Monday, June 29, 2009...7:00 am

Summer reading suggestions for journalism students #1

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A little while ago, I suggested journalism students should read Raymond Chandler instead of just reading journalism. But I also promised some suggestions for really good journalistic writing to read. (Well, it’s summer, so what better way to relax on the beach?)
I’ve got two suggestions – one, which I’ll look at today, is a great example of lively and interesting business/finance writing.
The other, which I’ll post tomorrow, is a consumer-focused humour column. Each in its own way is difficult to do well, so there are lessons to be learned from them.
The first is from the excellent Atlantic magazine. The Atlantic is always worth looking at, as the standard of its writing is consistently high. It also has one of the better old-media web sites around.
From the May issue comes “Why I fired my broker” by Jeffrey Goldberg. It’s a business story that manages to dissect the failures of Wall Street during the whole subprime mortgage debacle, while also being witty and entertaining.
He sets the tone at the beginning:

Even at its top, my investment portfolio was never anything to write home about. Its saving grace was that it was mine. And I imagined that when we did cash out, at 60 or 65, I would pass my time buying my wife semisubstantial pieces of jewelry and going bass fishing like the men in Flomax commercials.

Well, goodbye to all that. I took a random walk down Wall Street and got hit by a bus.

Wry, self-deprecating – this is personal finance journalism meets financial analysis at its best. He weaves his own story in with the dysfunction and self-interest of Wall Street to explain clearly and succinctly how it all went wrong:

It was more than a decade ago that our first Merrill Lynch adviser put us in a company called Boston Chicken. A Merrill analyst described it as “the restaurant concept of the ’90s.” It went bankrupt in 1998. Only later did I learn that Merrill had underwritten the initial public offering for Boston Chicken stock, and so had an interest in selling the company to its customers.

And there’s a wealth of quirky anecdote here as well. In his quest to find out why Wall Street brokers and money men let down retail investors such as him so badly, Goldberg finds himself interviewing survivalist Cody Lundin in a foot of snow in the mountains of Arizona.
Lundin believes the world of Wall Street and consumer capitalism is a con that traps consumers into a life of debt, and that civilisation is a thin film over the underlying chaos.

Lundin was arguing so cogently against the American culture of easy credit, in tones far more thoughtful than one hears on cable television, that I forgot for a moment that he wasn’t wearing shoes, or socks. He was standing in the snow barefoot. Also, in shorts.

The irony is not lost on Goldberg, and he milks it amusingly.

We’re in a strange moment in American history when a mouse-eating barefoot survivalist in the mountains of Arizona makes more sense than the chief investment strategist of Merrill Lynch.

From all this, the lesson is that Goldberg is a master of comic contrast for serious purpose. There are great comedic moments scattered throughout this piece – he is deft at bringing out character, describing hedge fund manager Bill Ackman as “tall, prematurely gray, and immoderately self-assured, the sort of winning figure who could be elected to the Senate one day, if the country ever decides to stop hating hedge-fund managers”.
At a charity fundraiser, Goldberg asks Ackman where an average investor should do with, say, $200,000. He realises his error when he looks around:

The wizards in the room were having difficulty calculating figures of such humble size. I had thought $200,000 sounded like a large and unembarrassing number. But the room reacted as if I had asked, “Bill, I have 75 cents in my pocket. Do you think I should buy Twizzlers or a big red gumball?”

But it’s easy to write for laughs – the key is to convey the serious information. This piece is full of meat about money, investing, Wall Street and the economic cycle.
Making financial writing readable is a tough gig, but this piece does it fantastically well. If any journalism student – or practising journalist, me included – can do it half as well, they should count themselves lucky.
Finally: if anyone wants to delve deeper into the financial side, try  this other very good financial piece from Condé Nast’s sadly defunct Portfolio magazine on last year’s Wall Street meltdown. Written by Liar’s Poker author Michael Lewis, it also manages to bring out all the drama and greed that brought the financial world low while explaining tough financial concepts clearly.
Stand by for lighter reading tomorrow…

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