Technological and other changes will continue to expand personal finance coverage, but we will start with the one that nobody saw coming:
COVID-19. In 2020, the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic shook the four pillars of family finance in U.S. households: income, spending, saving, and investing. For a fortunate few who were laid off, or furloughed from good jobs they expect to return to, the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits, along with spending less on commuting and eating out, was a boost that they contributed to emergency or retirement savings.
For many others, however, it was a disaster of unmitigated proportions that will not become “old news” anytime soon.
Record numbers of low- and moderate-income workers who work in mainstay occupations lost their jobs, or had their hours reduced. The temporary workers who fill so many of the mainstay American jobs the rest of us do not want to do were severely disadvantaged.
But especially hard hit are Millennials, those young Americans from 24 to 39 years old. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 4.8 million of them have lost work since COVID-19 triggered a recession, and many now have had their finances and career tracks wiped out twice in the years since the Great Recession of 2008. As a result, they are now behind the previous two generations of GenXers, and Baby Boomers.
Like the last recession, the current health crisis may motivate some of your readers to change their financial habits and behavior as they downsize budgets, build emergency savings, and invest in their 401(k) and 403(b) plans. Others, however, need actionable and immediate advice on how they can feed their families, keep their homes, and find good jobs. Personal finance typically overlooks these marginalized consumers. Please do not overlook them in your reporting.
In addition to COVID-19, the following challenges that have been expanding personal finance coverage in recent years will be familiar to you:
Financial Technology. Occasionally, you will see a customer standing at the grocery checkout or store counter writing out a check by hand, but that is a rare sight these days. In just a few years, technology has ushered different ways to pay bills, and to get paid: online deposits and bill pay, debit cards, cash advances on a credit cards, PayPal, and a host of apps. Increasingly, many of your younger readers pay their bills, save, and invest money, and shop and track their expenses with an app on their ever-present smartphone.
Digital Shopping. Brick-and-mortar stores will still exist, but e-commerce stores and websites—led by Amazon, AliExpress, and eBay—have exploded over the last decade and changed how consumers shop for gifts and buy everything from automobiles to lawnmowers to wireless routers.
Online Security. In 2005, there were 157 data breaches in the U.S.; by the end of 2019, that number has increased to 1,473 and hackers had compromised the records of nearly 165 million Americans. This personal finance trend hit the screen in 2017, when Equifax, one of the three credit reporting agencies, exposed the private information of 147 million Americans.
Personal Finance Bloggers. An increasing number of financial experts make their advice and information available online, and your readers are listening. These financial “experts” are bloggers who have learned hard lessons from their personal finance mistakes and are happy to share actionable information—the hallmark of personal finance reporting—with their online visitors.
No doubt there will be more changes to add with the next update of Beat Basics.
Personal Finance: A few of the Challenges Today
You’ll always write about the basics (budgeting, saving, and managing debt), but today these topics have expanded to “topics with topics”: the persistent lack of emergency savings among Americans; the retirement savings shortfall; and the increasing credit card and student loan debt that adds to the financial burden of many U.S. households.
What strategies will equip you to tackle these challenges?
Dave Kansas read every book on investing he could, which may explain why he edited The Wall Street Journal’s “Money & Investing” section in his twenties and the founded the digital-only site TheStreet.com. You may be fortunate to get hired to cover a beat within the personal finance universe when you start reporting—investing, credit cards, taxes, retirement, family finance, real estate, jobs—but likely, you will have to cover it all. But you can profit from Kansas’s example by reading the collective wisdom offered by personal finance experts. Later in your career, if you want to pursue this beat long-term, start thinking about the one topic that compels you and add that to your reading list, too. I have written a lot about retirement on businessjournalism.org, and obsessively read all the books I can on that topics.
So that is my message here: read and study. To get a basic grasp of financial terms, I read Investopedia, which offers detailed explanations that are an education to read. (Please avoid Wikipedia.) Every day, I read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and every month, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and AARP’s newsletter and magazine. I also check out a number of websites (MarketWatch is a must-read, followed by CNBC and TheStreet, for their Wall Street coverage) and blogs that have maintained, or are gaining, traction.
When I can, I also swipe my brother-in-law’s copy of The New York Post, for the sheer joy of reading its direct “in-your-face” style and solid business coverage. Read your competition, and study how they approach stories. Look at this year’s list of award-winners listed on the website of the Society for Advancing Business Editing & Writing (SABEW) and follow a few. Finally, if you can make the time, take a few classes at your community college, which will also introduce you to financial professionals, and a few of your readers, too.
Check the Facts
With the rise of “fake news” fueled by social media, this journalistic basic has become all the more important. A fact ain’t necessarily so, just because the Internet says so. Find a second source to confirm what you read online; more, if the comments posted on a particular topic all agree. And don’t limit your research to the Internet. Begin building primary source material from the government agencies and private companies that are part of the personal finance beat.
Find New and/or Local Angles
When I reported for Editor & Publisher, the editor studied the ads published on the pages of several newspapers a day. Another prize-winning business reporter I know studied the envelope stuffers that credit card companies began to send to cardholders. At times, the day’s headlines will give you a hook, and at other times, you will have to dig—but isn’t that what reporting is? Get to know your readers and their concerns. If you have a sizable number who are raising young families, or are near, or in, retirement, that should generate a steady stream of angles.
Explain the Numbers
If you do not understand the numbers in a story, your readers surely will not. If you are math-challenged like me, you will have to ask a friend, or a financial professional, to explain things to you. It is not a bad thing to struggle like many of your readers; in fact, I think it helps you empathize with them. Humility also provides a nice slap in the face, to rectify any “expert-speak” that may creep into your reporting.
Connect With Your Readers
Before the Internet, that meant getting out of the office and meeting readers face to face. Today, of course, you can do that online, and you should build followers through your news organization’s social media channels. But, in addition, visit the local investment club, or attend a meeting at a local church or library focused on saving and investing. Meeting face-to-face is a proven way to build sources and achieve the ultimate journalistic goal: trust. Tap departments in your news organization (the marketing, advertising, and subscription departments) that collect analytics about your newspaper or site’s readers.
Put a Face on Your Beat
That means meeting local financial planners, CPAs (Certified Public Accountants), brokers, consumer experts, and senior advocates. Also: attorneys specializing in representing consumers and investors; those in your local police department and the district attorney’s office who protect consumers; those at the state level responsible for regulating investments; and the Consumer Affairs Office of your state’s Attorney General. Do not forget nationally recognized experts, whose voices add weight to your local stories.
Skip the Jargon
You need to master the information and understand the concepts; that means talking to financial experts—but do not write like them, for gosh sakes. I co-authored Asset Allocation For Dummies with a prominent wealth manager. Our task is to make the information on how to allocate, or “divvy up,” your investments to minimize risk clear, I said. “Oh, you want to ‘dummy down’ the language,” he replied. “No, I just want readers to understand the concept so they can use it to their benefit,” I replied. Understanding complex financial concepts clearly is hardly “dummying down” information. Your job is to make such information clear, and not confusing, so that the average investor and consumer can apply that information, along with advice from financial experts, to their particular financial situation. That leads to the next point:
It’s Not Your Job to Provide Financial Advice
This is a tricky point, because readers searching for answers to their personal finance questions will read what you report. In a story on credit scores, for example, you’ll clarify the information on why credit scores are important, the factors that can affect credit scores, and how readers can check and improve their scores, and a financial professional or two will weigh in with their advice. But giving advice is not your job: Your job is to clarify the information so readers can make their own decisions.
It’s Not Your Job to Promote Financial Products
Explain them, yes; promote them, absolutely not. The line between news and marketing has blurred in the news business. You may get a tip on an upcoming product from the sales or advertising staff, but be careful that you do not cross the line. That is what ‘advertorials’ are for—not the business news pages.
Personal Finance: Glossary of Terms and Concepts
Like your files, your glossary of personal finance terms and concepts will keep expanding. New to this list in 2020 are: data breaches, identity theft, online brokerages, retail trading, and trading apps; by the time you read 2030’s update of Beat Basics, there will be others to add.
If we have overlooked a term, please notify us, so that we can add it to this list.