Tag Archives: Q&As
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.
by Chris Roush
Beth Macy is the longtime families beat reporter for The Roanoke Times in Virginia. Since 1989, her reporting has won more than a dozen national awards, including two Casey medals for her projects on immigration and elderly care giving, several Society for Features Journalism awards, diversity writing honors from Columbia University, and a 2011 Associated Press Media Editors international reporting prize for a story about cholera in Haiti. She was a 2010 Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard.
Macy recently finished a year’s leave to write a book that grew out of “Picking Up the Pieces,” a 2012 Roanoke Times series examining the aftereffects of offshoring on the nearby factory town of Martinsville, Va. That series won the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ 2012 Best in Business Print-Feature award.
Her book, “Factory Man,” is a nonfiction narrative about the globalization of the American furniture industry — told through one third-generation factory owner’s battle to keep his Galax, Va., factory going. Scheduled to publish by Little, Brown and Company in June 2014, the book traces the development of furniture-making from rural Virginia to China to its current perch in Indonesia, where many of the workers who replaced America’s 300,000 laid-off furniture-makers now live. “Factory Man” recently won the J. Anthony Lukas Book-In-Progress Award.
Macy has taught journalism at Hollins University and published numerous freelance articles and essays, including for Oprah magazine, PARADE, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor, American Journalism Review, Poynter Online, Salon and Garden & Gun. Her work has also been featured in the “Best Newspaper Writing” series, including an essay that outlines her approach to reporting on outsiders and underdogs: Report from the ground up, establish trust, be patient, find stories that tap into universal truths. Eat the posole. To do good journalism, be a human first.
A native of Urbana, Ohio, she has a journalism degree from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in creative writing/English from Hollins University. She blogs about journalism, hiking and other passions at intrepidpapergirl.com.
Macy spoke by email with Talking Biz News about how she turned her feature story about the factory into the forthcoming book. What follows is an edited transcrip
How did the stories first come about for the Roanoke paper?
A photographer friend Jared Soares was undertaking an independent project to document the aftereffects of globalization in Martinsville, Va., which has long held records for the highest unemployment rate in the state. Jared and I were neighbors at the time, and we met for a drink to talk about a possible project. He showed me his work: gritty pictures of old textile mill conveyors-turned-food bank distribution devices, crumbling smokestacks, 50-something unemployed people biding their time in the middle of the afternoon.
He had funding lined up through a nonprofit, Equal Voice News. I talked to my editor at The Roanoke Times, Carole Tarrant, about us working together. Jared had loads of contacts among the marginalized and unemployed, and community activists. I did my own reporting, starting with some of his contacts. It was a true collaboration. A neighbor of mine who owns a furniture store mentioned that there was still one factory making furniture in Virginia and that, furthermore, the story of how he’d managed it was full of cunning, intrigue and – judging by the way he referred to his Chinese competitors (“the fucking Chi-Comms”) – some serious cowboy grit. When I heard there was a family saga involved, too, my story Spidey sense kicked into high gear. As my agent later put it, “Holy shit, Macy, you’ve found ‘Moneyball’ — with furniture!”
How much time did you spend reporting them?
The initial newspaper series took about six months, give or take. It was broken into three parts: a profile of John Bassett III, the main character in my book; a story about the racial/economic divide in Martinsville; and a hard look at Trade Adjustment Assistance, the government program that’s supposed to be the remedy for trade-displaced workers.
What was the hardest part about the reporting?
The race story, initially. Martinsville’s only an hour away from Roanoke, but it’s demographically and historically very different. The region had become an industrial powerhouse in the early 1900s, much of it propelled by the labor of sharecroppers and former slaves-turned-factory workers.
The city’s remedy for helping the displaced workers was to create a $152 million foundation called Harvest, but many of the people running it were the same people who ran or had connections to the factory owners, and Harvest was becoming a white-hot flashpoint for two very divergent groups: With most of the displaced whites in middle management now moved away, what remained was a majority minority community of largely unemployed or underemployed people, and wealthy former factory managers who now oversee marketing/offshoring/warehousing of made-in-Asia goods. Distrust, we soon learned, was rampant.
Why was this such an important story for the Roanoke region?
Martinsville and surrounding Henry County (home to the company towns of Bassett and Stanleytown, Va.) had lost nearly half its workforce over the past 15 years. The region is a microcosm of what globalization has wrought in small towns across America in places where the economy was largely dependent on one or two industries. What we found: increased crime (drug and property), huge increases in disability rolls, a declining tax base. Here it all is laid out for the reporter – in one rich-in-history place. But you have to bother to return there — over and over — after the factory-closing stories to grasp the slow burn. You also have to connect the dots from the corporate offices in, say, Bassett, to the booming suburbs of Surabaya, Indonesia, where much of that company’s furniture is now being made. It took me a long time to get my head around it.
How did you get people to talk to you so openly?
I went back to them over and over again — to the displaced line workers, to the retired middle managers (who now held less of a stake in affairs), and especially to the leery executives. I showed them I was in it for the long haul. I sat in broken-down trailers in snaky hollows, camped out in the Bassett Historical Center for weeks on end, bought fried pies and homemade pickles at the farmer’s market and generally inserted myself into what was going on. When the corporate execs initially refused to talk, I just kept asking — by phone, e-mail, and by talking to people around them who were passing on what I was trying to do — until, finally, they relented because they understood I was writing the damn book with or without their input.
I’m grateful they did because I think it’s a much better, more nuanced book with their input. “You know an awful lot about us,” Bassett Furniture CEO Rob Spilman said, when he finally allowed me to interview him in his office — a year after I’d started the book. When he described how the company had once used water from the adjacent Smith River to power the boilers in the factories, hell, I’d not only interviewed several of the old “boiler men” but I’d already had my own baptism in the Smith (a kayaking spill, in 42-degree river water: not recommended).
When did you start to think about expanding this into a book?
Probably the day I met John Bassett III, the black-sheep family member who’d dared take on China from the mountain hamlet of Galax, Va. I was immediately jazzed about the story’s potential – it had international heft and a slow-drawling badass for a main character — that I typed up my notes in my Galax hotel and e-mailed them to my editor that night.
What more reporting and writing did you need to do?
By the time my agent sent out the book proposal, I thought my reporting was about 50 percent complete. Ended up, it was more like 5 percent. I had the scaffolding, the outline and the narrative arc nailed. But understanding how exactly JBIII had kept his factory going – by taking on China in the Court of International Trade – that was a complex nest to untangle. Who were the characters in China who could bring that side of the story alive? How had the lawyers, lobbyists and mad-as-hell furniture retailers responded when he got duties assessed on the imported furniture? What did the business experts and economists think of what he’d done, and how did that dovetail with what the dislocated workers were saying?
I’m a feature writer, not a business reporter. Sometimes that hurt me; other times, it helped. I became a subscriber of The Economist; that was new!
How was writing for a newspaper different than writing a book?
Robert Caro has said that “time equals truth.” I had time to engender trust in reluctant interviewees, time to convince them that, Lord willin’ and the Smith River didn’t rise, I was in it for the long haul with or without their cooperation. I had time to witness globalization in the rice paddies and factories of Indonesia, time to check out the family stories too. Did John Bassett really end up in Galax because he’d been kicked out of the company he’d been born to inherit by power-hungry relatives? Was his departure provoked by a fistfight with his lifelong nemesis and brother-in-law? Did he really tip the ambulance driver $100 not to tell anyone what had transpired? Well, a friend who was reading Caro at the time suggested I track the ambulance driver down. (He’s 88 and, as I discovered to my delight, still making volunteer EMT calls on Fridays.)
How much did you rewrite and re-report what you had done for the newspaper?
Aside from one or two quotes and the overarching theme, there is no overlap between the two. The newspaper series is three separate snapshots of the issue. The book is a single narrative, driven by the story of one furniture family but held together by context and connective tissue that draws upon 110 years of industrial history in America and abroad.
Did you leave the newspaper to focus on the book?
I took 15 months away from the newspaper to focus solely on the book. Initially, I took a year, but the Lukas Prize allowed me to take a few more months away for reporting and revision. It also paid for my Asia trip, which I was about to have to charge to my home equity line.
What do you hope to accomplish with the book?
I hope the reader will come away from “Factory Man” with a deep understanding of why their furniture and other Asia-manufactured products cost a little bit less than they once did — and what that means for the 5 million Americans who used to make those products. I hope they’re entertained and inspired by my main character, an iconoclast multimillionaire who cares enough for the generations of workers who made his family rich that when others in his his industry were closing their factories, he dug in his heels and said, Oh hell no.
I hope the families impacted by all the job losses take some small comfort in seeing the full story of globalization told: That work meant something to them. I hope policy makers and business leaders reading it are inspired to compete in the global economy based on more than just the quick-hit bottom line.
by Chris Roush
Jason Raznick is the founder of the financial news site Benzinga and is a passionate entrepreneur. He founded two successful Internet companies prior to his current and largest company, Benzinga. Raznick has worked for Merrill Lynch, TheStreet.com, and Tricap Holdings.
In the first five months, Benzinga grew to more than 50,000 active members.
Benzinga is a financial media company based out of metro Detroit and currently has more than 3 million readers in more than 125 countries every month. Benzinga provides daily, original content to people interested in financial news. Benzinga also produces real-time tools and applications to give traders and readers an edge once only available to the very elite.
Instead of giving financial advice, Benzinga believes that it gives news to make informed decisions to take control of a person’s financial future. Its strategy is that financial news consumers are dissatisfied with the dinosaurs of financial media and crave a different, more engaging source of information.
Raznick spoke by email with Talking Biz News about Benzinga’s operations. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you get the idea for Benzinga?
I founded Benzinga a couple years after the 2007-08 financial crisis. I saw friends and neighbors lose money and become disillusioned with the markets. Some suffered an even worse toll because they trusted bad advice online. More than ever, I felt that there a huge information divide between retail investors and institutional investors.
The best way for good folks to get back on their feet was to identify good investment opportunities – especially when valuations were so low. But most people were not empowered with the same information and insights that Wall Street professionals had, so they fell even further behind. Ultimately, Benzinga was created to empower retail investors with high-quality, actionable ideas and information.
How is it different than other financial news sites out there?
Benzinga’s news team always offers unique insights on market-moving stories. From exclusive CEO comments and small-cap perspectives to unearthed information and breaking news — Benzinga reports stories that aren’t found elsewhere. Plus, our analysts provide trading ideas — helping the reader to act on a news event.
Who do you see as your competition, and what are you doing different or better than them?
Our readers have limited time, and there is so much media and information being barraged at them from all directions. Between print media, online content, social media, and TV — it’s a battle for mind share.
The only way to win that battle is to consistently produce content that is so powerful and valuable that our readers are drawn to Benzinga over all of the other media in their lives.
Your site focuses a lot on small or mid-cap stocks. Are those not covered as much by the rest of the financial media?
After 9/11, a lot of small-cap companies popped up that claimed to be in the defense or homeland security space. There was so much mayhem and hoopla. Nobody knew what was real and what wasn’t. I was very active on Yahoo message boards at the time, and I helped the community there to distinguish the real opportunities from the scammers.
I had 3,000 people following my posts and CEOs were contacting me to clarify their businesses. A good majority of the content and news covering these companies could actually be sourced back to PR initiatives and entities with a vested interest. I realized how little quality coverage there was of smaller companies — and that there was a ton of demand for accurate reporting in the space.
I’m proud that Benzinga is a leader in the field.
Who is your core audience?
We cater to long-term investors and traders with a fast growing audience of people who want to learn about the markets. Benzinga Pro, our real-time news and data platform, serves professional traders. The audience ranges from prop desks and hedge funds to day traders and active investors.
Benzinga Pro’s audio news alerts and chat functionality provides value to a wide arrange of audiences. And Marketfy is our educational course platform that serves new to sophisticated investors.
How have your UVs and page views been recently?
We aren’t making our traffic numbers public at this time. I will say that we are very pleased with our growth.
How have you been growing your readership?
First and foremost, we continue to grow our readership by providing valuable information to our audience. This industry thrives on content being shared and as we continue to provide value to our readers, they continue to share it with others. Our distribution partnerships with other websites/brokerages and regular TV appearances are a direct result of how our content’s value continues to lead our growth. We’re also very active in the world of social media and have become a growing resource to those using search engines for research.
How do you generate revenue? Is it strictly via advertising?
We generate revenue via licensing content and data to brokerage platforms, portals, and other web properties; subscriptions to the Benzinga Pro real-time news and data service; and selling advertising.
In addition, Marketfy.com, a newer education property of ours, allows investors to signup for educational courses, top trading newsletters, trading chat-rooms. and other market tools. The marketplace features products and services that are free, one-time buy, or subscription-based.
How many journalists do you have on staff, and how is what they cover determined?
We currently have approximately 15 market analysts on staff – plus dozens of contributors and writers who pitch in. They cover stories that fall into their area of expertise. For example, Matt McCall is one of the world’s foremost experts on ETF investing. Nic Chahine and Adam Beaty write thought-provoking pieces on options trading. And, our real-time team specializes in reporting and breaking news.
How are you expanding that coverage now? What would you like to cover that you’re not?
We have excellent coverage of the US stock market and the global economy. We are looking to expand coverage in global equities and the commodity market.
Where did the name Benzinga come from?
When I was a little kid, I had a speech disorder and went to a speech therapist. Afterwards, my grandfather and I would practice silly, made-up words. Benzinga was one of them – and it stuck in my head ever since. I wanted to use a name that had no particular meaning at first – so that we could create a meaning around it.
How do you decide where to aggregate content from, and where to distribute your content?
We work with companies who live by the same high quality standards that we do, like TD Ameritrade, Microsoft, Nasdaq, etc.
by Chris Roush
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Adam Davidson has reported on international business and economics for National Public Radio’s National Desk since December 2004. His reports can be heard on “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” and “Day to Day,” as well as NPR newscasts. He is also editorial director for NPR’s multimedia project covering the global economy, Planet Money.
Davidson’s reports focus on the effects of increased global trade on the U.S. economy, U.S. workers, and U.S. competitiveness. After the deadly tsunami that hit Southeast Asia, he covered the aftermath of the disaster in Banda Aceh. Davidson spent two weeks there, living in a concrete bunker and filing several reports a day.
Davidson has visited countries that are undergoing dramatic economic change, such as China, to help listeners make sense of the sometimes overwhelming and confusing phenomenon of globalization. By introducing listeners to the people most affected by globalization, Davidson says he hopes to help listeners “better understand the profound changes happening in every part of the world.”
Davidson talked Thursday by phone with Talking Biz News about the Planet Money project. What follows is an edited transcript.
1. How did the Planet Money idea come about?
It started with this “Giant Pool of Money” show, the show that we did with “This American Life.” It was a fun experiment that frankly I thought was going to be a failure because I didn’t think you could do a one-hour show about mortgage backed securities and make it fun and entertaining. But it got a huge response. People wanted an educational piece to help them understand how the economy works and affects them, to give them some context. In the past couple of years, there has been more hunger and interest in business and economics news than ever before. I think you just have all of these new business news and economics news consumers who are different from the traditional business news and economics news consumers.
I have learned that there are many educated people that can not tall you the difference between a stock and a bond and can’t tell you how structured finance works. There are many people on Wall Street who can’t tell you how structured finance works. We were bringing water to the desert. We just sort of lucked in to having the right formula at the right time, which is clear, sophisticated reporting about business and economics. The goal is not to simplify things, it’s to make things clear. So we use all the tools of good reporting, placing things in good storytelling and not using jargon. It just reached a very large audience.
I just seemed sort of obvious that we should not make this a one-off, that we should make it a regular occurrence. So I worked during the summer of 2008 to make this a permanent part of NPR.
2. This is all new for NPR. How hard was it to sell?
It was shockingly easy. We have faced absolutely no internal resistance. We have faced tremendous internal support. To me, that’s shocking because we’re doing things in a different way than NPR traditionally does stuff. We have the same standard high-quality commitment to good journalism and good storytelling. But it’s a huge organizational change to have a true multi-media team that is fully committed to the Web, committed to podcasting and committed to the radio. It is this team beat approach, which is sort of new. Rather than one reporter pursuing one aspect of a story, we all work together. We’re now a team of six.
3. What’s the goal for Planet Money?
It is as simple as to help the audience understand economics and business and how those things impact their day-to-day lives. Sometimes I feel like we’re a continuing education class taught by journalists. Clearly, there was an economic crisis going on, but we started our efforts before the real crush of September 2008. We happened to launch the day Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were rescued, and the next week was Lehman.
Our original plan was to have a quiet period in the fall and get the bugs out and figure out who we are. Obviously, that was not the case. Most of what we focused on for the first six to eight months has been the ongoing acute financial crisis. That’s not our DNA. Our DNA is broader and focuses on economics much more broadly. We’re already beginning to plan stories about how China is impacting the American economy and why poor countries are poor.
It’s not just a topic focus. It’s a sensibility focus. It’s not just what stories do we tell. It’s how do we tell these stories. We’re friendly. We’re accessible. We’re curious. We’re on a journey ourselves. We’re not coming to you as the fully formed expert.
4. Do you and others try to have a specific number of posts each days?
It is hard to feed the beast. There are different demands for podcasting, for the radio and for the Web. And we’re committed to being on the radio regularly and doing these longer-form radio projects. It’s hard to mix all of that,
It really depends on what’s going on. It’s something we talk about a lot. The head of our online operations, Laura Conaway, did a study comparing us to comparable economics blogs. And no one posts much more than four times a day. Before that, we had been posting six to 10 times a day. We still post a lot.
5. When did the podcasts start?
It launched on that first Monday. Originally, we were going to do one a week. But when we launched on the day that Fannie and Freddie collapsed, we ended doing one each day that week. But we decided that wasn’t substainable. So now we post podcasts three a week. We post on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
6. What’s been your traffic to the site?
I try not to pay attention to audience traffic. I prefer not to know. I know it’s in the many tens of thousands. I know it’s one of NPR’s most popular, and in the top 10 or 20 of iTunes. (Editor’s note: The podcast is downloaded more than 1 million times each month and the blog gets approximately 400,000 page views per month.)
7. Do you try to cross-market it by mentioning it on the air?
Yes, certainly. Whenever we’re on the radio, either on NPR or “This American Life,” we definitely make a point of doing a back tease.
8. Are there certain stories or topics that lend themselves better to radio than the blog or a podcast?
I think that is really one of the fun things to figure out. For me, most of my career has been a radio career, and NPR has been focused on radio. But it’s fun to see how different media demand different types of story telling. It’s liberating to be able to use video for storytelling. We do a fair amount of charts that we can’t do on the radio. I think that while we want everything we do to have the high journalistic standards of NPR, we do feel like the podcast is a place where we can play around more in the way we tell stories.
It’s OK to be not totally successful in our story telling. The difference between podcast and radio is much bigger than the difference between radio stories and print stories. We know what we sound like, but we don’t know what we look like.
9. Have you had to learn any new skills?
All the Internet skills. I really did not know how to use a blog editor. I want to learn more. I would like to focus more energy on visual storytelling. The hardest thing was just to learn how to talk to the Web development folks. I did not know now how to picture something in my head and convey to the development folks what it was. I didn’t know how Web people talked. That was harder than learning how a collateralized debt obligation works.
10. How popular are the Economist House Calls, where you call a random home to get an idea about how it’s faring in the current economy?
That was really fun. But it wasn’t necessarily a carefully laid plan. I like the spontaneity of that, and that’s our mission, to show people how broad economic principles impact your life on a day-to-day basis to help you make better choice. For me, it’s intellectual curiosity. That feels like one of the more on-point things that we’ve done. I love economists, but it is hard to find the ones that speak English. I want everything to be informed by an intelligent grounding in economics, but the best reporting is showing not telling.
11. Colleague David Kestenbaum wrote back in April that the Adam Davidson bobblehead dolls would soon be released. When can I get mine?
We have had jokes about products. He wants us to have a whole line of weird things that we sell. He wants us to have gifts that you can give rooted in sophisticated risk models.
12. Anything you want to add to the discussion about the now-infamous interview you did with Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel?
I think we’ve said more than enough. Not specifically about that, but I like that we are rooted in transparency. This whole process of revealing the process of learning how this stuff works and struggling with it is a crucial part of what Planet Money is. This is a very emotional story for everyone involved. This gets at the core of how we define society. And it’s very hard for journalists to deal with emotion, particularly their own emotion. In many ways, this is a story that gets to the core of what business journalists do, and I am very far from figuring it out. It continued to be a profound challenge.
by Chris Roush
Aaron Kremer launched RichmondBizSense.com at the beginning of the year, and he’s nowÂ reaching more than 1,300Â readers a day through his Web site and via an e-mail service.
A former intern on the Richmond Times-Dispatch business desk, Kremer attended graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication for a year, but left without completing his degree. (Disclosure: Kremer is one of my former Business Reporting students.)
After freelancing for a while in the Richmond market, the Willamsburg native decided to launch his own Web site. It helped, he noted, that there was no business weekly in Richmond competing against the daily.
Kremer talked about launching a business news Web site with Talking Biz News. What follows is an edited transcript.
1. How did you first become interested in creating a local business news Web site?
I started writing for the business desk at the Times-Dispatch, the daily in Richmond. I wasn’t there very long, but after my third month I had some ideas about how to make the weekly Metro Business section — which is supposed to imitate the weekly business magazine most other cities have — more dynamic. I told a few editors and they thought the ideas were good and told me to write a proposal. That sort of killed my mojo. Plus they didn’t hire me on full-time. So then I was freelancing and still thought there wasn’t enough business news coverage in town. I talked to one small business owner whom I trusted and she said a business news website was a great idea.
2. What went into the planning of the site?
It sort of developed ad hoc. At first I tried Word Press blog, but it didn’t match what I had in mind. So I scrapped that and hired a web developer in April 2007 and started working on designs with him. We were both just doing it on the side, so it took a while. We launched that first version on Jan. 1, 2008. I quit freelancing a few months later except for a few stories for Virginia Business magazine.
3. What features did you decide were most important?
The idea is to be the homepage for business news, which means ideally our readers don’t have to go anywhere else. Step one was to provide a solid newsfeed of all the stories from around the web that a Richmond business professional ought to know. I don’t use RSS. Instead I check all the sites every morning. We’ve gotten loads of compliments from readers who say they like having a personal guide for what stories to read from Inc. or the Washington Post, or the open part of the Wall Street Journal.
But we’re not just an aggregator. We also write the sort of local stories readers need. At first I was writing lengthy business features intended for business owners and entrepreneurs, but I quickly realized the content had to address running a business in Richmond with more actionable news. As much as possible we try to do so in an entertaining way. We’re publishing around 3 stories a day now.
4. How did you find funding?
I spent almost every penny I have. I didn’t intend to put so much into it, but I didn’t want to pull the plug, either. I also have a few side contracts that I work on that I use to help funnel money into the business. The good news is we’re just working out the final kinks now for a private investor. I met him while I was still writing for the Times-Dispatch.
When I started an LLC, he gave me some quick advice and told me to write a business plan and come talk to him again if I needed money. I did, but he couldn’t find any Richmonders who wanted to invest, so he invested. It’s not much, but it should keep us alive for one more year. I’d like to do another round of funding and partner with an established business media company that can bring in some of the sales expertise.
5. Your site has advertising. How did you first attract advertisers?
By giving it away free as long as the company provided a really attractive ad. Now we have a for-real rate card. We charge significantly less than anyone else in town, so some of the established companies have trouble saying no. That gives us some street cred, so to speak, and in six months the idea is to go back to them with solid stats and prove what a great buy it is.
But lining up advertisers is still a challenge. It’s not an easy product to sell. That’s why we built a pay-for-placement business wire. That’s a lot easier to sell because companies can see all the people who read their story, and it’s cost effective. We funnel those funds into the news operation.
6. So, when did you launch, and what were the kinks at the beginning?
We launched Jan. 1, 2008. I felt weird freelancing for the paper and trying to build a competing product. The website itself was also a huge kink. Each version of the website is also like a haunted house. You know it’s creaky and scary, but you try to just look straight ahead. (more…)