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Personal finance: A few of the challenges

August 3, 2011

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Avoid making your story a math problem. Photo: Chris T. Eng

Personal finance reporting covers such a broad range of subjects that the challenges are many and varied.

Here’s a list of them, as well as the most common errors:

  • MAKING THE SAME TOPICS INTERESTING AND RELEVANT — We will always be writing about saving, investing, credit cards, income, budgeting, student loans and other things that affect the finances of our readers.

The challenge is to find fresh angles that readers don’t know about. Sometimes the news of the day helps you with a hook, but most of the time, it takes enterprise and detective work. For example, read the envelope stuffers that credit card companies send card holders. You’d be surprised the hidden stories you’d find just by slogging through the language.

  • RELYING TOO MUCH ON THE SAME SOURCES — We all have sources that we’ve worked with for a long time who are dependable and knowledgeable and can be counted on for great quotes. But be careful not to fall into a comfort zone. Broaden your Rolodex so you have a wide range of opinions and expertise.
  • VERIFY, VERIFY, VERIFY — This is something all good reporters know, but it’s always worth repeating. Check your math. Readers will run their calculators and will quickly point out that you were off a decimal point. Always verify a technical fact that a reader tells you. They may be correct, but you don’t want to discover that they were wrong after you’ve reported what they’ve said as fact.
  • CHOOSE “REAL PEOPLE” CAREFULLY — Real people are the lifeblood of personal finance stories. They help us put a human face on the sometimes abstract topics we write about. We are often scrambling on deadline to find real people.

But choose them wisely. Make sure they don’t have hidden agendas.

I wrote a story on bartering and found a real person who engaged in it. We had a photo scheduled to be taken of my real person and the merchant with whom he bartered for goods.

The day before the photo shoot, I called the real person to verify the appointment and he suddenly became reluctant to have his picture taken.

It turned out that he didn’t want the IRS to see his picture in the newspaper because he hadn’t reported on his tax return the fair market value of the products he received in the bartering.

Needless to say, I yanked him out of my piece.

  • THROWING A BUNCH OF NUMBERS INTO YOUR STORY — You will lose your reader with numbers and statistics that you don’t explain in context. Only include the numbers that are relevant to your story.

Then look at whether those numbers have been rising or fluctuating over the long term. That will help you detect trends.

  • BE SKEPTICAL OF SO-CALLED “EXPERTS” – When it comes down to it, no one can accurately predict the direction of interest rates and financial markets. Be skeptical of the “expert” who claims he or she has found the financial equivalent of the Fountain of Youth.
  • THE STOCK MARKET IS MORE THAN JUST THE DOW – Technology has brought global markets closer together and made it possible for a wealth of investment information and services to be at investors’ fingertips. Some are legitimate and others aren’t.

Don’t get caught up in the hype. Look at historical trends of the global markets and help readers keep a proper perspective.

Teach them that successful investing isn’t about getting in on the next hot stock tip, but it’s about consistently putting your money into a well-diversified portfolio and allowing time to build on that.


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