Marketplace - American Public Media

On Twitter, addition by gender subtraction

Thu, 2014-07-31 02:00

Earlier this week, Twitter surpassed investor expectations on both revenue and user growth.

However, for frequent users, one of its challenges is that depending on whom you follow, the conversation can feel repetitive. Katie Notopoulos, senior editor at Buzzfeed, decided to solve the problem by unfollowing men on Twitter. 

Notopoulos drew much of her inspiration from a similar social experiment of only retweeting women for a year

While she started the unfollowing six months ago as part of a stunt, she says she stuck with it because it markedly improved her Twitter experience. 

"It turns out it's really nice," Katie says.

She says a major reason this has turned out so well is that being forced to follow a new set of people exposed her to a whole new set of voices and perspectives. 

How to make ambulances safer

Thu, 2014-07-31 02:00

The professional lives of emergency medical services workers are often intense and dramatic. But dangerous?

It is dangerous — EMS workers have on-the-job fatality rates that are nearly three times the national average of other professions. That’s prompted many in the industry to call for better, safer ambulances.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology division has taken up that challenge, drafting new rules and recommendations for ambulance safety, including new standards for crash testing. 

Ambulances are long overdue for a redesign, says Skip Kirkwood, a director and chief paramedic at Durham County Emergency Medical Services in North Carolina.

“Today’s ambulance design is essentially unchanged since about 1974,” he explains.

Prior to the mid '70s, Kirkwood says ambulances were often adapted from a Cadillac hearse design. They then moved to the truck or van chassis we often still see today.

“Essentially, those ambulances have been boxes built by ambulance manufacturers, many of whom had their original heritage as motor home or Winnebago or travel trailer builders,” he says.

The body style means that accidents can be dangerous for EMS workers and the patients they are transporting.

“Let’s say the ambulance rolls on its side, the stretcher is now hanging up in the air and will fall out of [its] mount,” says Kirkwood. “If the ambulance decelerates quickly, that mount comes loose from the floor and the patient may fly forward like a torpedo.”

The emergency medical technician or paramedic might not be properly restrained either, says Jim Grove, a senior advisor in DHS’s interagency office of science and technology and a former EMS worker.

“When I would ride in the back of an ambulance, it was not uncommon to stand up and be doing chest compressions on somebody and having someone be holding on to my bunker pants and going down the road at 35, 40, 50 miles per hour even,” he recalls.

Based on DHS research, Grove says future ambulances might feature pivoting chairs that slide along a track, so EMS workers can treat a patient and reach their gear while properly restrained. DHS is also working on crash-test standards for ambulances going 30 miles per hour.

“I can’t answer for why it’s taken this long to get to this point,” Grove says. “There has been crash testing done, but not to level [Homeland Security’s science and technology division] has been doing, and especially with crash testing dummies.”

One potential hurdle could be cost. Grove says early estimates say these new features could add $10,000 to $15,000 to the price of an ambulance. 

It will eventually be up to individual states to adopt any new safety requirements and take on those costs.

This headline was plagiarized, please don't Google it

Thu, 2014-07-31 01:00

As the Public Editor of the New York Times says, journalistic plagiarism is in the news.

(I didn't steal that idea, I attributed it, which is a key difference between plagiarizing and not plagiarizing.)

Some of the people in the news for committing journalistic plagiarism have the same name as me. Don't get confused: I am not Benny Johnson.

I did not work for a paragon of modern journalism called The Blaze before being hired to cover politics in inventive ways at Buzzfeed in 2012. I did not plagiarize parts of 41 stories I wrote at Buzzfeed, before being admirably fired by Buzzfeed.

By the way, I do like Buzzfeed. A lot. Even when Buzzfeed doesn't like me. I just talked to one of the site's senior editors about why she stopped following people like me (read: dudes) on Twitter. 

But even though I go by Ben instead of Benny, I have been thinking a lot about plagiarism this week. It's one of the things journalists are most scared of, and for good reason. Even if it's a mistake, it's rarely an honest one. Unlike in the world of fiction, journalistic plagiarism is a scarlet letter -- a final judgement. Plagiarism is the thing you do that almost immediately undermines all of the other work you've ever done.

What's interesting is that media in the Internet age spins ever closer to regular idea theft. Rewriting or re-contextualizing the hard reporting work of others is its own kind of job, and hard-working people are doing it all the time. I was just talking with a Marketplace reporter yesterday who was excited about an idea -- an angle, really -- but was worried she was actually plagiarizing her own work from a few years back. She was Googling like mad to try and avoid it. 

That's what's also strange about the Internet age. It is at once easier than ever to plagiarize and easier than ever to catch plagiarizers. The number of sources you could steal from has increased tenfold, but the nature of how those sources are organized online makes it easy to catch people. Yet another problem solved by big data.

That's how Benny Johnson got caught. Ironically, he was shaming another website for plagiarizing his work. And then some bloggers took a closer look at his work. It soon became clear, as Slate's David Weigel noted: "Anyone with a working Google machine can compare Johnson's text, which typically consists of captions below photos or gifs, to existing content on Wikipedia or Yahoo -- the sleuthing has turned up more short phrases and sentences that look cloned."

Maybe some day writers of all kinds will work in software that is constantly Googling each sentence we write to see if it's been written elsewhere. And maybe that's good news. Today I'm just glad that on the searchable Internet, I go by Ben, not Benny. 

Film directors want to give Kodak another artsy moment

Wed, 2014-07-30 13:45

Recent years have been tough for the Eastman Kodak Company. It emerged from bankruptcy in 2013 with a focus not on consumer products but on business consumers.

As film has gone digital, the company’s says its sales of motion picture film have declined by 96 percent over the last ten years.

But the company that gave us the “Kodak Moment” is getting some help from friends in Hollywood. Directors like Judd Apatow and Quentin Tarantino are pushing movie studios to commit to buying a certain amount of film from Kodak for the next several years.

The directors want to preserve the option to shoot film in the future, and Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke says in a statement that the company praises the “ingenuity in finding a way to extend the life of film.”

David Reibstein, a professor at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says having that option in the long-term will depend on what Kodak does with these sales.

“If you’re just getting more money to continue to do what it is that you were going that wasn’t working, that’s not going to be a successful strategy,” he says.  Reibstein notes that when General Motors invested in saving its ailing but iconic Cadillac brand, it undertook a major redesign and targeted a new demographic of customers.

Propping up a product in the short term can be like a finger in the dike, says Ken Doctor, a media analyst for Newsonomics. He sees a parallel between Kodak’s deal and one pushed by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to help ailing newspapers.

“He had the government fund one year subscriptions to… the students graduating from high school in France as a way to stem the tide,” he explains. “That was a short-lived program.”

But there is still value in Kodak’s brand, because now it has an "artisanal" quality to it, says Douglas Holt, president of the Cultural Strategy Group, a brand consultancy. He says Kodak used to be a symbol of mass culture; now the culture it recalls has become antiquated and cool.

“Pabst Blue Ribbon, Polaroid – a lot of these brands that were mass cultural brands of the [past decades], the '50s, '60s, '70s, have the same possibility to push back against the mass culture of today,” he says.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story failed to say Kodak had emerged from bankruptcy. Further, the story lacked sufficient context concerning the agreement the company and movie studios are pursuing, and it failed to include a comment from Kodak. The text has been amended.

Drones have a new celebrity spokesperson

Wed, 2014-07-30 13:45

The Motion Picture Association of America is a big fan of drones — or, officially, "unmanned aerial systems." The organization asked the Federal Aviation Administration yesterday to make it easier for directors to use drones in filming.

Another big fan of drones? Martha Stewart.

Drones are trending.

— Martha Stewart (@MarthaStewart) July 30, 2014

She has written a piece for Time, called "Why I Love My Drone."

Someone gave her one last summer as a gift. And, we learn, her mind "started racing" as she "imagined all the different applications" for it.

Stewart and her staff have been taking drone pictures of her beach house in Maine and her farm in New York.

"An aerial shot of the vegetable garden looked very much like my Peter Rabbit marzipan embellished Easter cake," she writies. "Which was designed without the help of a drone."

How the McDonald's ruling impacts the franchise industry

Wed, 2014-07-30 13:45

The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has handed down a decision that could have implications for the millions of Americans who work for franchises.

After investigating claims that some McDonald's restaurants broke labor laws by firing or penalizing workers who took part in pro-labor activities, the NLRB's general counsel said if the owner of a McDonald's fast food franchise commits a labor violation, the McDonald's corporation can be held jointly liable for the franchisee's bad behavior.

For now, the decision affects only the McDonald's corporation and McDonald's franchises. There are 3,000 other brands with franchise operations in the U.S., employing 8.5 million people across a range of industries, according to the International Franchise Association (IFA).

The IFA's Matthew Haller says the decision could destroy the franchise industry. Franchises may bear the names of big companies, he said, but they are owned and run like small businesses. 

"They set the wages, they hire and fire the employees, determine the appropriate benefits for employees and are responsible for all decisions that take place at the employee level," Haller said. 

The NLRB's general counsel said the McDonald's Corporation exercises enough control over how franchises are run to make it a co-employer of the people who work for franchises.

"They do exercise quite a bit of control over their franchisees in order to protect their brand," said Wilma Liebman, a former chair of the NLRB who has been advising the SEIU, a union that is working to organize fast-food workers. 

What McDonald's Corp. controls and what it doesn't is laid out in the terms of its franchise agreement. So even though other franchisees in other industries are watching the decision closely, it's not yet clear how this will affect other companies. McDonald's said in a statement that it plans to contest the NLRB's decision.

Twitter is relying on the Underwear Gnomes Profit Plan

Wed, 2014-07-30 13:45

Twitter released its quarterly results and they were impressive — shares jumped nearly 20 percent today.

The social media giant says they have picked up 16 million users in the last few months, making a grand total of 267 million users on Twitter. On top of that, revenue more than doubled thanks to new types of mobile ads.

Of course, revenue and profit aren’t quite the same thing. Twitter is still losing money.

That might sound surprising, but it’s actually pretty typical for tech companies, which tend to have a business plan that strongly resembles the business model of the Underpants Gnomes from South Park.

South Park Underwear Gnomes Profit Plan (full) from Jane Lu on Vimeo.

"It’s actually a very good business model," says Erich Joachimsthaler, CEO of Vivaldi Partners.

OK, he’s actually not talking about the underpants gnomes, he’s talking about Twitter and other tech companies, which tend to follow a plan that looks something like this:

PHASE 1: Attract millions of users with free services.

PHASE 2: Figure out some way to exploit those users.

PHASE 3: Make millions of dollars.

We’ve seen this work time and again, says Joachimsthaler - think Google and Facebook.

"As habit forms and as millions of people become hooked, Twitter has an opportunity to add advertising [and] some e-commerce functions, basically monetizing the asset," Joachimsthaler says.

But that could be tricky for Twitter. Advertisers love Facebook because it knows so much about its users and there are so many of them, says Ken Wilbur, assistant professor of marketing at UC San Diego's Rady School of Management.

He says they don’t love Twitter quite as much.

"When you put ads into the Twitter feed itself, it lowers the utility of Twitter to its users," Wilbur says. "And they don’t have a great platform for putting ads next to the feed."

Wilbur says it remains to be seen whether Twitter can find a way to fully monetize its users. It could either be the next Facebook or the next Friendster. At one time, Friendster was the biggest social network on the web, with more than 100 million users and now it’s a gaming site based in Malaysia.

Ah, the pitfalls of phase two.

Women, divorce, and long-term finances

Wed, 2014-07-30 13:28

At a divorce workshop called Second Saturday, women of all ages are packed around a large conference table. One of them is Jenny Juffs. She’s divorcing after 19 years of marriage and has two special needs children. Like many women, Juffs is pretty shocked by her new financial reality.

“I’ve been a wife or homemaker all my life," she says. "Everything’s changing for me. I’ve never managed money.”

This situation is particularly grim for older women. Today, a quarter of divorced women over 60 live in poverty. Overall, older women see their household income drop by 41 percent. That’s twice the amount of their ex-husbands. And, to make matters worse, baby boomers are splitting up at record rates.  

"So we are seeing these 20, 25, 30, 35-year marriages coming apart, with the women who have never worked outside of the home," says financial advisor Grace Antares. 

Antares heads Portland’s local chapter of Second Saturday. Many people who come to her divorce seminar are completely inexperienced when it comes financial planning. She often sees panic. Like one middle-aged woman who fled the room: “She explained to one of my colleagues that she was going through what felt like PTSD to her, that she had been separated from her husband for 10 years and had made every single mistake that we had mentioned in the first part of the class.”

So, financial literacy is important. But Antares says the biggest contributor to post-divorce success is earning power - and some women who spent more of their time focusing on the family lack job skills. 

As for Jenny Juffs, she's trying to build basic skills, like keyboarding. "I know how to use a computer a little bit, but not Office or Excel or anything that anybody’s going to need.”

Antares says even women who have good jobs can make poor financial decisions after divorce. And the closer to retirement these mistakes are made, the more devastating the effect. Grace Antares is now 64-years-old, and has her own story.

"I was highly emotionally attached to the house," she says. "I pulled out the equity to pay him, I was the bigger earner, paid him a big settlement. Then, when the real estate market crashed, the house was underwater instantly. And so he got all the tax-free cash, and I got a foreclosure and a bankruptcy.”

Antares' own experience is what helps fuel the one message she repeats all the time: “You’re going to be in charge of your finances for the rest of your life."

Time for 'You've got mail' to get on OKCupid?

Wed, 2014-07-30 11:37

These days, box office hits include explosions, aliens and robots - characters most romantic comedies do not contain.

Megan Garber, staff writer for The Atlantic, says the romantic comedy has been dying a slow death, as studios fail to recognize the evolution of romance itself. Rom-coms are not portraying the reality of dating for people in the digital age.

"The world of Tinder, eHarmony and Match.com is not really well reflected in Hollywood at this point," says Garber. "Right now, there isn’t much on the screen that would sort of tell us how to behave in this crazy world of online dating."

Listen to the full conversation in the audio player above.

Foxconn's newest product: a college degree

Wed, 2014-07-30 11:36

There are a lot of lines at a typical Foxconn factory in China. There’s the assembly line, where thousands of young people – typically high school dropouts – put together each and every part of an iPad. It’s tedious, mind-numbing work, and that’s why assembly line workers usually don’t stick around very long. They quit, and that necessitates another line: The hiring line outside a Foxconn factory is, at any given time, hundreds of applicants long, migrants from the countryside who arrive each day to replace workers who’ve quit. When you consider the manufacturer has a million workers – it’s China’s largest private employer – this labor cycle isn’t surprising.

But it is costly.

“The turnover rate is pretty high and it’s impossible to retain all our workers," says Li Yong Zhong, a manager at Foxconn's Chengdu plant, "But we’d like every employee to be able to develop and improve their knowledge, skills and income so that they’ll want to stay here.”

That’s the rationale behind what the company calls Foxconn University, a company-wide accredited university system that offers employees a chance at earning a high school diploma, a bachelor’s, a master’s or a PhD without leaving the factory campus.

Inside the classroom one afternoon, a professor teaches a computer animation class to students at Foxconn’s plant in Chengdu, a factory devoted to making iPads. Instead of assembling Apple products, each one of these workers is using an Apple computer to follow the professor’s instructions. Thirty-six year-old Ai Guo, an assembly line worker who spends his days inspecting iPads for flaws, sits in front of the class.

“I dropped out of school when I was 16," says Ai during a class break. "My family was very poor, and they needed me to help out on the farm.”

It's a typical story for the hundreds of millions of young rural Chinese who drop out of school to farm or find work at factories like Foxconn. Ai hopes to spend the next six years of his time away from work studying toward the equivalent of a high school diploma and then a bacehlor’s degree in Industrial Engineering. “With that, I’d like to get a promotion to start working on industrial automation and, of course, raise my salary," he says.

Foxconn’s university system offers 25 majors – most of them in engineering. The company has an agreement with more than 50 Chinese universities and colleges that send their professors each day to teach classes at its factories across China.

But it's not only Foxconn – in-house university systems are becoming a trend among China’s state-owned companies, says Richard Brubaker, founder of Collective Responsibility, an organization that trains companies in corporate social responsibility. Brubaker says he’s encouraged by Foxconn University – he says it shows the company sees its line workers as more than machines with 5-year shelf lives. “Many of these individuals could, if they were invested into, come into the organization at a much higher level, and much like a UPS driver becomes a CEO, they could become the future management and executives of the company and who know the company so intimately that they’re the ones who can look at risk, look at decisions very differently than an outsider could,” Brubaker says.

The development of an in-house university system comes at a pivotal moment for Foxconn. CEO Terry Gou is 63, and he’s thinking about his legacy. He’s moving the company away from making products for others and toward developing Foxconn’s own products.

“We want our employees to become more innovative and creative, more entrepreneurial,” says Foxconn’s Li Yong Zhong.

But so far, participation in Foxconn University is low: just 3 percent of Foxconn’s one million Chinese workers. Li assures me that will change. "Someday, every one of our employees will study at Foxconn University – we’ll no longer call them workers," he says. "We’ll call them students."

Foxconn's newest product: a college degree

Wed, 2014-07-30 11:36

There are a lot of lines at a typical Foxconn factory in China. There’s the assembly line, where thousands of young people – typically high school dropouts – put together each and every part of an iPad. It’s tedious, mind-numbing work, and that’s why assembly line workers usually don’t stick around very long. They quit, and that necessitates another line: The hiring line outside a Foxconn factory is, at any given time, hundreds of applicants long, migrants from the countryside who arrive each day to replace workers who’ve quit. When you consider the manufacturer has a million workers – it’s China’s largest private employer – this labor cycle isn’t surprising.

But it is costly.

“The turnover rate is pretty high and it’s impossible to retain all our workers," says Li Yong Zhong, a manager at Foxconn's Chengdu plant, "But we’d like every employee to be able to develop and improve their knowledge, skills and income so that they’ll want to stay here.”

That’s the rationale behind what the company calls Foxconn University, a company-wide accredited university system that offers employees a chance at earning a high school diploma, a bachelor’s, a master’s or a PhD without leaving the factory campus.

Inside the classroom one afternoon, a professor teaches a computer animation class to students at Foxconn’s plant in Chengdu, a factory devoted to making iPads. Instead of assembling Apple products, each one of these workers is using an Apple computer to follow the professor’s instructions. Thirty-six year-old Ai Guo, an assembly line worker who spends his days inspecting iPads for flaws, sits in front of the class.

“I dropped out of school when I was 16," says Ai during a class break. "My family was very poor, and they needed me to help out on the farm.”

It's a typical story for the hundreds of millions of young rural Chinese who drop out of school to farm or find work at factories like Foxconn. Ai hopes to spend the next six years of his time away from work studying toward the equivalent of a high school diploma and then a bacehlor’s degree in Industrial Engineering. “With that, I’d like to get a promotion to start working on industrial automation and, of course, raise my salary," he says.

Foxconn’s university system offers 25 majors – most of them in engineering. The company has an agreement with more than 50 Chinese universities and colleges that send their professors each day to teach classes at its factories across China.

But it's not only Foxconn – in-house university systems are becoming a trend among China’s state-owned companies, says Richard Brubaker, founder of Collective Responsibility, an organization that trains companies in corporate social responsibility. Brubaker says he’s encouraged by Foxconn University – he says it shows the company sees its line workers as more than machines with 5-year shelf lives. “Many of these individuals could, if they were invested into, come into the organization at a much higher level, and much like a UPS driver becomes a CEO, they could become the future management and executives of the company and who know the company so intimately that they’re the ones who can look at risk, look at decisions very differently than an outsider could,” Brubaker says.

The development of an in-house university system comes at a pivotal moment for Foxconn. CEO Terry Gou is 63, and he’s thinking about his legacy. He’s moving the company away from making products for others and toward developing Foxconn’s own products.

“We want our employees to become more innovative and creative, more entrepreneurial,” says Foxconn’s Li Yong Zhong.

But so far, participation in Foxconn University is low: just 3 percent of Foxconn’s one million Chinese workers. Li assures me that will change. "Someday, every one of our employees will study at Foxconn University – we’ll no longer call them workers," he says. "We’ll call them students."

Back-to-school sticker shock

Wed, 2014-07-30 09:52

The annual back-to-school spendathon is almost here. And for public-school parents, it’s going to be pricey.

Huntington Bank is out with its annual "backpack index," which tracks the cost of school supplies. The bad news: elementary school kids will need $642 in extras this year, middle-school kids will spend an additional $918, and high school students will get hit up for an additional $1,284.

Those estimates translate to an 11 percent jump, 20 percent jump, and 5 percent jump, respectively.

The biggest bumps are expected to come from higher standardized-testing fees, and fees for things like school trips, music classes and sports, according to Huntington. Many middle-school kids will also need a graphing calculator, which can run nearly $130.

Huntington didn’t include laptops or tablets in its index. But many parents will be facing extra costs for those, as well.

Since Huntington started tracking the cost of school supplies in 2007, the bank estimates they have increased 83 percent for elementary school students, 73 percent for middle school students and 44 percent for high school students.

Here’s a guide, from the group, on what you can expect this year.

NLRB says McDonald's can be considered joint-employer

Wed, 2014-07-30 06:00

McDonald’s could be held liable for wage-and-hour violations, and for obstructing union organizing, at its thousands of franchise restaurants across the country.

The National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel has ruled that McDonald’s can be considered a "joint-employer" along with its franchise owners in labor-law complaints, because the parent company plays a significant role in employment practices for fast-food workers at the franchisee-operated stores, which constitute 90 percent of the chain’s restaurants.

If upheld in subsequent NLRB proceedings (and further legal appeals, should there be any, by McDonald’s and its franchisees), the ruling could mean McDonald’s is legally responsible when franchise owners shortchange workers or lay them off after they protest for higher wages. The theory is that McDonald’s in part determines wage levels, work rules and scheduling patterns via the contracts it sets with franchisees, as well as the labor-management software and guidance it provides to maximize store-profitability.

Complaints about worker treatment in the ongoing campaign for $15-an-hour pay at fast-food restaurants, and for union representation, have been brought by the advocacy group Fast Food Forward, which is supported by the Service Employees International Union.

There are also class-action lawsuits being pursued in three states (California, New York and Michigan) over alleged violations by McDonald’s and its franchise owners. A lawyer for the class-action plaintiffs in California, Michael Rubin at Altshuler Berzon in San Francisco, said the NLRB ruling would strengthen those cases, which are also based on ‘joint-employer’ claims.

Meanwhile, a federal court in California has held Wal-Mart to be a joint-employer of temporary warehouse workers in a class-action lawsuit based on a similar argument — that Wal-Mart controls the employment conditions in the supply chain in which subcontractors and temporary staffing agencies operate.

Christine Owens of the National Employment Law Project says the NLRB and some courts are acknowledging the increasing use of contingent and temporary workers in the corporate ecosystem that many large corporations create around them.

These recent interpretations of U.S. labor law, says Owens, may be “catching up with how the economy is changing. So many working people are no longer employed by the company that appears to be the main employer. There’s more than one employer really calling the shots.”

McDonald’s has vowed to fight the NLRB ruling, saying its franchisees set wages and working conditions. A statement from the company says the decision "goes against decades of established law regarding the franchise model in the United States."

Groups representing restaurant owners and franchisees have also blasted the decision, saying it jeopardizes the franchising system.

But former Penn State labor-law professor Ellen Dannin, author of "Taking Back the Workers’ Law," isn’t so sure.

“People seemed a little over the top” in their reactions to the NLRB general counsel’s determination, she said. “Just because the general counsel has issued a complaint doesn’t necessarily lead to the kinds of problems that they’re worried about.”

Dannin also expressed skepticism that the ruling, linking McDonald’s more directly to labor relationships and conditions at its franchises, will necessarily make union organizing against chains like McDonald’s any easier. 

We have a tag for "Sharknado" stories

Wed, 2014-07-30 06:00

It's hard to imagine where the two circles of "Marketplace coverage" and "Sharknado" intersect on a venn diagram. But overlap they do, and in suprisingly relevant ways.

That's because the SyFy network's made-for-tv movie is something of a phenomenon from a financial perspective. With a relatively small budget — around $1-2 million — it grew from a disappointing first airing to internet sensation to big screen flick

"Everybody asks, you know, why did this happen?" says director Anthony C. Ferrante. "You can't ask why; it's 'Sharknado.' It's a movie about sharks and a tornado, and it just hit everybody's sweet spot for whatever reason this summer."

It didn't hit a sweet spot for actor Ian Ziering initially. That is, until health insurance came into play.

Ziering was reluctant to star in the original film, but when his wife urged him to consider the union health insurance he would be eligible for by doing the movie, he reconsidered.

With a pregnant wife, Ziering put down his reservations about the cheesy script, and picked up a shark chainsaw.

So it turns out Sharknado isn't just a story about a tornado dropping sharks from the sky.

It's about financial success, crowdsourced marketing and health care. Go figure.

By the way, Sharknado 2 premieres Wednesday.

PODCAST: Video game lobby

Wed, 2014-07-30 03:00

First up, more on the latest GDP report, which showed a strong 4% growth in the 2nd quarter. Plus, a key ruling against McDonald's gives hope to those looking to force the company's franchisees to raise their wages to $15 an hour. Also, the latest lobbying force to hit Washington comes from an unexpected source: gamers. 

Video game lobby answers 'call of duty' on the Hill

Wed, 2014-07-30 02:00

Meet the voice of  video game makers on Capitol Hill:  Erik Huey.

A "Donkey Kong" champion and "Madden" addict, he's now chief lobbyist for the Entertainment Software Association, the main trade group for the gaming business in Washington.

“I feel like Mario the fix-it man, the plumber, making sure things flow correctly. But I think more often than not, I feel like Sonic the Hedgehog, running around with frenetic energy," he says.

Huey and his staff have just finished discussing a plan to highlight gaming industry jobs in congressional districts. 

Now, Huey is off to the corridors of Capitol Hill, first to visit Rep. Joe Garcia, then Rep. Jim McGovern.

Members of Congress listen to Huey. The Center for Responsive Politics says the Entertainment Software Association spent almost $5.5 million on lobbying in 2013. 

“That’s pretty serious lobbying money,” says Viveca Novak, a spokeswoman for the Center.

Scrolling through spending reports, Novak says there was a spike in the video game lobby’s spending as Congress considered a bill mandating research into whether violent video games cause actual violence.   

“Almost half of their reports in 2013 mentioned the Violent Content Research Act. It’s clearly something they were very concerned about,” says Novak.

The bill is now stalled in the Senate.

The video game industry has lobbied on online piracy and privacy, too. And it's not just relying on shoe leather. The lobbyists are trying to get gamers to help make their case online. But it’s not easy. 

“It’s a little bit like herding cats with a dog in the room,” says Andrew Rasiej, the founder of  Personal Democracy Media, and chairman of an annual conference on politics and technology.

(Courtesy:OpenSecrets.org)

Gamers don’t always support the tech lobby’s positions. Still, Erik Huey says his association has organized about 600,000 gamers into a group called the Video Game Voters Network.

When a congressman recently made disparaging remarks about gaming, Huey says thousands of group members responded.

“Four thousand constituents calling in — that’s quite powerful,” he says.

Huey says when it works, the Video Game Voters Network can be a potent weapon. Most other lobbyists don’t have such an active, online base that's used to combat. Or, at least virtual combat.

Drop in uninsured is a mixed blessing for hospitals

Wed, 2014-07-30 02:00

Some of the big, urban hospitals around the country – the "safety net" hospitals that serve the poor – are getting hit with a dose of good news.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the number of uninsured patients is dropping sharply. Hospitals like Our Lady of Lourdes in Camden, New Jersey, are now spending millions less on providing charity care.

William Castro is one of thousands of patients Lourdes had treated for free. A car accident in 2010 left him suffering with chronic back pain. 

“You know what it is... you’re a grown man and it’s so bad you have to take hot showers, you are crying at night,” says Castro.

Without health insurance, Castro made monthly visits to the hospitals where doctors scribbled out prescriptions.

The 46-year-old says he struggled to scrape up the money to buy his meds.

“You are talking about $300-$350 a month. And a person that’s not able to work... can you imagine, having zero? Needing this medication, and have to count on your family, loved ones, friends... then next month you have to do it all over again?” he says.

Now on Medicaid, Castro has his prescriptions covered – no co-pays – and is hoping to enroll in a pain management course.

One by one, Lourdes CEO Alexander Hatala has watched his uninsured patient population fall from 8.5 percent of patients last year to 3 percent.

That’s a $3.5 million of savings at the Camden hospital.

“$3.5 million can make a difference between breaking even or operating in the red,” Hatala says.

What’s happening in Camden is happening around the country – at least for hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare.

This summer the Colorado Hospital Association – looking at stats from 30 states – found a 30 percent jump in Medicaid charges, and a 30 percent drop in charity care costs.

That puts hospitals on track to save billions this year.

“Yeah, there’s more money. But it also comes with a caveat,” says Ellen Kugler, Executive Director of the National Association of Urban Hospitals. “There are a number of federal cuts coming and many more that are coming.”

Federal, state, and local government funding currently covers about 65 percent of charity care costs. Under the ACA, the plan has been to reduce that funding  - at least at the federal level - as more Americans gain insurance coverage.

In this new landscape, the Urban Institute’s Teresa Coughlin says these hospitals will now have to fight to keep their newly-insured patients: “Do they have contracts with [insurers]? Are they able to retain patients who became newly insured and still continue to come to their facility? Or will they go elsewhere now that they have a choice?”

Coughlin says some of these hospitals are considered second-tier facilities, and to keep their doors open, they must build relationships with insurers and convince consumers they offer excellent service for a fair price. 

A whole new world, says Coughlin - a world where not all safety net hospitals may survive.

What the time of day says about your earnings report

Wed, 2014-07-30 02:00

Humana is among the companies reporting its quarterly numbers on Wednesday as earnings season continues. The health insurance giant always releases its earnings before the markets open. Whole Foods reports the same day, but the grocery chain always waits until after the closing bell.

If you've ever wondered why companies go one way or the other, it's worth noting the Securities and Exchange Commission doesn’t care what time of day companies report their quarterly earnings.

So it comes down to factors like: what’s the best time to put the CEO on the phone with investors and analysts?  

"Some people are morning people and some people are afternoon people," says Jeff Morgan, president of the National Investor Relations Institute. He adds that once a company picks a time, it sticks. "We want to be sure that whatever we do every quarter, we do the same thing the next quarter, so that there’s not anybody wondering why we’re making changes."

A recent study found that 66 percent of companies hold earnings calls at the same time every quarter. Co-author Elizabeth Demers, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, says executives should avoid afternoon calls, when they might be hungry and cranky.

"What we find is that as the tone of the calls becomes more negative, the share price returns are also more negative," Demers says. "In other words, the stock price responds to the negativity that's being emitted on the calls." 

Demers says size matters, too; a lot of small companies reporting earnings have to take whatever slot they can get. 

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