Tag Archives: Q&As
by Liz Hester
Margot Carmichael Lester founded The Word Factory in 1993 and spends her time focusing on providing quality content for her clients.
She began her journalism career as the high school correspondent for the Chapel Hill Weekly, edited by the famous Jim Shumaker. She’s covered business for a number of outlets including the Los Angeles Business Journal, Playboy and several airline magazines. She also creates content and writing coaching for clients like Staples, Baxter Healthcare and Tufts University Medical Center. Check out her blog.
She spoke with Talking Biz News about what it takes to make a living in content and how she’s built her successful business. What follows is an edited transcript.
Talking Biz News: The Word Factory turns 21 this year. Congratulations. How did you build a successful content business?
Margot Carmichael Lester: When I started, we called it copy and AOL was the gee-whiz technology of the day. There wasn’t anything called a “content shop,” so I’d be lying if I said I planned it this way. But from the start I knew — as someone who had worked with freelancers and contractors in my previous life — that customer service was critical. I operationalize that through:
- Quality. Clients appreciate that the content we file is clean and on time. I hate to call it a competitive advantage, but it is. In my first journalism class, we got dinged for typos and misspellings — and were using non-correcting typewriters! — so I learned early on to pay attention to small things like that. Anything you can do to make your client’s life easier makes you valuable.
- Reliability. Shockingly, I also get kudos for turning in content on time and giving clients early warning if there are delays or challenges. I think people who’ve worked in daily or weekly deadline situations are much better at this than people who haven’t, by the way. We know the downside risk of not getting content in on time and the upside value of keeping editors/clients informed.
- Speed. I’m also fast. I’ve always been an operations geek, designing processes to create more high-quality content in less time. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was applying principles from Lean, Agile, Scrum and Kanban — all those manufacturing process — to content. So the content supply chain we create is more efficient and effective for everyone — us and the client. Being transparent about the process and the progress creates buy-in and trust, and keeps us all on track.
There are a lot of really great writers out there. So all things being equal, ability- and talent-wise, customer service is a key differentiator. To be successful in a highly competitive environment, it helps if you provide service, not just text.
TBN: Is that the key to client management?
MCL: Quality, reliability and speed are definitely critical to keeping clients. But the final component is managing expectations, not just about deadlines, but also about the meat and potatoes of the project itself. I invest a lot of energy working with clients to articulate purpose, target audience, desired results and other details before we do any actual writing. We use quantitative points like word count and style guides, as well as quantitative items like models (“we want an article that sounds like this one”) and audience profiles to nail down as much of the project as possible. The clients and I agree what we’re doing and why, and then my team and I figure out how to do it.
That clarity and focus dramatically reduces the risk of pursuing the wrong angle or creeping away from the purpose. It’s different — most clients don’t pursue projects this way—but these extra cycles at the beginning actually reduce cycles later on because there’s less revision and retooling. We also do a lot of rapid iterations, creating minimally viable products like pre-writes, drafts, etc., that give the writing team and the client team plenty of opportunities to check off the project before a huge investment in time and resources has been made.
TBN: Sounds a little like how editors and reporters work together.
MCL: Exactly. Editors decide on the overall coverage plan, and reporters and photogs and designers make it happen. The groups collaborate to revise the content and then publish it quickly. That’s why I’ve been saying for years that all of us old ink-stained wretches — I actually remember a functioning Linotype machine at my first writing gig in high school — are extremely well prepared for the always-on world of constant content. We know how to plan on the fly — daily newspaper or evening news show, right? — make solid assignments, do the reporting, write and revise, and produce quality quickly. We can’t afford to pursue the wrong angle or say, two minutes before deadline, “oops”. This isn’t rocket science. This isn’t new. It’s simply applying what we know from efficient newsrooms to a new environment.
TBN: How do you incorporate good journalism in writing for companies?
MCL: The tension between good journalism and corporate writing is always there. Although I’ll say that with so many former journalists taking corporate gigs, there are some bright spots in the landscape. To be fair, though, it’s not that corporate folks don’t value good journalism. Many of them weren’t trained in it, or are stymied by corporate style and legal/regulatory requirements. Still, I try to fight the good fight for basic journalistic standards, including AP Style and no marketing-speak. But at some point, corporate style, executive preferences and “the client’s always right” get in the way.
You can stand on principle, but you can’t buy groceries with principle. I’m not going to fight a client over a serial comma or what to capitalize. But I’ll go a little harder when the writing’s not clear, it doesn’t address the audience in the right way, or it’s incorrect. Unless they’re asking you to lie or something morally or ethically questionable, chances are it’s worth letting go. If you want to work, you have to learn to choose your battles.
by Liz Hester
Jason Kelly has spent his entire career reporting and writing about business.
He’s been a Bloomberg News reporter since 2002 where he’s covered private equity, global finance and technology. Before that, he worked in Atlanta for digital south magazine and the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Kelly is the author of “The New Tycoons: Inside the Trillion Dollar Industry That Owns Everything” published in 2012. He’s currently working on a second book about the business of endurance sports.
In this interview, he talks about his new role as managing editor of Bloomberg Link. (Bloomberg Link recently signed the Sohn Investment Conference.) What follows is an edited transcript.
Talking Biz News: Was it hard to make the transition from daily journalism? What do you miss? What’s better about this job?
Jason Kelly: It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be. I do miss the thrill of the scoop sometimes — that flush of excitement when breaking news hits the wire and you know you got it first. But I don’t miss earnings season.
What’s better about this job? Being on stage is a lot of fun, and I like the spontaneity that comes with our format, which is journalist-driven conversations. When I’m emceeing an event, I get to run the question and answer session that comes in from the audience, and mix in my own questions.
And having been in the audience and covered many conferences as a journalist and spoken on lots of panels, it’s still amazing to me all that goes into it.
TBN: What skills from being a reporter do you apply to your job now?
JK: One of the most rewarding things about journalism, especially covering a beat, is building relationships with sources and high-level contacts. When I started covering private equity, I quickly realized it was a breakfast, lunch and dinner beat. It’s imperative to get to know people as individuals and get them to trust you. And when you’re asking someone to sit with you on stage for half an hour, that sort of care and feeding is also required.
There’s a lot of reporting and research that goes on ahead of a conference. Each interview or session is a story that should be part of a larger narrative. I want people to walk away feeling like they understand something or someone better, so we end up talking a lot about the narrative arc of the conference.
TBN: Many media companies are expanding into events, like Bloomberg Link. What does it take to do it well and what have you learned about creating good on-stage content?
JK: It’s harder than it looks! Even very successful people can shrink a little bit when they’re on stage. We try to do as much preparation as we can to establish some sort of chemistry among panelists and interviewees with the moderator (back to the preparation point). But then you have to avoid another potential challenge — leaving the best stuff in the pre-interview. You want the stage session to be spontaneous.
Also, people like to laugh. It’s an effective way to bring both the participants and the audience into the mix. Last year at a conference we do with Bloomberg Markets magazine, I referred to the relationship between Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman and JPMorgan vice chairman Jimmy Lee as a “bromance” — to them, on stage. It was something of a calculated risk. Worst case, they just think I’m being silly. Best case, it helps signal that this would be a different sort of interview. Luckily, it worked. I think.
TBN: How does this connect with your other projects?
JK: I like to think of what we do as Bloomberg journalism, live on stage. It’s another medium, among many, that Bloomberg can offer, along with print, broadcast and online. Any interview on stage can and does take many forms. It’s happening there for the audience, it’s streaming live on the terminal or sometimes carried on Bloomberg TV, and then archived. We have reporters writing stories, I might send a Tweet about something especially interesting.
Also, it’s a way to shamelessly promote my book (“The New Tycoons,” a look inside the private equity industry published in 2012). I’m only partially kidding.
As I work on my next book, which is about the business of fitness and endurance sports, I’m thinking of ways to marry the two. We do have a successful annual conference on the business of sports…
TBN: Any advice for other journalists?
JK: My free advice (worth what you pay for it)? Embrace journalism in all forms. At its core, journalism is about curiosity, and number of media seem to be expanding and evolving. Social media has had a radical impact on how we all do our jobs, as has the proliferation of video. I’m not sure if convergence is actually the right term. I do know that it demands a flexibility on our parts to tell stories through whatever medium works best.
by Liz Hester
Melissa Daly is the founding partner of MFD Communications in New York.
In the summer of 2011, she started her strategic communications business and has worked to build a niche offering, bringing value to her clients. Prior to starting MFD, she worked in communications at Goldman Sachs and Brunswick Group.
She spoke with Talking Biz News about the challenges of starting her own agency in the competitive world of financial services. What follows is an edited transcript.
Talking Biz News: What was the biggest challenge in starting your own agency?
Melissa Daly: The biggest challenge was navigating all the different steps including setting up the limited liability company, ad placements, email systems and accounting systems. When you’re starting out, you don’t want to invest money in other people doing things for you, so if you can do it yourself, you do. I learned along the way what I could have done more efficiently.
It’s a very personal process to start your own company, and I wanted to make sure everything was done as best as it could be. Even if you farm something out, you want the best person to do that job. But you don’t always know the best web designer or accountant, so it can be nerve wracking.
That was the tactical part. There was also the emotional stress of not having a paycheck. I knew we had some savings to sustain the business for some time, but there was a time when I knew we needed to be profitable.
I’m constantly drumming up new business and networking. In the early days, I knew I had to set up a certain number of meetings and coffees. And I still do. I needed to accomplish certain things everyday because driving the business forward is what is going to get you paid. The fear and embarrassment of failure is a real motivator.
The best piece of advice I got when I started was from someone who has been in the business a lot longer than me and who also started his own firm. He told me it wouldn’t be the people who are your closest friends who will refer or give you business. It’s their connections. You need to broaden your first contact point and network. It will be those people who recommend you and the more people you talk to, the more people who will likely refer you.
TBN: What has been the most rewarding part?
MD: The best part is getting a new client and helping them or their business. It’s rewarding to get a client and each win is getting you closer to your goals and helping to build the business.
We needed to set ourselves apart. We don’t do straight public relations. We do strategic communications. A lot of our business focuses on getting people to develop messages and content, then putting it out to their audience. We work to help define what clients are saying to their audience. A lot of that is media training and executive coaching.
For example, some of our clients are too close to the business or in a complicated field and can’t communicate their message in a simple way, which prevents them from being quoted. We spend a lot of time distilling their messages and helping people understand what they want to tell their audience and reporters. We help them speak intelligently and clearly about a product, initiative or company earnings. We help make sure they’re all telling the same story so clients and everyone else hears the same message.
TBN: How do you balance work with sourcing new business?
MD: You really have to set aside time to do the networking and sourcing your business when it won’t interfere with client work. You have to put in that time and effort, and know will take a lot of both. It won’t just come to you.
That said, you can’t do it at the expense of existing clients. You have to service your existing customer base. It’s easier to keep the client you have than to find a new one. You have to know your schedule and what each day looks like. If you’re out chasing business when a client needs you, then you need to source new business in a different way – maybe by finding evenings to network. Clients always come first.
TBN: Communications is competitive. How do you compete with the larger firms?
MD: A big part is that is having our two partners working closely with each of our clients. They get senior-level attention throughout the process. If you hired a larger agency, you wouldn’t get that all the time. We value and care more about our clients because each one so important. We can’t afford to lose them.
We also don’t track our hours like a bigger agency would do. If I were a senior person at large agency, I may have one to two hours per week for a client. We don’t put a junior person on the account like some larger firms may. We’re navigating the strategic work and the actual execution of the plan. Each of us has more experience than a typical client may experience so ultimately we can add more value to each relationship.
We really target a specific niche that many people can’t do effectively as part of a larger organization. Often, we work with other agencies and help fill in their gaps.
TBN: What advice would you give to someone just getting started in the industry?
MD: The best thing anyone getting into communication can do for herself is to learn about business. If you’re going to talk about or write about business, it’s a good idea to take some classes to learn about business generally and perhaps a specific industry. I talk to a lot of people going into communications who have a writing background. But it’s hard to offer advice if don’t know how an organization typically operates, or how businesses or the economy work.
Having that business perspective will help you learn to speak with executives and offer strategic advice. This would be true for any industry – art, communications, manufacturing. There is a business side to every industry. You need to know how the business side functions so can you can effectively talk about it. Know how to read a balance sheet and an earnings statement, understand how a marketing plan should work.
I was a business major, and my first job was as a financial planner. I learned about financial services by doing that and it enabled me to be a better communicator about financial services specifically, and business broadly. It helped me speak intelligently about financial services products.
Many people go into a major thinking they only need to learn what’s in that discipline, but you need other parts that will round out your career and make you better overall. That is how you can set yourself apart. If you’re going to get into business communications, you should really learn about certain parts of the business and the economy. It can only give you more credibility and confidence.
by Liz Hester
Laura Baverman has been a business journalist since starting her career at the Cincinnati Business Courier in 2005 as a real estate and technology reporter.
There she cultivated her love for covering entrepreneurs and start-ups as part of her beat reporting. In 2009 she moved to the Cincinnati Enquirer where she continued to write about real estate and entrepreneurship. After moving to Raleigh in October 2012, she began freelancing for publications such as American City Business Journals, The (Raleigh) News & Observer, USA Today and Raleigh Public Record.
In the last month, she became the editor of ExitEvent, which works to develop the start-up community in the Triangle.
She spoke with Talking Biz News about her journalism career and her move to her new role. What follows is an edited transcript.
Talking Biz News: When you were freelancing, how did you find and pitch stories? What was the most challenging part?
Laura Baverman: I had several months before I moved to make connections and I asked everyone I knew about who might need freelance work. My editor at the Enquirer knew the editor at USA Today. I saw they weren’t really covering start-ups and I told them how I could fill in the gaps.
It was important to leverage my networks. A lot of this comes back to relationships. You have to keep them up over time even when you move on to another position. A few other publications reached out to me about writing for them after finding me on social media. I also did some content marketing – blogging and ghost writing – for some clients. Leveraging my network was the key thing to being successful.
Once I began to pitch stories, I would consume as much news as possible. I would scan Twitter to find topics. I also used Google trends, or BuzzFeed pages and Yahoo to see what people were talking about. I would look at what those I admired were writing about and then figure out an angle that wasn’t being told.
To find local stories, I started to network and talk to the people I met in the community to source stories. That was a little harder because I was new and I had to work to build my connections.
TBN: What was the hardest part about working for yourself?
LB: The hardest thing was having multiple bosses. Even though I was working for myself, I had a lot of different bosses. It was hard to manage expectations because everyone wants the same thing at the same time. At the paper, I could ask my editor to prioritize what needed to get done. Working for myself, I tended to take on everything.
I was constantly trying to exceed expectations, but sometimes it was a struggle just to meet them. The balance of reporting and editing was hard.
TBN: How did you get involved in ExitEvent? What excited you about the opportunity?
LB: Connections. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s important to have good relationships and make impressions in a positive way. The person running the site reached out to me. ExitEvent was started by a local entrepreneur who wanted to fill a gap in the region for early-stage companies and wanted a network for entrepreneurs. It was about sharing information with the community.
It started out as planned monthly events for entrepreneurs and investors. I really liked that the company was a family-owned businesses and cared about employees.
I also love entrepreneurs and their stories. I like to think I have a critical eye. After covering the beat nationally, I know what it takes to succeed.
TBN: Where do you see journalism heading in the next five years?
LB: It’s interesting. Content marketing is evolving a lot. What we’ll see happen is companies trying to do content marking will end up sponsoring work done by journalists. What has to be clear is that journalists have complete editorial control and companies have control over where to put their names. Companies like to control the message, but to be authentic and effective they need journalists to write content without the oversight of a company.
I also thing there will be more sharing of content between local and national sources. For example, the New York Times won’t be able to staff every community. If I can bring an advertiser to the table and work out a revenue sharing agreement along with providing content, that creates value for everyone. The sponsor gets more than just quality content from someone who knows the community and we get national press. A lot of community building is going on within the start-up community. Many companies want to support that and they will be interested in sponsoring ads and content.
There will also need to be a movement toward more authenticity in content and more transparency. Most contributors we have write for us on a monthly basis and have a viewpoint. There’s a place for that content. It helps us with the challenge of staffing. People also want to hear from those who aren’t writers. They want to get thought leadership from people who aren’t journalists.
In terms of making money, I think there will be more syndication of content agreements tied to advertising. We also plan a lot of events, which is not going away as a strategy for journalists to make money. We try to stay away from a panel or straight networking event. ExitEvent was built around sponsored networking events, but now we strive to do those in a creative way.
by Chris Roush
Josh Friedlander is editor of Absolute Return, which covers the hedge fund industry. He previously served as online editor of AR Magazine, and research editor and senior writer of Absolute Return.
He joined HedgeFund Intelligence in 2005 from Investment Dealers’ Digest, a weekly magazine covering Wall Street, and had previously reported on Wall Street and the pension industry for Institutional Investor News.
Friedlander sits on the board of governors of the New York Financial Writers’ Association, the nation’s oldest organization devoted to business and financial journalism, where he served as president in 2009.
He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Connecticut College. In 2007, he was selected as one of the ‘30 under 30’ most promising young business journalists by Newsbios.com.
Friedlander recently spoke by email with Talking Biz News about Absolute Return and how it covers the hedge fund world. What follows is an edited transcript.
How was Absolute Return started back in 2003?
Absolute Return was the latest in a series of hedge fund publications launched by our parent company, HedgeFund Intelligence. HFI began with the launch of EuroHedge in 1998 and then expanded to AsiaHedge in 2000, InvestHedge (which covers allocators to hedge funds) in 2001, and then Absolute Return. Around the time of the Absolute Return release, Euromoney Institutional Investor bought HFI.
The founder of HFI, Iain Jenkins, had been the investment editor of Sunday Business and a European business correspondent for the Sunday Times. In forming HFI, he was both lucky and good. He started the business right after the fall of Long Term Capital Management, and one could hardly have expected hedge funds to increase in institutional credibility, but it was in retrospect the start of the modern era for hedge funds. Assets that numbered in the hundreds of millions of dollars exploded to more than $2.5 trillion within a decade.
Why was there a need for a publication devoted to covering the hedge fund business?
There was a definite void in the amount of information available to hedge fund industry participants. The industry’s growth was evident within financial circles, as hedge funds expanded from a niche group of money managers serving the ultra-wealthy, to firms that increasingly reflected the needs of institutional investors. At the end of 2002, the top 100 firms managed $310 billion in the U.S. amid little press coverage or familiarity.
What coverage there was centered on a small number of hedge fund superstars: Bruce Kovner, Dan Benton, Ken Griffin, Louis Bacon, Paul Tudor Jones, and George Soros were among the top U.S. managers at the time, and many were famous even outside of financial circles. In 2003, The New York Times, which then referred to hedge funds as “lightly regulated investments for the very affluent,” was busy discussing an emerging trend of “coming-out parties” connecting hedge funds and investors—what are now commonly known as “cap intro” events. Most of the mainstream press maintained an anthropological outsider’s voice and view when writing about hedge funds. Some still do, even though hedge funds are now enmeshed in financial markets.
It’s clear in hindsight that there was a need at the time for journalism that targeted the industry consistently with insight and that paid attention to even its mundane machinations, not merely the largest headline-grabbing personalities, profits and losses.
What are some of the difficulties in covering hedge funds?
They remain, for the most part, private businesses. Their performance is not typically available to the public, most of their investors remain private, and they often have little interest in talking to the press, regardless of whether they have done well or poorly. There are clearly a number of hedge fund managers, most notably activist investors, who deliberately use the media as a tool, but most firms do not actively seek press attention, or welcome it.
by Chris Roush
Douglas A. McIntyre is editor in chief and chief executive officer at New York-based 24/7 Wall St., a finance news website. He has previously been the editor-in-chief and publisher of Financial World Magazine from 1983 to 1995.
He was also the first president of Switchboard.com when it was the 10th most visited website in the world, according to Media Metrix. He has been CEO of FutureSource, LLC and On2 Technologies, Inc. He has served on the board of directors of Vicinity Corp., The Street.com, and Edgar Online.
McIntyre is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard.
24/7 Wall St. articles are republished by many of the largest news sites and portals, including MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Aol’s DailyFinance, MarketWatch, Comcast and The Huffington Post.
The company publishes more than 30 articles per day and has readers throughout North America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
The editors of 24/7 Wall St. do not own securities in companies that they write about. Other writers may have positions in companies, and these are disclosed in their articles.
McIntyre spoke by telephone with Talking Biz News on Thursday afternoon about 24/7 Wall St. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did the site get started?
Jon Ogg, who is my partner, and I had a few conversations seven years ago. I had been the president and publisher of Financial World magazine from 1983 to 1995, and at that point you could already see, before the Internet became a power, that postage was ruining that business. We look at what we thought was important about financial news and thought that doing it on the Internet was the only option. So we began the site in 2006.
What was the niche that you thought wasn’t being served by existing financial media?
I don’t think I ever viewed it as fulfilling an unfilled niche. We thought that there was room for a site that covered a lot of the same things that Barron’s did, but on a much, much smaller level, that Forbes did. The site has moved beyond that in the past seven years. But on the day that it started, it was to serve the high-end investment community.
Who do you see as your biggest competitors?
That’s a good question. I can’t figure out the answer to that. Now that the business media is not compartmentalized because there is a version of everybody’s publication online, it’s very difficult to say where people come when they come to your site. You can guess why they come.
There are little ways how CNN competes with CNBC and in some ways The Wall Street Journal. Some people say to me, you guys are a lot like TheStreet.com, and there are some aspects where that is true. And others say I find you similar to CNNMoney. And we do the much broader pieces that they do. I don’t think anybody is being completely honest if they say they know who they are competing with in the online business financial news world. It’s like a rugby scrum.
We like to think we’re helpful enough to our readers that they will come back. That’s all we can hope for.
And what all are they doing?
Three of those people only do research and writing for our long analytic pieces. Those run between 2,000 and 10,000 words. They work on nothing but that every day.
Jon Ogg and myself and two other people tend to work on stuff that is time sensitive. I start at 3 in the morning, and work on what is going on in Europe and Asia. There’s a period of intense reader interest that begins around six and keeps it momentum until about 9:45 or 10.
And then you’re grazing around, looking at what is going on, trying to find some unique way to look at things that everybody else is looking at. We might do something four or five times a day that you might not find anywhere else.
We might look at where Tesla buys its tires. It’s not a standard Tesla story. Covering the Tesla car fires, you almost have to do it. But it’s extremely hard unless you have someone who knows the car industry. It’s very hard to give the reader something about that that they’re not getting anywhere else. Everybody has the same story. If you look at the financial websites, except for those that literally have nothing but features, more than half of the stories are everybody looking at the same things.
How do you stand out from the crowd?
What you have to do for the reader is tell them what they’re not seeing, or what they should look at that maybe is not where their attention is being driven by a lot of the media coverage. As you know, there is generally more than one side to a given story. We try to look hard for sides or stories that are interesting, but not sensational. It’s more along the lines that if Tesla is having car fires, they lose. But with almost every loser, there is a winner. So saying to a writer, there is an aspect to the story that they’re not thinking about beyond what gets covered ad naseum. So you want to take the reader some place that is not obvious.
It’s hard to do, and sometimes we fail.
How do you decide what types of stories do you like to cover?
Out stories fall into two categories. We do a larger percentage than most business content sites do, of really long form journalism. We do a story every day that probably averages 3,000 ot 4,000 words and helps the reader look at something in depth.
We’ll have a story come out a 6 p.m. today that looks at how well managed each of the 50 states are. It will be well read, and I am sure it will get picked up by our large syndication partners and our portals. It won’t get picked up in its entirety because it’s about 10,000 words. But they will take snapshots of it, and they will send traffic to us to read the whole story. A lot of people want to hear what the article is about, and they might go to the article to read how they’re state is doing.
We try to do stuff that is national and local. We can’t be a complete site. But you try to give people a look at what is not obvious. That’s very hard to do.
Is your audience still upper-end investors?
It’s grown from there, so it’s more than affluent, well-read people. A lot of people on Wall Street and a lot of people in government. And the management at big companies. So it is broader than it was a year ago.
And where does your revenue come from?
The way we handle syndication is that no money changes hand. These larger websites run stories, and we have arrangements where traffic is sent back to us. So as that traffic comes into us, the advertising accounts for about 85 percent of the revenue that comes in. The search engine traffic is the rest.
Give me a feel for page views and visits.
ComScore shows our monthly visits at 1.3 million, while Google Analytics has us at about 2 million. So we’re about the size of Barron’s or Quartz, but smaller than TheStreet. So we sit in that tier of sites that is below the 5 million level, and there might be 10 sites that sit there in that 1.25 million to 2 million visitors strata.
And how profitable are you?
The one thing that is interesting about our model is that we were very concerned about being profitable from the beginning. We never took any money. And from a business model standpoint, that sets us apart. So for every dollar in revenue, we’re profiting 60 cents. We have eight people, and other than that, we have no expenses. We do no multimedia. We’re lucky if we put photographs in stories. And we have no apps. We just don’t spend any money on any of that stuff.
So we have gone the road not taken. It was very important for us not to give up control.
by Chris Roush
Peter S. Goodman is the executive business editor of The Huffington Post, where he supervises business, economic and technology coverage. He is also the global news editor and writes frequently about the upending of basic economic security for ordinary Americans and the search for new sources of quality jobs.
Goodman joined the Huffington Post in the fall of 2010, after two decades in traditional newspaper journalism, most recently as the national economic correspondent for the New York Times, where he played a leading role in the paper’s award-winning coverage of the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession. Prior to that, he spent a decade at the Washington Post as a foreign correspondent and a financial writer.
Goodman is the author of “PAST DUE: The End of Easy Money and the Renewal of the American Economy” (Times Books, 2009), which draws on more than a decade’s reporting to trace the origins of the breakdown in American economic life while exploring ways to reinvigorate the economy. The book was selected as an Editor’s Choice title by the New York Times Book Review and as one of Bloomberg’s Top 50 Business Books.
Goodman grew up in New York City and graduated from Reed College in 1989. He began his newspaper career as a feature writer in Kyoto, Japan for the English language-Japan Times, then spent three years freelancing from Southeast Asia for several newspapers, among them the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald and London’s Daily Telegraph. Returning to the United States in 1993, Goodman worked as a Metro reporter for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska, where he covered the Wasilla City Council and a then-unknown member of the body known as Sarah Palin.
After a year at the University of California, Berkeley — where Goodman gained a Master’s in Asian Studies — he joined the Washington Post as metro reporter in the summer of 1997. By 1999, he was the newspaper’s telecommunications reporter, giving him a front row seat for the emergence of the Internet as a force in commerce, culture and ordinary life.
Goodman spoke Wednesday afternoon with Talking Biz News about how Huffington Post covers business and economics stories. What follows is an edited transcript.
What is the philosophy behind your business news coverage?
We view our business site as one that is edited and written for a general interest reader. We are very much cognizant that most people are put off by jargon, esoteric terms that don’t get explained, and a lot of business sections don’t invite in the outsiders. We try to make the connections between big, important and hard-to-understand events and everyday people in their lives as workers, parents and one day retirees. We try to break them down into terms they can understand, such as saving for retirement and paying for kids to go to college.
We are also very serious about accountability. Business and economics issues spill over into the rest of life. So we are looking for stories that make sense of hard to understand events and to sound a warning when the public interest is being threatened or not adequately.
So an example of accountability would be the JP Morgan piece on the home page right now?
We look at JP Morgan as a company that, for better or worse, has been at the center of every big business story for the past decade. Any time that we write about financial regulatory reform or misdeeds by big companies, we have at the center of our thinking that we barely survive the last financial crisis, so what are the odds that we’re going to survive another one, and what lessons have we learned? So the JP Morgan becomes a hook to explore those questions of financial fairness and safety.
It’s quite collaborative. In the morning, we all read and check our Twitter feeds and in-boxes. Some things get planned in advance, like if the jobs report is going to happen or if the Fed is going to meet. Every morning, we bat around a bunch a possible stories and consider the merits of each and see who we have available.
How big is your staff — permanent and freelancers?
We don’t have any freelancers in business. Business and tech together we have seven reporters, a managing editor and an assistant managing editor and four associate editors. The seven reporters are all doing originally reported stuff. And the four associate editors are doing some aggregating and some original reporting.
Do you have a goal to post a certain number of stories per day or week?
No. We don’t have quotas. We stay on top of the news. We feel like you ought to be able to glance at our site and surmise what people are talking about and get some enterprise as well. We don’t operated on a quota basis.
How do you differentiate your coverage from other sources of business news and information?
A lot of the ways that I started off talking about. We understand that most of the business press is for people in business or trading or seeing the world through the eyes of companies and executives. We’re interested in looking at business and economic developments through the eyes of everyday people. I think lots of people do that well to a degree, but there isn’t anybody doing it wholesale.
What stories have your staff done recently that you’ve been proud of?
We did a terrific two-part investigative series into Youth Services International, a big prison conglomerate. We built the database from scratch, without much help from the states, and analyzed trends and discovered that this company has a history of abuse and neglect but nevertheless keeps getting contracts. That was really masterful work by Chris Kirkham.
Tech is doing a series on stolen iPhones and the international distribution of iPhones from the U.S. Our reporter, Gerry Smith, has been all over this.
And then Kim Bhasin, who covers retail for us, has had a bunch of solid scoops about JC Penney and the chaos at the company. We were very enterprising with the story that Barney’s security was harassing black customers at its stores.
Ben Hallman did tremendous work on a company called Safeguard, that gets bank contracts for foreclosed homes they’re sitting on. It’s a real free for all. It’s an industry that nobody understands.
And Mark Gongloff, who is deputy managing editor, writes a column, and his work on JP Morgan has been tremendous.
What areas would you like to expand or improve coverage?
That’s never ending. I’d love for us to get more enterprising at the business opportunity that climate change represents. Everyone is writing that in bits and pieces, but no one has figured out how to make that compelling.
You’ve got a lot of bloggers on the business page. How are they selected?
We don’t have anything to do with the bloggers. That is a tricky situation. We’re both a journalistic outfit and a platform. A team of blog editors sometimes reach out to people, and they vet people and make sure there’s an interesting mix. There’s something there for everybody.
How do you reconcile Huffington Post as place known for links with your original reporting?
I run the risk of repeating myself, but most people begin thinking of The Huffington Post as a very quick, sophisticated packager of other people’s work. We still are very good at serving as a lens on everything because we don’t feel bound to the traditional newspaper format. We don’t live in that world. We live in a world of links, and if the New York Times has a wonderful story, we will link to that.
At the same time, we have a made a very aggressive investment to original reporting. Kirkham has also dominated for-profit college coverage. And Kim’s retail reporting is up there with just about anybody. It’s that kind of sophistication that I see as our future, which is getting much more serious about our original reporting while curating the web.
What is your visitor and page view growth like recently?
I don’t know if we break that out publicly, but we have seen very steady growth in the three plus years that I have been here. Steadily increasing growth.
by Chris Roush
A Marketwatch.com story last week about investing in the Twitter initial public offering originated from a poll that had run earlier in the week that allowed folks to leave an email address if they wanted to be contacted by a reporter.
It’s a reporting tactic that can be useful during a time when all journalists, and not just business journalists, are strapped for time when it comes to gathering information.
Jonnelle Marte is a reporter for MarketWatch covering health care and employment issues, and she was the writer for the story. She is also a main contributor to Tax Watch, MarketWatch’s blog on taxes. Previously, Marte covered fixed income and investing for the site and other personal finance topics for The Wall Street Journal.
Laura Mandaro is markets editor for MarketWatch, responsible for the site’s real-time markets copy and an editor of its blogs, and she oversaw the story. Mandardo previously was a feature editor and corporate reporter for the site. In her former life as a newsprint reporter, she worked at Investor’s Business Daily and American Banker.
Talking Biz News spoke by email with Mandaro about the story and about the reporting technique. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
How did the idea come about to post the poll?
We’ve been using these polls on our Tell blog and Capitol Report blogs for a while to get readers’ views on a hot topic, particularly one where we’re spending extra effort on explaining what the event or subject means for a retail investor or consumer, or where we think there may be divergent views.
- What they thought about the televised food fight between Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman;
- Whether investors bought or sold stock because of the debt ceiling turmoil (drew over 4,800 responses);
- Who they thought MarketWatch’s CEO of the year should be;
- Their view on Edward Snowden;
- How long they expected the government shutdown to last.
Often our polls are multiple choice, using an in-house poll creator. Or, if we wanted to allow longer answers, we used Google Docs to create the poll. Then we published the interesting, though not scientific results, as part of our coverage.
We had never included a field that allowed readers to give us their contact information if they wanted. The Twitter poll was the first time.
What was the discussion like about asking readers for contact information?
For a while, we’ve been discussing how to bring an old newspaper feature – often called something like “Your Say” – into the digital era. Many of us worked at or grew up reading newspapers that would regularly include a column of readers’ quotes and their photos about a subject, which might be as local as a new proposed highway entrance or as global as the war in Iraq. These readers typically had agreed to share their views with the newspaper from time to time on any subject – in other words, they were a self-selected group of super-users.
We wanted to tap into MarketWatch’s own super-users. That is, the more engaged readers who would to take time to respond to polls. In particular, we were looking to give the personal, anecdotal side of investing stories that too often just quote professionals. MarketWatch mutual funds columnist Chuck Jaffe had a lot of good ideas on this.
Were you surprised at the volume of responses?
Yes, happily so!
How did you decide which readers to contact?
Jonnelle knew we wanted to frame the discussion around how people’s experience with Facebook stock may have impacted their expectations for Twitter, so she went through and categorized the responses into groups that she thought would have interesting responses.
People who had owned Facebook stock and said they didn’t want to own Twitter stock, people who didn’t own Facebook stock but wanted to own Twitter stock, and so on. Then Jonnelle emailed a bunch of those people to learn more about their individual experiences.
Was anything done to verify the people were who they said they were?
Jonnelle made sure the names given matched their email addresses and information on websites for companies they said they worked for.
What was the reaction from inside the newsroom?
We’re a very collaborative newsroom. When reporters and editors see something new, they reach out to the creator and ask how they can do it. Eventually the skill set spreads. For instance, telling a story with embedded tweets and other social media used to be a specialized skill. Now most reporters do this regularly. We share a lot of wikis and use join.me’s (and the plain-old telephone!) to share anything we think is cool.
Is this something that Marketwatch plans to do again?
What type of stories do you think this works best for?
Stories where we think our readers are not only interested in the subject, but likely to be engaged in the activity as well. Planning for retirement and buying a home are some obvious possibilities. But I’d also try this on a feature about bitcoin trading, for instance.
What type of stories will it not work well with?
Not sure we have a good answer for that. The biggest constraint, as ever, is time.
by Chris Roush
Brian O’Connor is the syndicated Funny Money columnist from The Detroit News, a Knight-Bagehot fellow from the class of 2001, founding managing editor of Bankrate.com and author of the new humorous personal finance book, “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”
The book is selling well and garnering good reviews, including one from Go Banking Rates that called it “a hilarious and savvy guide.”
Publishers Weekly said the book’s advice and approach is better than Suze Orman and concluded that, “This funny, pragmatic guide will have you laughing all the way to the bank.”
O’Connort is the winner of the inaugural Christopher H. Welles Memorial Prize for business writing from Columbia University, as well as a winner of the Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
O’Connor also is a two-time winner of the award for humor writing from the National Society of Newspaper columnists. A native Detroiter, he is a graduate of The Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism
How did you start writing about personal finance topics?
In the 1980s, as a copy editor and assistant business editor at two South Florida dailies, I edited the Monday business tab sections, so I handled a lot of personal finance copy. When I became the founding managing editor of Bankrate.com, my focus shifted to all personal finance, all the time. After moving back home to Detroit to work at The News, the personal finance job opened up here and it was a perfect fit.
How do you come up with your ideas?
Usually in desperation. There are about three topics in personal finance at any one time that everyone is covering, so you read the same story over and over again. I try to avoid those, while looking for something that can be personal. And, because my column is a humor column, too, it has to be something where I can find a funny angle.
Do you find yourself writing about the same topics over and over again? In other words, how do you keep it fresh and new?
When I was running Bankrate, every Wednesday we released our new mortgage stats, so the main feature had to tie into home loans. I thought it would be impossible to get a new story every week, but if you dig deep enough and look broadly, there is always some new angle you can explore. If not, there is always some news event that makes it a good time to take a new look at an old topic. I saw a good feature last week on emergency savings that was tied to the government shutdown. That is a basic bread-and-butter personal finance feature, and advice that people widely ignore. But if the writer makes it timely, it could be that learning moment for some readers to finally take action.
You use a lot of your own personal situations in your writing. When did you decide to do that and how does that help you with your readers?
When I got the Your Money gig at The News in 2007, the column came with the job. Now, I’d read a lot of personal finance columns between 1985 and then, and many of them were just as dry as dust. Editing them was murder, and I can’t imagine the readers felt any more enthusiastic about 850 words on “selling short against the box” to avoid taxes on stocks. (By the time I actually understood what that was, by the way, it was illegal.) When I sat down to do my first column, I just couldn’t be “that guy” so, being a naturally born smart aleck, I tried humor. And to find any humor in most financial topics, I had to personalize the situations.
My wife was less than enthusiastic about becoming a central figure in the column, so I refer to her as Mrs. Your Money, which creates enough distance to keep the peace at home. When someone asks, she says, “I’m not Mrs. Your Money, but she’s a character based on me.” It’s basically the same thing Erma Bombeck and Mike Royko did with their families and alter egos, plus my wife is much more attractive than Slats Grobnik.
What’s the hardest thing about personal finance writing?
First, for me, it’s finding humor, and finding the right situations that can be addressed through humor. That can be very, very difficult during a bad economy, as I found out. When the economic meltdown was confined to a credit crisis in 2007, I wrote a Q&A that was one of my funniest columns, and readers love it. I had dozens of phone calls from non-traditional business readers, saying they laughed out loud. A year later, I reprised it about the recession, and the phone calls were all bitter, angry or obscene (except for the ones that were bitter AND angry AND obscene). When it was happening to them, readers didn’t find the recession to be the least bit amusing.
The other hard part for me is getting down to a real answer for readers. Every column poses some kind of question or problem, and I want to lead my readers to making the decision that works best for their situation. Because I was a Knight-Bagehot fellow at Columbia University, my first impulse is to run the numbers and do the math, to see what gives the best return, or the lowest cost, or the best outcome. Going from writing about basic personal finance concepts into doing the actual math can be a challenge, especially in finding data and constructing good, accurate scenarios. But I just can’t write a column about whether it’s better to buy or lease a car without looking at the long-term best outcome for the buyers, then discussing the individual situations where buying or leasing makes sense.
My own hard-and-fast rule is that every column I write – and pretty much every story, too – absolutely must contain dollar signs. Otherwise, you’re just not giving readers the bottom line.
What do you do when you write something that you later regret?
Besides trying to blame someone else? The only thing to do is ’fess up, admit the mistake, apologize if that’s called for, and get the right information out there. I had a disastrous column about flood insurance a year ago, and I had to write another entire column just to correct the misinformation I was given by some pretty big insurance companies. But it’s my column, so it’s my mistake. I just try to focus on what is going to make things right for my reader, to tell them where I went wrong, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Of course, with humor, someone always gets offended. I did a column based on the last pope’s retirement, and I referred to him once as “Bennie.” Now, my two aunts in the convent and my cousin the priest were OK with it, but I got a rash of complaints from around Detroit. (Oddly, the syndicated column that goes through Tribune Content Agency got a total of zero gripes.) My bosses apologized to callers, but I refused. Going into a family newspaper, my jokes already are pretty tame, and unless I’ve been purposely mean spirited, my attitude is, “(Screw) ’em if they can’t take a joke.” Especially since I’m the butt of nearly all the humor in my column.
How did you decide to put this into book form?
I did 10 columns in late 2009 where I aimed to cut $100 from my family’s top 10 monthly budget categories, and they formed the basis of the book. I was hoping it would be a big enough gimmick that it could be the basis for a book, since there were all these stunt books coming out at the time, such as “My Year Without Toilet Paper” or “My Year Without Spending” of the woman who made love to her husband every day for 365 days straight. One of the things that’s said about writing a newspaper column is that it’s like being married to a nymphomaniac — as soon as your done, you just have to start all over again — but I’ve never wanted to take it THAT literally.
Fortunately, I did manage to save $1,000 — barely — which wasn’t a given going into the project. The columns were a big hit with readers, and they won the Christopher Welles Memorial Prize from Columbia, as well as a SABEW Best In Business award. But the book proposal languished for three years until I happened to link up with the right book agent, just by pure accident, and then the book wound up going to auction. But it wasn’t ever guaranteed to be a book project.
Did you change or update any of the columns for the book?
All told, the original 10 columns, plus a first-week introductory piece, came to about 5,000 words, and the folks at Portfolio-Penguin wanted at least 50,000 words for the book. My original plan was to open up the columns by expanding the advice, which is the bulk of the book. But since it’s also first-person, it’s got a bit of a memoir approach, too, and that required writing a first chapter to set up the characters of my family, and our situation of having moved to Detroit — which was basically Ground Zero for the economic meltdown — to take a newspaper job at the outset of the Great Recession.
How did you organize the book’s content?
The hardest part to write was the first chapter, setting up my whole family situation. First you’ve got to know these people well enough to care about them, then you’ve got to understand how they got to this situation, and what they want. It was daunting, but fortunately my fifth-grade girlfriend is a writing teacher in New York, and she’s married to a guy who teaches screenwriting and wrote for “Seinfeld.” They pointed my in the right direction for what originally was the first two chapters, but my editor, Maria Gagliano, was smart enough to ask me condense it into one chapter, which took three different attempts.
After that, the book followed the order of the columns, since each chapter ended with a running tab of what savings I’d found and how much more I needed to cut to get to the $1,000 goal. My strategy for expanding the chapters was that I divided all the savings strategies into three categories, ranging from how much people need to cut to how desperate they were to find savings. So we had three different approaches in each chapter: “Freeing Up Cash;” “Making Ends Meet;” and “Pinching Pennies So Hard That Lincoln Gets a Headache.”
What do you like, and dislike, about the current state of personal finance writing?
I think there’s a really good crop of columnists that I see out there doing good work, from Liz Weston, to Gail Marks Jarvis, Al Lewis, Jean Chatzky and Pamela Yip, plus some smart, fun stuff from my buddy Charles Passy and the whole crowd of staffers at Marketwatch.com. I also like that we seem to have gotten away from constantly covering the hot investment of the moment and are looking to topics that are more basic concerns for readers.
What really, really bothers me about personal finance writing is two things.
First, the lack of hard, investigative approaches to consumer finance. As we saw after the mortgage bubble, a lot of the agencies and boards that are supposed to protect consumers and investors do a lousy job, or have rules that aren’t up to the task, and a lot of our readers have taken a major, life-changing hit because of those failures. And those failures are OUR failures to watch the watchdogs.
I’ve done stories on foreclosure abuses that are still going on in Michigan — and in every other state, too, I’ll wager — that amount to judicially sanctioned thefts of people’s homes, where the foreclosure laws are not fairly enforced but routinely violated and abused. Everything that comes out of the CFPB is a story that personal finance writers should be digging into on a long-term basis, from abuses by credit-card issuers to debt collectors and more. We need to turn some of our resources away from telling comfortable, well-off people which credit card gives them the most frequent-flyer points to protecting people’s basic assets and rights under the law. And that isn’t happening, even at the biggest, strongest papers or Web publications.
Second, is that we need to start covering the personal finance aspects of poverty and people who’ve taken major setbacks. There is a very self-satisfied, ignorant strain of thought that says anybody can cutback or save or work and be able to provide for themselves and their families, and that is simply not true. I even say in my book that saving $1,000 a month isn’t realistic for many people in this country, and that there are plenty who’d be lucky to find savings of $1,000 a year. We’ve got a huge wave of people who are going to retire with nearly nothing but Social Security to depend on, and another big chunk of wage-earners who are seeing their real earnings shrink and their costs soar. We need to start writing about the financially vulnerable and the personal finance realities of not being able to make it in the U.S.A.
Why don’t more media have personal finance content? It would seem to have widespread appeal.
I think it’s because a lot of personal finance stories come off as very generic, don’t involve real people, and don’t address the big, hard topics that make some people squirm, but would really engage readers. And a lot of what passes for personal finance coverage is aimed at the top earners in our country, who not only don’t need the advice, but already pay advisers to tell them all that.
But there aren’t a lot of religion writers anymore, either, because newspapers can’t seem to find the right way to talk about the huge moral questions of the day, including right, wrong, evil and the meaning of life. You can’t really grapple with that stuff in the inverted pyramid. It should be a challenge to us because we know people care about big life issues such as their financial security and morality, but we have to find ways to engage them on all those topics.
What do you enjoy about your job?
Hearing from real people who are finding ways to create financial security. And hearing from people who normally wouldn’t read the personal finance or business section, who get engaged through the different approach of a humorous personal finance column.
Plus, getting off a good joke every once in a while. If my wife reads my column and I hear her laugh, I know it’s been a good week.
by Chris Roush
Ken Otterbourg left the traditional journalism world of daily newspapers in early 2010 and hasn’t looked back.
For nearly four years, Otterbourg has made a living as a freelance business journalist, publishing his work in national publications such as Fortune, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. His work can be found at www.kenotterbourg.com.
Prior to his freelancing, Otterbourg had been managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, a Media General newspaper in North Carolina, since 2005.
Otterbourg, a native of New York, graduated in 1983 from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He worked as a news assistant at The Wall Street Journal and a reporter at The Register-Citizen in Torrington, Conn., before coming to the Journal in 1986 as a business reporter.
Otterbourg left the Journal in 1988 to take a job at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, but returned to Winston-Salem two years later to report from the General Assembly in Raleigh. He was later promoted to assistant metro editor and became the newspaper’s metro editor in 1996.
In 2002, he was named the Journal’s assistant managing editor for news, and in December 2004, he was promoted to managing editor.
Otterbourg spoke Wednesday morning by email with Talking Biz News about his life as a freelance business journalist. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you decide to leave the daily newspaper world and go into freelancing?
A little background. I became managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal in 2005, so I was watching the water drain out of the pool for a long time. We were shrinking the staff, cutting the news hole, etc. In addition, many of our most talented journalists were leaving for other publications or other careers. I had always prided myself on being able to make good hires and trade up, and that was no longer the case. So we were not just a smaller staff, but a less capable one.
In 2009, Media General began developing a plan to consolidate the copy-editing and layout of our paper at a satellite location. I thought it was a bad idea that compromised the independence of our newsroom, and when it was clear that I couldn’t win the fight, I realized it was a deal breaker on my values. So I voted with my feet and resigned. That was in January 2010. At the time, freelancing was not on my plate. I wanted to do public-policy work, but Winston-Salem isn’t exactly the public-policy center of the world, so here we are.
How hard was it to build up a list of publications to write for?
It was extremely hard and continues to be so. Editors are very busy people and as a freelancer you have very little negotiating power over the relationship with the folks in charge. It’s frustrating, but that’s the world we live in. That said, if you deliver stories that editors wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, they can be very appreciative and supportive of your work.
What was the hardest part about making the switch to freelancing?
First is the lack of a steady paycheck. I won’t lie. It was nice getting five weeks of vacation and coming back from a trip and finding you had been paid for not being at work. Second is the endless hustle. I have had to learn to sell myself, which is something I’m not naturally wired to do.
How have you kept yourself focused when there is no office to go into every day?
I’ve always been a pretty disciplined person and understand that work is called work for a reason. I try to plan out each day with what I want to accomplish, whether writing, research or just cogitating an approach to something. Having met deadlines for 25 years helps. Usually, I am toggling between projects.
There’s the stereotype of the freelancer typing away in his pajamas, and while I get dressed every day, I don’t always shave. Within the framework of going to work every day, I also try to take advantage of my freedom. You can get a lot done without the distractions of a conventional office. I’ll take the dog for a walk to clear my head, and I often write on weekends or at nights. I probably work the same amount as I did when I was managing editor, but it is different work spread over a different flow.
I went to college with Andy Serwer, and we’ve stayed in touch. I’m not saying this because he’s the managing editor there, but he has a great sense of story. After I left the paper, I was doing a couple of consulting projects and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and I sent him an email suggesting he have someone write a story about the controversy in North Carolina regarding Alcoa and its dams on the Yadkin River. He asked me if I wanted to do it.
I know that sounds fishy, but it was not my intent to get back into journalism. I was still a little burned out. Anyway, I did the story, and they liked it, and for me it was a lot of fun to be a reporter again after all those years in the management grind. So I’ve kept at it with them. The editor I work with most often is a guy named Tim Smith. I call him the reporter whisperer. He can be alternately cryptic and blunt, but his editing skills are really pretty stunning, and he’s been a big advocate of my work.
And you’ve also written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. How did you get those?
One of my former reporters, Valerie Bauerlein, is a reporter at the Journal. I’m really proud of her. I knew she was a star way back when. She reached out to me and put me in touch with their editors for a couple of short-term assignments. One of those was covering part of the trial of Sen. John Edwards. At that trial, I met a couple of folks from the Times and then contacted them during the controversy over the Duke-Progress merger. I knew they were interested in the story but might need a more efficient solution than putting a staffer on a plane to Raleigh.
Are you pitching ideas more now, or are these publications coming to you with ideas in the region?
Both. I don’t think you ever stop pitching — which is a good thing — but it is gratifying when editors recognize your value. My last piece for Fortune was on the TVA, and they assigned it to me because I had written for them about other energy issues and also about the barge industry, which supplies a lot of the TVA power plants with coal. So often it comes full circle.
Have you turned down anything that you felt uncomfortable doing?
No. Usually when I turn something down, it’s not for ethical reasons but more that the money/topic balance is out of whack. For example, I write for Business North Carolina magazine. It’s a really well-edited regional business publication in an era when most of its peers have fallen by the wayside. They don’t pay all that well, but I do stories for them because the assignments are good and I believe in their mission. If your name is on the story, you want it to be something you’re proud of.
What about non-journalism writing? You’re doing some work for some non-profits, right?
I work for a company called Capital Development Services, which is based in Winston-Salem. They help nonprofits raise money, and I do case studies for them. It isn’t journalism, but you use a lot of the same muscles, and I enjoy learning about these organizations and their challenges. I’ve also done grant writing, report writing and contract editing. One key to freelancing is to try to diversify your income stream and create a bit of stability in an unpredictable world.
Do you ever see yourself getting back into a full-time journalism job where you went into a newsroom?
I loved the energy of a newsroom and many of the most important moments of my life were spent gathered around a table or a computer trying to hash out projects and stories, often on deadline. So, it’s not out of the question, but it’s not top of my mind. That said, I would never want to return so I could be the guy in the newsroom telling everybody about how great and noble everything was back in the day. That would be totally obnoxious, and I would hate that guy.
What do you like the most about freelancing?
I’ve been very fortunate on my assignments. I’ve gotten to travel to some incredible parts of the country and spend time with interesting people doing outrageous things. That’s a privilege, and when I am working on a story I try to keep that front and center, that someone is paying me to write and ask questions and think. I don’t want to let them down.
What’s been fun for me is to learn/relearn the craft of narrative writing. All long-form journalism, but particularly financial journalism, has gotten very difficult because of the Web. It’s very rare that an article is completely revelatory. So the challenge is to tell a story and to tell it well.
What do you like the least?
The unpredictability. You are only as good as your next assignment.