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Bloomberg’s Matt Levine talks on being a finance columnist

August 25, 2014

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Bloomberg View's Matt Levine discuss the next generation of Wall Street players on Market Makers. Photo: Bloomberg

People may not trust a banker. They also may not trust journalists. But a banker-turned-journalist?  Now he may be a little more trustworthy.

Matt Levine, Bloomberg View’s Wall Street columnist, believes his readers have a certain level of trust in him because of his former banking experience. His previous career at Goldman Sachs prepared him to write for an audience that wanted to understand financial concepts. He was already used to explaining things like derivatives to chief financial officers as an investment banker.

“(A) lot of media financial commentary is, you know, ‘Oh this hedge fund manager likes riding horses,’ or ‘Hoo boy these banks are complex and opaque,’ but that’s totally useless information for people in the financial world,” Levine wrote. “You want to be told ‘This is what JPMorgan is doing with its credit trades, and this is why it’s doing that, and this is why that isn’t working.'”

Levine obtained a bachelor’s degree in Classics from Harvard University in 2000. After a year teaching high school Latin, he attended Yale Law School. He became a law clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit before moving on to being a mergers and acquisitions lawyer at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. He also worked at Goldman Sachs for four years first as an associate and then a vice president.

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Levine eventually decided to pursue his calling as a writer. He left that side of the financial world and became an editor at Dealbreaker in 2011. Levine joined Bloomberg View in 2013 as its columnist on Wall Street and all things financial. He was a commentary finalist for 2014 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism.

Levine took time to answer our questions via email. He shares his experience transitioning into journalism, developing his voice, and dealing with negative comments.

1. You were an investment banker before a columnist. What were the biggest issues in your transition to journalism from investment banking?

The money, obviously. There is less of it in journalism!

” … when you write
on the Internet every day,
you have to get up
every morning
and do it again.”

I actually find writing every day more stressful than banking. Banking is hard, the hours are long, the personalities can be difficult, there’s a lot of travel, etc., but the projects tend to be pretty long-term, and there are real ups and downs in how much work you’re doing and how emotionally and intellectually intense it is. You can take the occasional day of sort of hiding under your desk and tweaking pitchbooks and not returning phone calls. Whereas when you write on the Internet every day, you have to get up every morning and do it again. You always have to be on. You can’t be like, “I’m not feeling it today. I’m just going to write a bad post.” I mean, you can, and I do, but people go read that bad post anyway and think less of me so it feels awful.

The other thing is that I’m just less alienated from my labor now. I basically write whatever I want, however I want, about whatever I find interesting. That’s awesome. But when I have a bad day, it’s on me. When I was an investment banker, and I missed a deal or whatever, I could say to myself, “Well I never wanted to sell derivatives anyway. Derivatives are stupid.” And then I’d think, deep in my shameful ridiculous brain, “Actually my real calling is to be a writer, just nobody knows it yet.” But now I’m actually a writer. So if I’m bad at it then that’s hard to shrug off.

2. Journalism tends to frown on “non-objective” reporting, and columns usually have some subjectivity to them. What should a reporter do if someone challenges reporting based on views from a column? Has that happened to you?

Well the easiest way to avoid this is to be either a “reporter” or a “columnist” but not both. I try to stay away from “reporting” in the sense of asking people to tell me things that nobody knows and then reporting them as facts. When I talk to someone who tells me something I didn’t know, I often ask, “Are there documents that I can cite for that?” Because I don’t want to just say “X is true, according to people familiar with the matter.” Obviously reporters do that, but they have an infrastructure to support checking those facts; it’s much scarier for me as a columnist-blogger to do that.

Matt Levine in his NPR Planet Money T-shirt.
Matt Levine in his NPR Planet Money T-shirt.

So if I assert a fact, I like to link to it. And I’m suspicious of columnists who assert facts without links. We’re all on the internet now. Links are free. You can just show your evidence.

3. You’re relatively sarcastic and witty in your column, in my opinion. How long does it take for someone to develop ‘voice’? How does ‘voice’ impact the editing relationship between editors and columnists?

So everyone knows that the big story of modern media is the rise of blogging and the fall of gatekeeper organizations. That’s had lots of repercussions, good and bad. The bad news is that no one starts out covering city council meetings for local newspapers and getting training in how to write and report. Everyone just starts out blogging about their opinions without actually knowing anything.

But the good news is that you get to experiment with your voice; you don’t have to write in newspaperese for years. … The stylistic ideal of the Internet these days is to sound like a witty human conversationalist, which is better than, you know, a robot-generated earnings story. … In my specific case I left banking for Dealbreaker, a site run by Bess Levin, who is one of the great comedic talents of the Internet. I was and am a huge fan of her work, and obviously I’ve stolen a lot from her in my own writing, but she’s basically impossible to imitate wholesale. … I pretty much had to develop my own voice, fast, to make any sort of contribution to the site.

And then, again, the nice thing about the Internet is, everyone can see what you’re doing. So when Bloomberg View hired me, they wanted me to write in my own voice, which makes the editorial relationship pretty easy. View is not a magazine with a house style; it’s a collection of writers with their own individual voices, so they just want me to write like me.

4. I looked at some other contributors’ columns, and you’re the only one I’ve seen with footnotes. Why do you add those? Is it something columnists should consider doing?

That’s not true!  I introduced footnotes to Bloomberg View, but lots of other people here have now used them, at least occasionally. So I’m pretty proud of that. Obviously I’m the heaviest user though.

Why do them? I mostly think of myself as a blogger. If you’re blogging about a report or a research paper or a court decision or a securities deal, you should link to the report or the paper or the opinion or a prospectus. And then you should make it as easy as possible for the reader to both (1) understand what’s going on and (2) find the original material to check that you’re describing it accurately and get a deeper understanding. For me, summarizing a point in a sentence, and then putting in the relevant source paragraph in a footnote, is often a good way to do that.

5. As with all published pieces, readers like to give their feedback. What should business columnists do when they receive negative feedback from readers? What’s the worse reader feedback you’ve ever received?

You should try to understand it, is the main thing. This stuff is hard, and anything I write about, I have readers who understand it better than I do. And sometimes they’ll email and be like “You idiot, you got this wrong!” And then I will curl up and cry because I’m incredibly sensitive.

But then I’ll write them back and ask them to help me understand what I missed. Because, one, people are always nicer when you write them back than when they’re just shouting into the void, so at least your interaction doesn’t have to end with “You idiot, you’re the worst.” And, two, people do like to explain their areas of expertise, and why wouldn’t you let them? The Internet offers so much technology to just find things out and get it right, so there’s really no reason not to take advantage of that.


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