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Reuters’ Felix Salmon on finding your voice, confidence and a place in the blogosphere

Felix Salmon has blogged since the beginning of the blogosphere. Now he has 110 categories of articles, ranging from credit ratings to climate change, and has established himself as a fresh, authoritative voice on the business beat.

Felix Salmon

Salmon launched his journalism career in 1995 as a graduate trainee for EuroMoney, a UK-based monthly magazine covering International banking finance and capital markets. He earned £500 a month and figured a “job beats no job.”

He later moved to New York City for new gig, got fired and decided to freelance for five years. During that time, he met NYU economics professor Nouriel Roubini. Salmon persuaded Roubini to give him a full-time professional blogger job. He was fired again within six months.  In April 2007, Salmon moved to Portfolio.com and stayed there until he  joined Reuters as a finance blogger three years ago.

Salmon’s unique personality shines through blogs. His work has won the heart of thousands of readers, and also the 2010 Excellence in Statistical Reporting Award from American Statistical Association.

Below Salmon shares his suggestions for how to be a successful business blogger.

1) What are the best parts of a finance blogging job? What are the worst?

The best thing about being a blogger, I think for me, is the range of stuff you get to write about. So right now, for instance, I’m writing about a huge amount about the World Bank presidency, like who’s going to get it, and what the relative merits are.

I like being able to have opinions, I love being able to help drive the conversation around certain subjects, I love being able to switch very easily from subject to subject, from beat to beat. One minute I’m writing about the GO Politics and World Bank, the next I’m writing about the economics of wine, and the next I’m writing about bicycling. I can switch around a lot, which I love.

And the other great thing I love to be able to do with the blog is just find wonderful stuff and link to it. I feel like a chunk of my job is writing, and another chunk of my job is reading. And I get to find great bloggers, great journalists, and pieces of great journalism from all over the world and link to it, and bring it to a broad audience and say, “Hey people look at this, isn’t this fantastic?” And this makes me really happy. Being able to show great great pieces of journalism and great pieces of blogging to the world and sort of amplify it and curate it in that sense.

The worst thing, I think it’s that you can never really turn off. The blog is a little insatiable, and I feel like I’m feeding the blog the whole time. Right now my wife is asking me if we can go sailing around Christmas time. And I’m like, “You know, I don’t know. How do I feed the blog when I’m sailing?” You never want to be too far from the Internet connection.

But I really don’t have any complaints at all. It’s a fantastic job, and I’m really happy.

2) How do you ensure a business blog resonates with readers?

The voice is really important. One of the things that I’m slightly suspicious about journalism schools in general is that I fear that when you go to one of these places, they teach to how to write in a certain way. I don’t want to write in certain ways. I want to be me.

People who are really successful with columns or blogs, the personality shines through. So if read Paul Krugman, you’ll see he has this very unique voice, no one else writes quite like him. And he’s hugely successful. In the case of both of us, we really don’t spend a lot of effort on how we write.

It’s more about being confident enough to be yourself, without worrying too much about, “Am I doing this right? Am I doing this wrong?” You want to be able to just be relaxed, write what you think, and not second-guess yourself too much. And if you are a naturally fluent writer, and you are allowing yourself to write what you think and how you think, then that can work really well. I think people who are more worried about how they are writing, or need to put more effort into how they write, for them, it’s probably harder.

And link a lot. One of the things that newspapers and TV do is that they are trying to be, to a certain degree, exhaustive or comprehensive. So if you pick up a newspaper, it shows you news that you need to know. If you watch a TV news program, it shows you the news you need to know. Blogs aren’t like that in the same way. So if something important happens, and I don’t have anything particular to say about it, I can just link to it.

You do what you do as well as you can, and if someone else is it better, you just don’t bother, you link to them. If someone is doing great stuff, then you can just link to them a lot. That’s not a sign of weakness on your part; it’s a sign of strength. The more you link out, the more people come back.

The main advantage of the Internet over newspapers and TV is precisely the fact that you don’t need to do stuff that someone else can do better.

Larger version of 5 questions with logo3) How do you create a unique personality online?

I don’t think this is something that can be constructed. I don’t think anybody could say “Oh, I want to be a columnist,” or “I want to be a blogger, so I’d better cultivate a voice – let me see what kind of voice can I cultivate.”

One of the weird things that happened when I started at Profolio.com, was that… they needed to find an analyst blogger, and so I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” And then they said, “Listen, can you come up with a list of five different blogs which you can write? And then we’ll pick the one we like the most.” And that was kind of stupid. I did what I was told, and I came up with a list of five different blogs and they picked the one they liked the most. And I tried to write that blog, and it lasted for about a day.

Because really I think any given person can only write one blog. If it’s going to write a successful blog, which is going to be a pleasure to read and a pleasure to write, then you just have to be yourself. You have to write the way you write. And if someone wants me to write a finance blog for them, I will write my finance blog for them. But my finance blog will be just whatever I want to write in any given time, and I’m not going to be able to craft it to be something else… Once you’ve started second guessing yourself and saying, “How do I write? Can I write in a certain way?” You’ll start failing quite quickly.

4) What are some of the challenges of finance blogging?

You have to have quite a thick skin. If you are going out there with opinions, you’ll going to have a lot of people out there saying very loudly that you are stupid. And if you don’t want a lot of people saying very loudly that you are stupid. If you can’t see the criticism and learn from it without being offended by it, then you really shouldn’t be in that business. So it’s not for the insecure.

You learn form the substantive comments. If I write about… just about any subject in the world, it’s going to be commented by those who know more about that subject than I do. And a lot of them are going to leave very detailed and substantive comments. And sometimes I would be like, “Oh wow, that’s interesting, I was wrong.” And sometimes I’ll get more nuance and understanding of things. Whereas the “Oh my god, Felix you are so stupid, you are completely wrong” without any kind of substance. You just ignore those.

But I think it’s really important for you as a blogger, not just even a blogger, as human being really, to always admit any given thing you write. Even though you believed it at the time might well be wrong. Feel free to change your mind on things.

I second-guess myself quite a lot, and I change my mind on certain subjects relatively frequently. But honestly, it’s not the ones which I’m widely criticized… Yes I get criticisms on things, and I change my mind on things, but the overlap of the two is not as big as you might think.

5) Could you share tips for business reporters thinking about starting a blog?

I would say quantity over quality. I find that a lot of people, when they are starting out, they don’t write enough, and they labor over their pieces way too long. And they worry about, “Oh my god, should I put this up? Is this good enough?” All these kind of things are in general a bad idea. To get good at something is just do it a lot. And if you put up lots of blog posts everyday, then you are going to get better at it, and people will be much more likely to notice you. And the first rule of blogging is that the blog posts that do the best are not ever the ones that we think are the best. It’s kind of random…

So you just keep on writing… The more you do, the better.

Frankly your radar is the people you follow on Twitter. But if you are a financial blogger, you should probably be following financial people more, such as financial journalists and commentators. And if you follow those people, you’ll see in real time on Twitter what everybody is talking about, and where everybody’s attention is.

Twitter has changed everything so much. A huge amount of what I used to do on a blog, such as linking to stuff, now I use Twitter instead. So the blog posts are now much longer and much deeper, because I have Twitter for quicker hits… And just like a blog, you can’t pretend to be someone else you are not on Twitter. Your personality will always shine through.

About the Author

Tian Chen graduated from The University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China, with a business degree in July 2011. A month later, she traveled to Phoenix to further her study in business journalism at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is now a graduate assistant at the Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism.

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