Read All About It: Financial Information for Everyone

Before the Web brought real-time information to everyone, there was a dramatic distinction in what was considered financial news and information. Now the separation simply doesn't exist—except in the heads of a few simple-minded journalists. Average consumers, both professional and casual, no longer consider information about an industry or company uniquely a "financial report" or "general information." Now it's the same thing.

When the subject of financial information came up at cocktail parties a decade ago, eyes glazed over and beelines were made to the bar for a bit more gin. Sure, a few wonks read The Wall Street Journal or the finance section of The Economist, but that was about it. Before the World Wide Web made it an everyday part of our lives, financial news, stock quotes, and historical charts inhabited an esoteric (and profitable) corner of the econtent world. Until recently, financial information just wasn't mainstream.

Now it is: On the Web, stock prices and company news are now front-and-center. Newspaper sites lead with finance. Search on a company and press releases and quotes and earnings reports appear. Financial information at our fingertips is commonplace and it's changed the way that tens of millions of people look at the world.

But the flipside is also true: with financial information going mainstream, former specialists are having an identity crisis. Yikes, The Wall Street Journal launched a personal section! What's up with that? Who goes to the Journal for information about their pets or their hobbies? WSJ's not alone, though; Money Magazine recently expanded into lifestyle reporting.

It wasn't always this way. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a marketing director at one of the major global financial information companies. At that time, the likes of Reuters and Bloomberg were sitting pretty selling financial news, quotes, and charts at $1000 a head per month to the pros in banks and securities companies. Real-time financial news and data simply wasn't available to everyone.

Now, real- or near-time stock quotes and news is everywhere. Information is no longer sliced into convenient buckets such as financial, industry, and general. That Reuters report once deemed "just for the financial market" is now on Yahoo! for millions to see. Press releases once intended exclusively for Wall Street and the media are now delivered in their raw, unedited form to everyone with an Internet connection. The average investor doesn't read what her stock closed at in the next day's paper, now she trades it tick-by-tick.

Throughout the past year, more and more business stories are leading TV news broadcasts. Company financials are no longer buried in the business section, they're making the front page of every newspaper. Now entire industries are analyzed for Mom and Pop to digest over their morning coffee. Companies without consumer brands, like Tyco and Arthur Andersen, are now famous because of their financial situations. Other organizations, including McDonalds, United Airlines, Home Depot, and Disney lead the news not because of product innovation, but rather because of financials.

The Main Street focus on Wall Street is such an important trend that Time Magazine named two corporate Whistle-Blowers—employees who told what was wrong with the numbers at WorldCom and Enron—as Persons of the Year for 2002. The corporate financial picture is no longer just communicated to select financial reporters and Wall Street analysts. Now the numbers are important for all.

As financial journalism becomes mainstream, the financial econtent industry itself must change. The era of financial stories so focused on numbers that reporters didn't know or care if a company sells beer or bowling balls is over. The new kind of financial story is about a company's products and services and their role within a marketplace. Good financial journalists realize they need to break out of their numbers box. For example, it will be increasingly common to see financial reporters asking questions of the salespeople at a company's trade show booth. The flip side is the reporter from the trade publication who understands the numbers and routinely provides market size or stock price data in her product stories.

As people read stories and look at company data these days, they need to remove their old filtered eyeglasses. Is this simply a financial story? Or is it an industry report? Or am I reading a product piece? There's no difference anymore, they're all the same. The correct answer is that it is a story about the company and the public is paying attention.