During college I was a copy boy at the Miami News. The year: 1971. One of my jobs every day, when I wasn’t filling jars with rubber cement (don’t ask!), was to get the closing stock quotes from a local broker and write them in pencil next to the name of every publicly traded Miami company. I always told myself the business desk was the last place I’d ever want to work.
Not long ago, after a particularly frustrating yet intriguing day in my almost fourth decade of business reporting, I tweeted that the way I do my job has changed profoundly in recent years.
“How?” tweeted back Chris Roush, a financial journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, who also runs the TalkingBizNews blog.
Well, Chris, the less-than-140 characters answer: Competition and sourcing.
More than 140 characters (and a bit of history):
It’s all about the blurring of the lines between journalists and everyone else.
Like most journalists, I always tried to have some kind of edge and, if at all possible, be first with something good. I kicked all of that up a bunch of notches in 1988, when I started writing a daily “Business Insider” financial column for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Back then, as hard as my job was, it was easier (if that makes sense). While the financial wire services were slugging it out for real-time dominance, there was no financial TV. No Internet. No social media.
Then, in the early 1990s, along came CNBC. Money managers like Jim Cramer and even CEOs started to guest host the network’s flagship show, Squawk Box. But it was more about competition. This was the first time I was worried that real-time scoops and first-hand insights could spoil something I had been working on. (When you write six columns a week, there is little room for a story getting derailed, especially as the daily deadline nears.)
Then came the Internet and the real beginning of the blurring of the lines: David and Tom Gardner’s The Motley Fool, originally on American Online (which used non-journalists to report and analyze stocks); Cramer’s TheStreet.com, which I joined in 1998 (talk about blurring: A quality, edgy news website, aimed at the little guy, started by a former hedge fund manager); TheStreet’s Columnist Conversation, the brainchild of Jon Krim and Leland Montgomery (this was the original streaming stocks discussion, mixing the comments of a few journalists like me with investment pros like Cramer and Doug Kass. (Truth be told: I thought it was a stupid name and an even stupider idea. Boy, was I wrong.)
Then came the blogs. Suddenly, everybody had a blog. Everybody was a journalist. Everybody, from small investor to money manager, was a legend in their own mind! (Once upon a time, while I was a columnist at MarketWatch, I even had a blog.)
Former research analyst David Jackson took the lines-blurring to the next level with his creation of the website Seeking Alpha, giving a high-profile public outlet to blogs by active investors, analysts, investors and even hedge fund managers you’ve likely never heard of. A turning point of sorts was when blogs by these mostly nobodies began appearing along news stories by us supposed somebodies on Yahoo Finance.
The Emergence of Social Media
But nothing in the evolution of the Internet has had more of an impact on financial journalism than the emergence of Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and all social media.
So much for edge! Keith McCullough of Hedgeye likes to say Twitter has replaced “the Tape.” I’ll take it a step further: Not only has Twitter turbocharged the commoditization and democratization of financial news, largely the result of the real-time impact of news on stocks, but in 140 characters or less on Twitter even non-bloggers took on personalities and began gaining influence.
The financial news ecosystem became further jumbled as those non-journalists followed journalists; journalists followed them and followers of both found each other. My self-created news feed on Twitter, currently tapping into the posts of 294 smart journalists, engineers, investors, CEOs, money managers, analysts, news organizations and even a few comedians, is my first read of the day.
The more active I became on social media, now posting my thoughts, stories and even breaking news across all platforms, the more I realized there are really smart people not just inside but outside of journalism whose Twitter posts can’t be ignored. Some are my age. Some older. Many much younger. Doesn’t matter. Many have become part of a new wave of sourcing that enhances the reporting process, all benefiting the reader and viewer.
Whoever thought I would be getting story ideas from the stock tickers that are “trending” real-time on a three-year-old site called StockTwits, which has become the Twitter of stocks? I certainly didn’t until I realized some of these out-of-the-way names were trending for a reason. Now, whenever I want to know why something is happening to a company, the first thing I do is check out the real-time feeds on StockTwits, which make stock message boards seem so old school. (Ever notice the “$” before stock symbols on Twitter? That’s so the Twitter posts will get picked up in a specific stock stream on StockTwits. How brilliant was investor/entrepreneur Howard Lindzon in coming up with that?)
Out of this has come an immediacy and intimacy in the level of interaction that previously didn’t exist. Reality is: Many of my followers come from an industry or company — or know more about some arcane financial maneuvering than I do. It doesn’t matter that they don’t work at one of the major Wall Street firms or that (excuse me for committing journalism blasphemy here) I don’t know their real names. What matters is that with them watching, I generally know within minutes if I got something right or wrong or both! They’re also sometimes first to point out something that might not have hit the wires yet. (Think of this as more eyes on the lookout for overlooked or buried but newsworthy press releases and SEC filings.) The instant reaction can be exhilarating, infuriating and humbling.
Which is why after an initial resistance to the blurring of lines, I’ve embraced it no differently than when I jumped online after a career in print. Or to computers from electric typewriters from manuals. To do otherwise, as a financial journalist, would be foolhardy.
None of this means leaving behind the rules of journalism. To the contrary. It simply means accepting, acknowledging and, yes, even embracing social media and whatever comes next. There is no going back.
If anybody should be longing for the good old days it should be me. And for some reason, which I hope I just explained — I’m not.
Questions? Comments? Write to HerbOnTheStreet@cnbc.com