A Pioneering Insurance Journalist Calls It Quits

Joseph Belth is one of the best business journalists in America. He served as the conscience of an industry for 40 years and influenced countless careers, including mine.

Yet Belth was never eligible for a Pulitzer Prize, which I believe he deserves. Unless you work in the insurance industry or write about insurance or personal finance for a living, you probably have never heard of him. Many journalists do not even recognize him as a member of their tribe.

Belth is a professor emeritus of insurance at Indiana University. Since 1973, he has published a monthly newsletter called The Insurance Forum that was far more interesting and controversial than its name suggests. This October, Belth wrote to subscribers to announce that December’s issue of The Insurance Forum will be the last. At 84, Belth plans to finish writing a book about his experiences with the newsletter and otherwise retire from journalism.

He leaves a body of work that is admired by many and, it is safe to say, detested by many more. People who sell insurance sometimes seem to think they have a constitutional right to be the only source of information available to prospective customers, and they tend to be harsh in their attacks on those who don’t jump aboard their latest marketing bandwagon.

My colleagues and I experience this reaction every time we write about the shortcomings of long-term care insurance. For Belth, the attacks were just part of the workday. He and his publication were called all sorts of names, the most polite of which was probably “The Insurance Bore-’em.” Yet his work was anything but boring.

In 1981 Belth challenged the sales tactics of the A.L. Williams organization, which recruited a small army of part-time agents to advise consumers to “buy term and invest the difference,” rather than hold onto whole-life policies that carried significantly higher premiums. In many situations, buying term insurance is indeed the best way to get affordable protection for a family. But replacing existing policies on which commissions have already been paid with new policies on which large commissions are due is not, generally speaking, a good idea. A.L. Williams won an order from North Carolina insurance regulators banning that issue of the newsletter from circulation in the state; Belth had the blatantly unconstitutional order reversed by a federal court.

Over a four-year period, he wrote repeatedly about the questionable financial underpinnings of Executive Life, a once highly rated company that collapsed in 1991. He wrote articles that were mild in tone but scathing in content about the many ways insurers discovered to separate customers from their assets, including failing to disclose the true costs of paying premiums in installments, delaying the payment of death benefits without paying interest, and converting customer-owned mutual companies into stock companies without fairly compensating policyholders for equity that was assigned elsewhere. In recent years, he has vigorously criticized deceptive practices surrounding the origination and marketing of large new policies funded, and mostly controlled, by speculators.

Belth constantly fought for the free flow of information. He filed more freedom of information requests each year than most reporters file in a career. He exposed efforts by insurance companies and often-compliant regulators to suppress data on company financial condition, executive pay and other enforcement matters.

His newsletters were concisely written, meticulously edited and thoroughly sourced. Belth did not do hatchet jobs. He always invited subjects to respond to his observations, and he often quoted extensively from court documents and other raw materials.

In 1991 Belth received a George Polk Award, one of journalism’s highest, in a “special publications” category. “Intent on reform and informing those in decision-making positions, Mr. Belth carries on despite the continuing hostility of many in the industry,” the awards panel said in a statement. (1)

A few years ago, I looked into nominating Belth for a Pulitzer but ran into a roadblock: Pulitzer eligibility is limited to “material coming from a United States newspaper or news site that publishes at least weekly and adheres to the highest journalistic principles.” The weekly publication requirement, whatever its purpose, seemed to rule out Belth’s monthly self-published newsletter.

Maybe Belth’s publication schedule mattered to the Pulitzer pooh-bahs, but it did not matter to me. I read his newsletter closely to keep up with trends and issues in the industry, and I cited it on several occasions. My readers have benefited from Belth’s reporting on delays in locating life insurance beneficiaries, the actual cost of paying premiums in installments and the misleading use of instruments known as “surplus notes” to disguise insurers’ true levels of debt.

In his November issue discussing the newsletter’s history, Belth credits Ralph Nader with inspiring The Insurance Forum’s creation. Belth met Nader at a 1966 conference and was surprised to learn that Nader had read Belth’s little-known book about retail pricing for life insurance. “During that conversation, Nader made a suggestion that altered the course of my career,” Belth recalled. “He said he had noted I did not identify companies. He said books, articles and reports that do not name names generally are not read and do little but gather dust. He said I should name names if I wanted to accomplish anything significant for the benefit of the public. I then began to do so, with predictable results.” (2)

Trade journals that depended on insurance company advertisers and subscribers did not want to publish Belth’s finger-pointing articles. Academic journals were unafraid, but hardly anyone in the industry read academic journals. So Belth launched his own newsletter. He never accepted advertising and, most of the time, he never made any money from it, according to his farewell account.

But he set a high standard for insurance industry conduct and he provided a roadmap for objective financial advisers and journalists to guide consumers toward sensible choices.

I am off on a business trip to Nova Scotia. When I get back, I will drop Joe Belth a line to let him know how deeply I appreciate his work and how much he will be missed.


1) The New York Times, “13 Journalists Are Winners of Polk Awards”

2) The Insurance Forum, Back Issues

Save Advertising Money and Gain Integrity by Writing Articles for Insurance Industry Journals

Would you rather have three seconds of an insurance prospect’s attention, or 15 minutes of his devoted attention? Of course, all of us would opt for the 15 minutes. That time is the difference between scanning an ad and reading an article in a business journal.

When a prospect sees an ad, he scans the headline. If it interests him, he might read further. Each ad typically receives about three seconds of attention, sometimes less. However, informational articles that pertain to your prospect usually get 15 minutes of his attention. The question is, who is writing these articles? Well, you should be.

Tricks of the trade

Most business owners and operators subscribe to a variety of trade publications. You might even be advertising in some of them. But, have you ever thought about submitting an article to one? Many trade journals accept articles from industry experts. Publishing articles is a great way to establish yourself as an expert and gain publicity for your company.

Why published articles work

While most of us are skeptical of advertising, we often trust that what is printed in a trade journal article is mostly, if not entirely, the truth. Although readers may not believe what is stated in an ad, they are more apt to read and think about what you have to say in an article, and credibility is everything. Many of my clients have told me that they receive higher lead generations through articles than advertisements.

What you need to know

If you want to write an insurance article for submission, take the time to write a genuine, smart article that proves your expertise, that is educational, and that is of interest to your audience. Forget that you are trying to sell something. Any submission that reads even faintly as promotional will be rejected. All editors want articles that are newsworthy. Try to tackle an insurance industry pain point and then take it one step farther and offer relevant solutions.

And remember, never pay to have an insurance article published and avoid advertising for the purpose of seeing your article in print. Reputable magazines never charge you to publish articles; they want insurance stories that are newsworthy.

Note: There’s a difference between self-publishing articles online for search engine optimization and publishing articles in printed journals to boost lead generation and credibility. This article pertains only to publishing in printed journals.

How to get started

  1. Determine which insurance magazines or journals your target audience reads. Those are the ones to target.
  2. Brainstorm and write up a list of insurance article ideas.
  3. Pitch your topic list to the target magazine editors.
  4. When an editor shows interest, write the article to the editor’s specifications, making sure to include a byline about you and your company.
  5. Call in an expert if needed. If the thought of writing articles and communicating with editors is daunting, contact an insurance copywriter. The copywriter will ghostwrite for you, allowing you to achieve your goals quickly and painlessly!

Insurance Premium Audits For Contractors – How to Avoid Getting Overcharged in an Audit

WHAT DO CONTRACTORS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PREMIUM AUDITS? Most contractors find they are subject to premium audits from insurance companies for general liability, workers compensation, and sometimes for automobile, and even builders risk insurance policies. This applies most types of contractors, including general contractors, plumbing contractors, heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors, electrical contractors drywall contractors, painting contractors, roofing contractors, and so on.

A premium audit is a review of your business operations, financial reports, and records to determine what to charge you for your contractor liability insurance, workers compensation, or other coverage provided. The objective is to determine the final earned premium for a given policy that was issued on the basis of payroll, sales, subcontracting costs, or other variables.

Policy premiums are based on projections you provided for payroll, sales, and perhaps subcontractor costs. Your insurance rates can vary based on this information, the audit determines what the correct premium should be based on your actual experience.

The audit is performed by an auditor selected by the insurance company. They may be an employee of the insurance company, or an employee of an auditing firm, or even an independent contractor.

THERE ARE THREE TYPES OF PREMIUM AUDITS. Depending on the size of your premiums and your operations you may get one of the following:

Physical Audit – Conducted at your premises or at a secondary location such as your accountant’s office.

Phone Audit – An auditor contacts you over the phone to complete the audit. This type of audit is generally for small- to mid-sized accounts.

Mail Audit – A voluntary audit form with instructions is mailed to you. Mail audits are generally conducted for smaller accounts.

RECORDS AUDITORS MAY ASK TO SEE: Auditors are likely to ask for one or more of the following types of records:

Journals and Ledgers
Tax filings Individual
Pay Records
Time cards
Vehicle titles
Contracts with clients
Contracts with subcontractors
Records of Job Costs
P&L Statements
Balance Sheets

QUESTIONS AUDITORS MAY ASK The auditor will likely ask questions about your records or operations. They may be asking questions to determine if the correct classifications are being applied. If an auditor decides your operations are not correctly classified, it can have an unwelcome surprising result of a large audit billing. Make sure you understand your classifications, and how the boundaries of your particular classifications are defined.

If an auditor questions the use of any classifications, they may ask to see some actual work being done by your employees.

It is important to understand credits you are entitled to in audits.

Insurance classification and rating rules often allow credits to your audit, but your records must be maintained to provide the necessary information in detail and summary form.

If premiums are payroll based, you will pay for total remuneration as defined in the policy.

Remuneration in most states, means money or substitutes for money, and includes:

Holiday Pay
Other Money Substitutes
Overtime Pay
Payments made to Profit Sharing Plans
Payments made to statutory benefit plans
The value of board and lodging
Tool Allowances

Understand the following concepts and definitions to help make sure you avoid overpaying from an audit.

In most states, the amount attributable to overtime in excess of the regular time pay rate may be deducted. It must be clearly identified in your records. Excess pay for overtime must be clearly segregated in the payroll records.

Division of an individual employee’s payroll to more than one classification is not allowed, except for construction or erection operations and/or certain executive officer classifications. When payroll is divisible, daily time card must be kept allocating the work to different classifications. Failure to keep daily time cards may result in all payroll of an employee getting assigned to the highest rated classification.

Avoid becoming responsible for injuries to employees of subcontractor, by obtaining certificates of insurance naming you additional insured. Check your contracts with your subcontractors to make sure you are held harmless and properly protected by indemnification clauses. Auditors look to see if you have adhered to the terms in your policy as respects to your subcontractors. Sometimes audits go bad when the certificates are not in place, or the auditor decides payments to subcontractors are really wages to employees.

Set up your automated records to provide audiors what they need, and you will find your audits go smoothly, and save you lots of time in the future.

Accounts payable journal and cash dispersements
A/R journal
All vehicle leases, including but not limited to, owner-operator leases
Annual income tax statements
Documents supporting entries in the journals and financial statements
Driver and vehicle logs
Expense journal
Income Statements
Monthly Individual earnings reports
Payroll records including the payroll journal
Quarterly 941’s
Registrations for owned vehicles
SUI’s (State Unemployment Reports – DE 6’s in California)
General and subsidiary sales ledgers
All underlying journals