After 30,000 posts, Big Picture blogger has figured a few things out
Washington Post, September 19, 2014
Sometime last week, I published my 30,000th blog post. This was no small accomplishment — I started the Big Picture blog back in 2003.
Since then, I have published a stream of charts, investing articles, links, videos and financial analysis, about five to 10 times a day, every day. It has become part of my routine, a healthy outlet for an OCD-inflicted media junkie.
After more than a decade of getting up before the crack of dawn to write a daily journal about all things financial, here is what I’ve learned:
Writing is a good way to figure out what you think. To quote Daniel Boorstin, the former librarian of Congress, “I write to discover what I think . . . After all, the bars aren’t open that early.”
The act of putting pen to paper, or in my case, spilling pixels on a screen, requires thought. Thinking about context and working out how different elements interact in a complex system like the markets is a contemplative process.
Often, I have no idea what I thought about a subject until I begin to write about. Once you research an idea, you begin to develop a perspective. Writing about anything in public, often in real time, has helped fashion my views.
(Note: It also helps if you have something of interest to say).
Writing is a good way to become a better writer (so is reading). When I started the blog, one goal was to become a better writer. After more than a dozen years spending an hour a day writing — and another hour a day reading outstanding writing from others — your skills begin to improve. It is an old joke that it only takes a decade or so to become an overnight sensation.
You discover the advantages of economy. Anyone can make an article longer, the skill is keeping it tight and lean. Understanding where another set of eyes is advantageous, how to lean on someone else’s judgment — and when to pushback when they are destroying your precious prose — is also a worthwhile skill set.
I also became a much faster writer. It takes me about a third as long to write something today as it used to. That leaves time for rewrites, and as any editor will tell you, the difference between good and great takes place in the rewrites.
Mainstream media ignored blogs, occasionally stole from, then adopted the format wholesale.
Today, the blog format — short, pithy posts focused on a single subject, published irregularly — has been widely adopted by the mainstream media. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and The Washington Post all make extensive use of blogs — many of which are excellent.
But it was not always that way. In the early days, mainstream journalists were comfortable “borrowing” freely from blogs without attribution — not so much as a quote or a link to the original piece.
An effective response was needed to embarrass journalists to end their plagiarism: Read-it-here-first was just the trick. Publish both pieces, the original dated blog, and the pilfered piece. If that didn’t work, a stern e-mail to the editor and publisher usually worked. For the most part, that stopped the plagiarism — but for a while it was a problem.
Online publishing is (for the most part) a meritocracy. A number of bloggers in economics and the financial sector have risen to prominence through the sheer strength of their work. Note it was not their family connections nor ties to Ivy League schools or elite banks, but rather, the strength of their research, analysis and writing. That is the very definition of a meritocracy.
That anyone with a computer, writing chops and an Internet connection could achieve fame and fortune — or more realistically, a degree of wonky recognition from a narrow group of finance geeks — is pretty amazing.
Content: creativity, criticism and curation. Content is king. When you are asking people to read you several times a day, you better have some fine content.
Mixing original content, intelligent criticism and curation (a.k.a. reading linkfests) has been a successful formula for me.
I would describe it more like this: “First, here is something I CREATED which I think is worthwhile; second, THAT OVER THERE is wrong and not especially compelling and here’s why; and third, you should see ALL OF THESE. They are excellent.”
I am oversimplifying, but that’s the basic three-part content structure of a good blog. When done well, creativity, criticism and curation each gives the reader a reason to pay attention. Original research and analysis that teaches about a subject or identifies something new or unknown is always welcome. Criticism of errors, myths and simple falsehoods helps the reader learn about the arguments of the day, and which claims should be looked at askance. When done right, it can help investors to avoid losing money. Curation is the application of intelligence and judgment to the immense universe of content, using an insider’s keen eye to select only the most interesting and worthwhile items to read.
Reader comments have become useless. Trolls, paid hacks and loosely organized interest groups have turned them into a vast wasteland. My own comment policy has evolved into a 3,000-word screed against the destructive work of the Internet’s trolls.
This is a shame. At one time, commenters had tremendous value within given communities. I wrote most of “Bailout Nation” online, 500 words at a time. The feedback and suggestions from readers were invaluable. Having a research staff of thousands was inordinately helpful. The resulting book was all the better for it. It is difficult to see that occurring again. And that’s a shame.
Advertising is a terrible business model (unless you are Google). Online advertising is growing, but it has also become a race to the bottom. Web sites have proliferated, advertising payments have gotten much cheaper, and the ability for any site to generate enough for someone to make a living on advertising alone is minimal. It’s only the top few percent of blogs that actually throw off enough income to give anyone motivation to do this for financial reasons.
Yes, there are many non-monetary reasons why I blog, but if you are in this for the money, you are wasting your time.
Authors vs. publishers. People read publications less than they do authors. I discovered this little fact as I followed several of my favorite writers — such as Jesse Eisinger and Dan Gross — as they bounced from various publications such as TheStreet.com, Daily Beast and Yahoo to Newsweek and New York Times. Where they published did not matter; the only thing that was significant was what they had to say.
There is a caveat to this: Any powerful platform will potentially expose a writer to a wider audience. That has been my experience here at The Washington Post as well as on Bloomberg View.
People lie to themselves. When confronted with facts that directly disagree with their beliefs, most people prefer to disregard the facts. Psychologists even have a name for this sort of perception error: cognitive dissonance.
For a data guy like me, this is both utterly fascinating and somewhat disturbing. I have repeatedly admonished readers about letting things like politics and narrative divert them from reality-based, data-driven investing.
Whenever I encounter someone who refuses to accept reality, all I can do is shrug and remind myself that someone has to be on the losing side of the trade. It might as well be him.
It can be difficult for readers to distinguish between good information and distracting nonsense. Despite a tremendous amount of information online, readers are still mired in lots of bad thinking and disproven memes.
Ritholtz is chief investment officer of Ritholtz Wealth Management. He is the author of “Bailout Nation” and runs a finance blog, the Big Picture. Twitter: @Ritholtz.