get post-housing crisis. Meanwhile, the supply of rentals is low. That’s partly because apartment construction stalled during the economic downturn.

“It's like economics 101. You have growing demand, and you have more or less static supply,” he says.

Severino says that makes it a great environment for landlords to raise rents.

“Landlords are rational, self-interested actors like anyone else,” he says.

Jeff Arnold understands that. He manages a building in St. Paul, Minnesota. with 57 studio apartments. Like landlords in many cities, Arnold has been raising rents, and he's become a lot choosier about his tenants.

“Ten years ago, back when we were offering a free month’s rent as an incentive, I'd sometimes be a little more willing to overlook if they had a small collection item or something like that,” Arnold says. “Now I'll look at that and say, 'You know, I think I can probably find someone better.'”

His father, Bob Arnold, the owner of the building, says tenants with bad credit should work hard not to “mess up” once they land a place.

“Because then you can establish a track record. When you come up against a choosy manager, you made some mistakes but now you're better,” he says.

Bob and Jeff Arnold both say when vacancy rates were higher, tenants could get away more easily with making late rent payments so long as they came up with some money. Today, Jeff Arnold says he wants to be compassionate if someone loses a job and pays rent late — but only up to a point.

“I might work with them for a month,” he says. “But if they can't clean up their act and get me something within that time, in this kind of market, hey I’m going to find someone new.”

A Minnesota tenants' rights group, HOME Line, tries to help renters understand that reality. Mike Vraa, the managing attorney, gives renters legal advice if landlords boot them out unjustly. Vraa also helps renters understand when they don't have grounds to object.

“After two, three, four years they think the place is theirs forever as long as they don't mess up. But it's just not the case. It's a temporary, renewable, or nonrenewable agreement,” he says. “We give people bad news about that all the time. It's not just renewable just at your whim. The landlord is involved, too.”

That’s one reason Charlie Blasky wants to stop renting and eventually own. But first he has to save some money, which is hard to do as a renter. He’s leaving the apartment where rent’s going up. But his new apartment isn’t any cheaper. He just thinks it’s a better value.  

“Rent is going up everywhere. It’s harder to put that money way for a down payment on a house,” he says.

One bit of hope for renters, apartment construction is picking up nationally. That should increase supply and thereby loosen up rental markets.

You too can have a Nobel Prize

Tue, 2015-02-17 09:56

We're well past Nobel Prize season, but there's Nobel news to pass along.

If you've got a spare $150,000 lying around, you too can have a Nobel of your very own. Well, you can have the prize that Simon Kuznets won in 1971 for  his "empirically founded interpretation of economic growth which has led to new and deepened insight into the economic and social structure and process of development."

Or in laymans terms, growth and inequality, which is the economic thing that's going on right now ... 45 years later.

Kuznets's son consigned the medal to an auction house out here in California; you've got eight days left to find that $150,000.

Texas ruling makes immigrants' future uncertain

Tue, 2015-02-17 09:47

A federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked President Obama’s executive order on immigration on Tuesday. The order would have granted a temporary reprieve from deportation to around 4 million people currently in the U.S. illegally.

Going from illegal to legal status gives undocumented workers an average 8 percent increase in wages, and would add some $210 billion to the nation's GDP over 10 years, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers (pdf). Pro-immigration advocates say the more people who sign up for the program, the greater the economic boost will be. Opponents say the supposed economic benefits are overstated.

The judge’s ruling might yet be overturned, but critics of the ruling say it may already have altered the economics of immigration reform. They fear that some people who might qualify for the reform will now be reluctant to come forward and sign up.  

West Coast ports resume loading and unloading

Tue, 2015-02-17 09:42

After a weekend shutdown, ports on the West Coast were back in business on Tuesday.

The White House dispatched U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez to San Francisco to try to broker a deal between  dockworkers and shipping companies. They've been locked in a contract dispute that for months has slowed the flow of cargo and caused ripples throughout the global economy.

But, even when a deal is reached, port officials say it could take weeks to clear the backlog.

Quiz: Breaking breakfast records

Tue, 2015-02-17 05:06

The federal School Breakfast Program fed more low-income student students than ever before in the 2013 school year, but it's still small in comparison to the national lunch program, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

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PODCAST: An impasse in Greece

Tue, 2015-02-17 03:00

A fog of uncertainty creeps across financial markets as negotiations over Greece's debt hit an impasse. More on that. Plus, Vice President Joe Biden is expected to visit Baltimore this afternoon to talk about the troubling backlog of rape kits around the country that have never been analyzed. Hundreds of thousands of these kits containing potential DNA evidence from sexual assaults. The White House has proposed new funding to help clear that backlog. And there's talk (not confirmed) that Etsy might try to sell stock to the public sometime this winter. We look at new competitors that are jumping in.

To get to Hollywood, make a left at YouTube

Tue, 2015-02-17 02:00

For the second edition of From the Hills to the Valley - our series comparing Hollywood and Silicon Valley - we spoke to someone who belongs to both worlds. Issa Rae created and stars in Awkward Black Girl, an award-winning web series on YouTube, and she’s also working on a pilot for an HBO show. Last week, she released a memoir of sorts: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

Rae believes it was her success on YouTube that brought her the opportunity with HBO.  

“HBO would never have heard of me or even seen any of my stuff had it not been for YouTube,” she says.

Why YouTube? Rae had pitched a few shows to networks, but she soon realized that they had a different perception of what the audience wanted to see on TV. She found that her ideas, especially those that involved “content of color,” were often met with reluctance or a lack of enthusiasm.

“I wanted to create a show about black people in college, and they were saying that’s too segmented,” she says. “When I wanted to make 'Awkward Black Girl,' I knew if they didn’t want to see a show about something as mainstream as black people in college, they would never go for 'Awkward Black Girl.' They would never believe they exist even.”

Rae thinks Silicon Valley companies, such as Netflix or Amazon, are good for creativity because they produce show they respect and believe audiences will like. And this, she says, will lead to more diverse programming, because online content is so closely tied to social media, which itself is very diverse.

But the biggest challenge to creating online content, Rae says, is the pressure to produce consistently.  

“Had I been consistently releasing content on a weekly basis, I would have had a much bigger following,’ she says. “People will forget about you if you're not on their radar constantly. Audiences are just really fickle. There’s no formula online outside of being consistent.”


Vice President aims to address untested rape kits

Tue, 2015-02-17 02:00

Vice President Joe Biden is expected to visit Baltimore Tuesday afternoon to talk about the troubling backlog of untested rape kits around the country. Hundreds of thousands of these kits, containing potential DNA evidence from sexual assaults, have been languishing in police storage units and crime labs. The White House has proposed $41 million in new funding to help clear that backlog.

“I think it would send an extremely powerful message to the law enforcement agencies that have allowed the kits to collect dust that this will no longer be accepted,” says Linda Fairstein, a former sex crimes prosecutor in Manhattan and part of the End the Backlog campaign.

Almost six years ago, more than 11,000 kits were found in a police storage facility in Detroit. Testing so far has led to 15 convictions. The Michigan Women’s Foundation has turned to private donors to help clear the remaining backlog.