Reader Beware

William Ehart

I ONCE DREAMED OF writing for one of the high-profile personal finance magazines—but that was before I had a rude awakening about the “journalism” they sometimes committed.

As a mid-career business journalist at a respectable daily newspaper, teaching myself about investing, I had looked up to these magazines, then in their heyday, and viewed them as a career possibility.

My worlds came together one day when a top magazine ran a story touting the stock of the electric utility that served my area. The reporter quoted a sell-side Wall Street analyst as saying the stock was one of his top picks.

I called the analyst so I could write my own story. No, he explained, he wasn’t that high on electric utilities in general, though my local utility was a decent one within the sector. It seems the reporter had been assigned to write a story about how attractive utility stocks were, and that’s what the reporter did. His editor deserves most of the blame. Or perhaps the blame lies with the personal finance magazine business model, which requires hyping new investments every issue.

I was stunned. I told the analyst that my own newspaper would have fired me for an act of such dishonesty.

Suddenly, the “big time” magazines in the Big Apple weren’t so appealing.

Today, the personal finance magazines are leaner and some have folded. Still, advertisements and headlines proliferate on the internet under every stock or exchange-traded fund quote you call up.

“Open a gold IRA.” “Former CIA economist sees depression ahead.” “Three most-popular stocks on Robinhood you should buy now.” “Rare all-in buy alert.” “Tech stocks to buy for crypto exposure.” “The #1 Stock to Buy Right Now.”

At least those are just advertisements. Almost as bad are some of the online personal finance news sites. I once wrote for one while I was between jobs, and I have a friend who has written for another. Outside of his pieces, its investing content is mostly dreck, such as, “Day-Trading Tips for Beginners.” At the site I wrote for, they were so intent on search-engine optimization that editors would insert phrases like “for your 401(k)” in articles that weren’t applicable to 401(k)s at all. When I raised the issue, I was told that SEO trumps all.

The bottom line: In case you didn’t know it already, it’s reader beware out there. Especially if you’re investing (ahem) for your 401(k).

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