Two Sides of the Same Coin
Rival money mags show there's more than one way to fill your piggy bank
Everybody is thinking about money. Those of us building our financial futures want and need to know more about the little money we have. Those with more money want to make sure it’s doing something for us. The growing number of columns in our papers, information on the Internet and magazines dealing with money matters – specifically personal finance – is a response to this growing interest.
There are two personal-finance magazines here in Canada – or, at least, two with deep pockets. Toronto-based IE:Money is effectively a relaunch under a new editor, Charles Oberdorf, and, as of June 1999, a new owner (Transcontinental Publishing). MoneySense is a new publication by Rogers Media Inc., launched that same spring. Editorially, these two demonstrate how similar personal-finance magazines have to be, while also exhibiting how different they can become.
While IE:Money and MoneySense inevitably cover many of the same topics – investing, mortgages, estate planning, RRSPs, RIFs and the like – they are different in their respective focuses and approaches to those topics. These differences are driven by visions of their respective audiences: IE:Money expects its readership to have a previously existing penchant for personal finance, while MoneySense assumes that much of its readership has little (if any) prior financial understanding or interest. Given these different assumptions, it is likely that the two magazines will increasingly diverge in terms of content and personality as they develop.
The editorial assumptions being made by IE:Money flow logically from its business model. The magazine started in 1996 as a spin-off from Investment Executive, an 11-year-old trade publication distributed nationally 16 times a year. Whereas Investment Executive targets financial advisers, IE:Money is aimed at their clients – outsiders to the industry like you and me who are already involved enough with personal finance to be working with an adviser.
Initially sharing editor Tessa Wilmott with Investment Executive, IE:Money had several other editors before Oberdorf arrived in March 1999. Throughout, the magazine has continued to assume a relatively high level of investment knowledge on the part of most of its readers and to make heavy use of charts and tables to illustrate the subjects under discussion.
Nonetheless, Oberdorf is starting to develop his own editorial strategy for IE:Money. “I’m trying to make the magazine more explicitly about service, really do a lot of bullet-pointing and show readers exactly where their value is in every article,” he says. “I’m showing them, Here’s How You Do This.”
Whatever the editorial changes under way, the distribution method of IE:Money has stayed the same since 1996 and is a key component of the magazine’s business model. A significant portion of the circulation – greater than 40 per cent – is purchased by financial service professionals across the country who then give the copies to their clients. These clients reportedly spend over an hour with a copy of the magazine – a lot of exposure for ads that, thanks to this model, IE:Money doesn’t need as badly as it would otherwise. “We do make money on circulation,” says publisher Liz Martin – a reminder that the magazine is meant to make money, not just talk about it.
This distribution method raises an obvious editorial question: how can Oberdorf and IE:Money criticize the industry that serves as their distribution vehicle? If anything, Martin and Oberdorf argue, the arrangement provides a unique level of accountability. They have consultants look over the material, says Oberdorf, “people who really know the field. They’re not so much fact-checkers as they are personal-financial-planning checkers. I will send something to them and say, ‘Do you see any holes in this thing?’ I pay them for that. They’ll usually email me back the next morning and say something like ‘No, you’re clear,’ or maybe ‘The author missed one point and you should probably add it.'”
Oberdorf insists there is nothing he can’t write about. His main concern is to serve the reader, and the distribution method, instead of restricting content, promotes accuracy. Industry reaction to articles, he contends, proves his freedom of action. “God knows, if you saw the angry email I get from the brokers threatening to cancel subscriptions. If we make the slightest error we hear about it, dozens of times.” Still, it seems more than likely that the partnership with brokers plays a role in what the magazine covers.
Whatever questions may exist about the impact of this distribution method on content, there are no questions about the sophistication of the readers or their interest in the magazine’s investment focus. Virtually allIE:Money readers hold funds or stocks or both, more than half have GICs or T-bills and more than one-third own bonds. They take investing very seriously. “They are very goal-oriented and very interested in their personal well-being and wealth,” explains Martin. “They take courses and seminars, they read books and other magazines.” Despite this thirst for knowledge, she adds, her readers are not do-it-yourselfers. “IE:Money is designed for people who have an investment adviser.”
With circulation of 180,000 and roughly three readers per copy, the magazine has an audience of 541,000 people. The typical reader is 46 years of age, with an above-average household income, an RRSP portfolio worth about $100,000 and a non-RRSP portfolio of $80,000 to $90,000.
“The job of this magazine is to help readers solve problems and get the most from their money,” Oberdorf stresses. “I really try to do that in every story.” He’s like a teacher with a very large class, working through the curriculum and refining his material and methodology as he goes. He is also very much a student of any subject he takes on – one of his great strengths, says Martin.
“One of the things I’m trying to do,” explains Oberdorf, “is broaden the range, so that while we’re covering [recurring issues], we’re also covering some other things, like the Women in Money section [December 1999]. That was something we hadn’t done before and I haven’t seen elsewhere.”
True enough. Personal finance rarely deals in gender. In that special section, the magazine took standard topics, such as finding good advice and investment clubs, and focussed on what women need to know to get the best financial help. “You’re dealing with the same concepts and in some ways the same information, but you’re packaging it differently,” he adds. “That may make it clearer for some people.”
This fits with his editorial image of the magazine. Even though his readership tends to know something about the field, he doesn’t assume a standard level of awareness across the board. “People are sophisticated about different things,” he says. “There are ones who have been investing in funds for years, for example, but are just starting to dip their feet into the stock market.” The magazine concentrates on investment topics, but within that niche, IE:Money understands it must appeal to a significant range of knowledge levels.
Right from the start, MoneySense set itself a different editorial target. Maclean Hunter Publishing Limited, a division of Rogers Media, announced the launch of MoneySense on March 8, 1999, promising “a new magazine for people who want to take financial control of their lives.”
Ian McGugan, the magazine’s editor (and former executive editor of Canadian Business), explains: “Most people who have any assets at all are flooded with brochures and pamphlets. There’s no real information gap as such. What is missing is the quality of information – readable, entertaining information – which, I guess, is where this magazine comes in.”
Oberdorf would make the same claim to quality. Where the two men agree to differ is in the range of topics they wish to address. MoneySense, McGugan says, also looks at the lifestyle aspects of money – making and spending the stuff, not just investing it. “It’s very much a magazine for the middle class,” he adds – people who are more interested in whether they should buy or rent a house than they are in CEO of the year or how to read a stock table.
Publisher Deborah Rosser adds, “Money’s very, very hot. Things are coming around again. People are better off and they’re starting to say, ‘I want to spend my money, I want to enjoy my money, but I also want to do it intelligently and I want choices.'”
Andrew Willis, business columnist for The Globe and Mail‘s Report on Business section, thinks theMoneySense editorial target makes sense. “It’s a great audience and one that isn’t particularly well served.”
The magazine is after people 35 to 54 years old with above-average incomes and approximately $50,000 available for investment purposes. Those people – and the ones coming up behind them – know they have to save and manage money, argues Willis. “They just don’t have any idea where to get started.”
Neither did the producers of MoneySense, initially. “If you had asked me during the summer [of 1998] how sophisticated the magazine and the readers would be, on a scale of zero to 10, I would probably have said eight and a half,” said Paul Jones, senior vice president at Rogers Media and founding publisher ofMoneySense, adding that a 10 constitutes the business savvy of a day-trader.
When the planning group started talking to real middle-class Canadians, Jones saw his numbers slide. “We found that people were extremely nervous about personal finance.” The magic number turned out to be seven and a half: the target audience thought eight material was for “rich people,” while five or six material insulted them. “Very sensible, very Canadian,” says Jones. What this audience wants, and what his staff wants to provide, is “financial information they can use. That’s a pretty noble mission.”
Nobility’s fine, but the magazine has a commercial mission as well: MoneySense is designed to appeal to advertisers as well as readers. Jones believes that from an advertising perspective, this is an attractive audience: middle-class people making above-average salaries and looking for a very sensible, very Canadian magazine dealing with the lifestyle aspect of personal finance.
The IE:Money audience is also attractive to advertisers, but MoneySense, with its lifestyle orientation, hopes to appeal to a broader base. (It may be succeeding: the December/January 2000 issue of MoneySense had four automobile advertisers, while IE:Money‘s February 2000 issue had none, relying instead on ads relating directly to personal finance.)
Being part of Rogers Media didn’t hurt MoneySense, either. Maclean Hunter did not even have a prototype to show potential advertisers before the first issue was put together, just the idea and plenty of planning. “We had a lot of valid research,” says Rosser, “but in terms of talking to advertisers, the credentials of both the company and the people representing the magazine were critical.” They put out four issues in 1999 (June/July, October, November and December), with a circulation of 104,000. MoneySense will go to eight issues this year and hopes to achieve 100-per-cent paid circulation.
Even with advertiser appeal, the business model works only if MoneySense has editorial appeal as well. Rosser says that the MoneySense goal is to provide useful information.
IE:Money says that too, but the two magazines go about it differently. IE:Money likes tables and charts, for example; MoneySense doesn’t. Rosser says research suggested that readers did not think complicated tables and charts were helpful. Don’t look to MoneySense for analyses of hot mutual funds or fund managers, either. Says McGugan, “Fund managers don’t remain hot and there’s tremendous volumes of evidence indi-cating mutual funds revert to the mean. The question you have to ask yourself is: what information is important?” He answers his own question. “The important thing is to reduce the investor’s expenses.” McGugan wants to talk less about the product and more about why consumers should or shouldn’t be interested in it.
That’s consistent with his focus on people and concepts, not products and numbers. A feature in the premier issue, “15 Minutes to the Perfect Portfolio,” illustrates his point. “The execution of the perfect portfolio is easy,” he insists. “The thought behind it is anything but, which to my mind makes a good story.” He continues, “Dressing things up with numbers or making them more complicated than they have to be doesn’t provide any advantage. Quality and thought are the most important points. What we try to do is take the best thought that’s out there and present it in a usable language.”
Encouraging language, too. The magazine is big on people stories – the premier issue had Mike Bullard talking about saving and spending – and not so big on the guilt-tripping that McGugan says pervades the industry. “I’m sure you’ve seen the ads in the subway,” he laughs. “‘If you haven’t saved by the time you’re 30 you might as well put a bullet in your head.'” MoneySense rejects all that. “We’re about opportunities, not obligations.”
Both editors stress the importance of good writing. However, the reason people want to read about personal finance is also the problem with writing about it – it can be complicated. As IE:Money publisher Liz Martin puts it, “You really have to understand what you’re writing about to write it well, and there are not that many people who want to invest the time to really understand it.” Many who do understand it come from the industry, but can’t write. Those who write for a living often don’t understand the issues. Oberdorf tends to use journalists for IE:Money pieces, not people from the finance industry. “[Personal-finance writers] are in a seller’s market these days. There are people who are good writers and knowledgeable about the field, but they’re kind of thin on the ground.”
Rosser agrees it’s a challenge, but points to the success of Canadian Business, where she and McGugan worked, in growing its own talent. “I don’t see why MoneySense couldn’t do the same.”
Glenn Flanagan, who wrote the “15 Minutes to the Perfect Portfolio” piece for MoneySense, writes forIE:Money as well. “The way I see it, MoneySense is headed toward more of a working-class investor. It’s a do-it-yourself magazine. You don’t need a financial planner or broker for a lot of this stuff.” He suggestsMoneySense is consumer-oriented. “It’s more reader-friendly in that regard, while IE:Money is more investment-oriented.”
Already distinct, the two magazines are likely to become more so under their respective editors and editorial mandates. If Oberdorf has his way, IE:Money will be the who’s who and what’s what for an investment-focused audience.
Meanwhile, over at MoneySense, McGugan is developing a lifestyle-oriented message of accessible and entertaining information for readers who want to know what else they can do with their money besides invest it.
by Mike Connell
Mike Connell was the Associate Editor for the Spring 2000 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.