When I first started writing The Simple Dollar, I was a big proponent of financial publications like Money Magazine, Kiplinger’s, SmartMoney, and so on. I read them. I referenced them in posts. I even suggested that people subscribe to them.
For a long time, though, I’ve scarcely mentioned them. What happened?
First of all, the articles on basic personal finance in those publications are solid. They do provide good advice on budgeting, frugality, and other such topics, though many of those articles are matched by good blog posts out there.
Where these publications run into trouble with me is when they start talking about specific investments.
Let me explain what I mean.
As The Simple Dollar has become more popular, I’ve been the recipient of more and more PR releases related to the finance industry. Every day, my inbox is filled with people wanting to tell me about their financial product that will solve everyone’s problems, their mutual fund that’s on a “stunning” run of success, and so on. They’re press releases, filled with the best possible picture of a particular item. I understand that.
What’s disturbing is that I sometimes see the same exact talking points in other publications. I can take the key words out of some of these press releases, Google for them, and find many sites that have the information from that press release posted as a story. Sometimes, it’s reworded a bit. At other times, it’s just a verbatim copy of the press release.
This isn’t just online, either. More than once, I’ve seen major publications do this exact thing. I’ll see a press release and then, a few months later, I’ll see that mutual fund or that financial product promoted in the text of a major publication.
Am I accusing these publications of being unethical? No, not really. I’m accusing them of being overworked, like many publications are. When you have a bunch of pages to fill and a limited amount of time to do so, it’s very easy to just re-fit some content from a press release into the body of a story. “I need a few paragraphs about a mutual fund and I have thirty minutes to do it. Let’s see what’s in the PR file…”
What have I learned from this?
I tend to trust the media less and less. Every time I see a positive article in the press, I now wonder how much of it was taken straight from a press release paid for by the person the article was written about.
I tend to trust individual people much more now than I trust publications. If a specific writer has a good track record, I’ll follow that writer to whatever medium they use. If a writer is just mailing it in with reshaped press releases, I just avoid that writer. The publication itself, whether it’s a personal blog or a major publication, just doesn’t matter to me that much, at least not compared to the value I place on the specific writer.
I do my own research whenever possible. Sure, someone might list a bunch of great index funds to invest in. I still won’t put a dime in them until I do my own research on those funds with real numbers. The same goes with things as mundane as frugality tips. Does this really work? I’ll try to run the numbers first before diving into any tip.
In the end, it is always best to find out information for yourself as best you can. The ability to research and track down information is a valuable one, and the better you are at it, the better your chances of making great choices for yourself and your family.