I’m the new guy at MyBankTracker. Less than a week ago I started my job here as editorial director. It’s a great gig … but taking on this role has generated a bit of soul searching.
You see, I did this type of journalism before. And although I did it well, I’m not convinced I did it right.
Here’s the background: I was a personal-finance journalist in the early days of the Web. I was an executive producer at CNNfn, the predecessor of CNNMoney. After that I was the money editor at the About.com network back when that business marketed itself as “the Human Internet” — an alternative to the primitive, pre-Google search engines.
Those were glorious and heady days for business journalism. We were rewriting the rules of reporting, learning code, debating the appropriateness of linking to “competitors,” letting readers write their own stories and comment on ours, all while we tried to master the new software skills required in digital reporting.
The Web made our jobs better. The Web made our lives better. And we were rightly excited.
But I’ve come to see that amid our excitement about how journalism was changing, we failed to see how the world we wrote about was changing. Finance — the industry that we were supposed to be interpreting for our audience — was growing ever more complex, ever more dangerous and ever more sick. But we didn’t see it.
We asked the easy questions (did earnings beat expectations?) and not the difficult ones (what’s the counterparty risk to the derivatives in your portfolio?)
Or at least most of us did.
A second chance
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, much of the Web world began to hemorrage cash. People were laid off. Sites closed.
I got lucky and landed a job at Bloomberg News.
My first year at Bloomberg was not particularly memorable. But my second year there was extraordinary. I had the chance to work for the late Mark Pittman, arguably the only journalist in America who saw — clearly — the financial crisis that was to come.
Mark was the most talented journalist I’ve ever known. And by the time he died in 2009 — far too young at age 52 — the crisis had begun and the journalism world had come to recognize his genius.
I’ve written elsewhere about Mark. But let me say here that there was one core lesson that I took away from my time working with him: a reporter’s job is to bring difficult truths into the light.
Nothing in business journalism was as difficult as understanding what was happening in finance during those years. From credit-default swaps to mortgage-backed securities, Wall Street was descending into madness. And Wall Street didn’t want anyone to know.
On occasion I accompanied Mark as he visited traders and executives on Wall Street. And without exception, these finance pros treated us with disdain. They assumed we couldn’t possibly understand their business. They were probably right about me. But Mark was smart enough. And he taught me what he could.
Third time is a charm
Now it’s 2012. The world of finance and banking has entered a new stage — a post-crisis, post-bailout, post-Pittman world. And I find myself a personal-finance journalist again.
Now is the time of personal-finance bloggers and consumer advocates. Now is the era of Bank Transfer Day and Occupy Wall Street. Now is the day of alternative banking and the underbanked, of simplifying lives, reducing compensation and eliminating debt. Personal finance isn’t a business anymore. It’s a movement.
So here’s the thing: on my first day at MyBankTracker, the company’s public-relations team asked me for a quote they could put in the press release announcing my hire. As I sat down to write it, I thought about the Internet boom, the financial crisis, about where we were and where we are and what Mark Pittman taught me.
Here’s what I wrote: “A few years from now we’ll all look back and realize this was the time when the relationship between consumers and banks changed forever. Consumers are angry about fees. Mobile banking is gaining traction. Online banking is entering a new stage of mainstream acceptance. Alternatives to the entire banking system — pre-paid debit cards and the like — are being born daily. This is a perfect storm of opportunity for entrepreneurs in banking. As a business and finance journalist, that’s the sort of industry upheaval I like to write about. Consumers are demanding transparent, actionable information about banking. And we’re going to give it to them.”
This time I hope I get it right.