Frontlines

How I Broke Into Financial Journalism and What It Took to Stick Around

By Tim Beyers February 12th, 2015

I’ve been writing about stocks and the financial markets for 11 years. After all that time, I can tell you without a doubt financial journalism has never been more important than it is right now.

Since the turn of the millennium, we’ve endured multiple recessions, a real estate crisis, and a banking meltdown. We still don’t know exactly what happened, and that’s why we need more good writers and thinkers than ever before.

Joining our ranks isn’t as difficult as you might think. My own career path suggests an ounce of interest and a pound of tenacity is enough for anyone to break into the business of financial journalism.

And once you’re in, a few key moves will help to make sure you stick around.

A Financial Journalist, But Not a Finance Geek

Joining the ranks of those covering Wall Street isn’t necessarily a linear process. My path to covering finance started with a mountain of debt.

My wife and I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Colorado in March 1998, mostly to escape the expenses that had been consuming our paychecks in a place with such a high cost of living. We started digging out almost immediately, and over the next four years, I spent my off-time learning everything I could about finance and investing. The Motley Fool provided most of my education. When the publication posted an open call for freelance writers in the fall of 2002, I was ready to make the jump.

At that point, my informal training consisted of reading a few books and a decade spent studying tech businesses as a PR and marketing consultant. Turns out that was more than enough. The editor bought the piece I’d submitted with my freelance application—my financial journalism career had officially gone public.

What I’ve learned in the decade since is that, while you don’t necessarily need a formal financial education to be a financial journalist, you will need to learn how to read financial filings, become familiar with jargon, and learn the basics of accounting and investing to do the job well.

The Uncomfortable Truth of Financial Journalism

Whether you contribute to The Motley Fool or The Wall Street Journal, financial journalists write for investors first.

Some investors manage millions of dollars for mutual fund companies; others are retirees watching their nest eggs. Each has money at stake, and as such, they expect accurate, actionable advice from the media covering the markets—which is why it’s so important to know how to read and interpret financial reports.

If that sounds like the job of a financial analyst, you’re right. The main difference is journalists don’t read the reports for the purpose of picking stocks; they do it to better understand the industry they’re writing about. You won’t last long if you don’t understand what’s in a quarterly report. Call it the uncomfortable truth of financial journalism.

As a starting point, the three documents every financial freelancer should be able to dissect are: the income statement, which tells how much profit a business produced during a specific period; the balance sheet, which is a snapshot of a business’ financial health at the end of a reporting period; and the cash flow statement, which describes how the business turned sales into cash during a specific reporting period.

If you’re not coming into the beat with a lot of knowledge, postmortems of the late ’90s implosion of Enron are as good a place as any to start learning—they’ll tell you how the perpetrators used financial statement chicanery to hide in plain sight. Forbes has a complete accounting of the scandal here.

And in a more general sense, if you read articles from peers and academic papers by professors on a regular basis, you’ll start to develop more nuanced financial literacy.

4 Tools Every Financial Journalist Needs

As with any field reporting, getting the story is key in the finance industry. However, unlike with some other fields, your ability to dig up and decipher key documents and data is just as important as relying on sources. Here are four data-discovery tools you should get to know intimately.

EDGAR: The database for the Securities and Exchange Commission compiles and stores tens of thousands of publicly required filings. A Form 4 details insider buying and selling of stock. The 8-K covers earnings reports and other material disclosures such as a departing executive officer. The 10-Q is the quarterly report, while the 10-K is the annual report. Click here for the agency’s guide to getting started with EDGAR.

Yahoo Finance: Navigate to the “Key Statistics” page if you find yourself covering an earnings report or a news item that requires quick financial context. On these pages, you’ll find everything from market cap to the number of shares outstanding to the number of shares sold short by investors hoping the stock will take a nosedive.

Morningstar: Most financial sites offer a snapshot of the last year or two of financial statistics. Not Morningstar. The ratings firm best known for tracking mutual funds has 10 years of financial data for thousands of public companies. Just enter the ticker you’re tracking and navigate to the “financials” tab.

Conference Call Transcripts: Unlike boilerplate press release commentary, conference calls reveal how managers handle tough questions from Wall Street analysts. ConferenceCallTranscripts.org offers free transcripts you can access with one click.

Good financial journalists are needed now more than ever. For freelancers with the right tools and training, that’s a rich opportunity. Will you seize it?

Image by Bull: Mare Altaffer/AP; Pencil: Boltenkoff/Shutterstock
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