By Joel Dresang

The card I received in the mail exclaimed “Good news!”

The company that bought Money magazine last year stopped printing it 11 months before my subscription was set to expire.

The good news, according to the postcard, was that for the remainder of my subscription, I’d receive Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine, Money’s longtime rival. As it turns out, I already have a subscription to Kiplinger’s—through mid-2021. It’s like Pepsi giving you a Coke when you already have a fridge full.

The real news is that yet another personal finance publication has folded. And that can’t be good.

More than ever, individuals are on their own for accumulating, maintaining and managing the wealth they need to sustain themselves and their families. With an ever-expanding array of choices for saving, investing and spending money, consumers could use more independent, objective intermediaries to help them make sense of all their options.

Consider the source
Scrutinizing the information you consume becomes particularly important if it affects your personal finances. While free sources of financial and investment news are available on the internet, often you get what you pay for. Even subscriber-supported content should be taken with a grain of salt.
Consider who created what you read, hear and view and whether their interests might conflict with yours. Some questions to ponder, courtesy of the National Association for Media Literacy Education:

  • Who made this?
  • Why was it made?
  • What is missing from this message?
  • How might different people interpret the message?
  • Who might benefit from this message?
  • Who might be harmed by the message?

Similarly, follow “The Quick Guide to Spotting Fake News,” from the Freedom Forum Institute and the “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Stock Market Volatility Edition,” from On the Media.
Landaas & Company creates a stream of news-to-use features for investors, including a news portal on its website, a free monthly electronic newsletter, a YouTube channel and Twitter posts.

The death of Money is another reminder of the tougher time individuals have at discerning how best to conduct their financial lives. It’s another notice on the deterioration of a line of work I personally found enriching.

A few years after it started, USA Today hired me as a reporter for its personal finance team—the perfi guys, as we were known, though we included female journalists. My editor referred to what we did as “the journalism of help” because our work was to inform readers how to make their money grow better and last longer.

USA Today was at the forefront of such efforts on a national scale. Jane Bryant Quinn began writing about personal finance and money management for Newsweek magazine a few years earlier, following the pioneering work of editor and author Sylvia Porter (who was compelled to hide her gender at the onset of her career with the byline S.F. Porter).

Beginning in the late 1980s, amid financial deregulation, the demise of pensions, the advent of 401(k)s and the dawn of mutual funds, I witnessed the boom of perfi journalism.

“Back in the 1990s, personal finance was a hot category,” Kiplinger’s editor, Mark Solheim, wrote in the magazine’s August issue. “There were more than a dozen personal finance and investing magazines, including Smart-Money, Worth, Family Money, Individual Investor and Mutual Funds magazine.”

In his note to readers (including 400,000 jilted Money subscribers), Solheim declared Kiplinger’s “the last monthly magazine standing in the personal finance category.”

What became of all those other publications was fallout from the failure of ink-on-paper journalism as well as an information overload dumped on punch-drunk investors.

Several magazines ended with the dot-com market crash.

“As stocks plunged, many readers lost the desire to play the stock market the way they played video games—combing magazines for stock and fund picks,” Solheim explained. “The financial crisis in 2008 was another nail in the coffin.”

Over the same period, the internet cheapened the value of subscription print journalism by offering instant information at one’s fingertips for free—regardless of the quality or objectivity. The fate of the magazines is too familiar and too close to home.

I worked at four newspapers in three states in the span of 24 years. All of them now are owned by the same company—at a fraction of the staff, circulation and impact. Since 2004, about 2,100 newspapers have closed in the U.S., according to a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was quoted in an article in USA Today written not by a newspaper staffer but by an outside content provider.

I confess picking quarrels with coverage in perfi magazines. For instance, the “10 Hot Stocks to Buy Now” sorts of covers qualify for what Quinn has termed “financial pornography.”

At their best, I think such publications explain to consumers what they need to do to hang on to their money longer, to grow it prudently and to stretch it farther. Such material includes oft-repeated common knowledge that is too uncontroversial to be click bait or to go viral. Messages to investors such as:

  • Asset allocation beats stock selection and market timing.
  • Long-term investors shouldn’t fall prey to short-term hysteria.
  • Balance portfolios between safety for the near term and growth for the long run.

Like many of the declining print publications, Money magazine is focusing on surviving online. That’s to say some helpful personal finance journalism is available without an old-school magazine subscription. However, because of the ease of publishing online, investors need to take extra precautions to scrutinize the independence and objectivity of sources.

Other Money Talk articles from Joel Dresang

Also, consider that a medium affects a message. The 24/7 urgency of web-based journalism entails more shooting from the hip and less contemplative analysis.

“Stock markets have become a spectator sport, especially on cable news,” Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, said in a speech last November on the future of financial journalism. “Real time commentary has supplanted in-depth sectoral coverage. The stampede for clicks has flattened reporting and dumbed down headlines.”

The trend punctuated by the last printing of Money magazine makes it easier for investors to just ignore the news and rely solely on an advisor they trust. But personal finances matter too much to totally disengage. Keeping at least somewhat informed is equivalent to practicing good hygiene between visits to the dentist. It helps to put your faith in a professional when you know you’ve been doing your part.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

Learn more
For What It’s Worth: Grain of Salt
Making financial sense of “breaking news,” a Money Talk Video with Art Rothschild
Look (and scrutinize) before you leap,
by Joel Dresang
Crash test dummies, 
by Joel Dresang
”Investor Alert: Beware of Stock Recommendations on Investment Research Websites,” 
from the Securities and Exchange Commission

(initially posted August 27, 2019)

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