Another week; another financial meltdown (or two or three or more); another new business media outlet for people who don't really like business.
So it was last week, when amid the drama surrounding Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Merrill Lynch & Co., American International Group Inc., fill-in-the-blank, we were treated to the launch of The Big Money, a financial news site from the brainiacs over at Slate. Billed as "A better way to read business," the site is aimed at what editor James Ledbetter called "the Facebook generation." In his welcoming post, Ledbetter explained his target audience this way: "Yes, we want harried Wall Street traders to find wisdom here, but, equally, we hope people will enjoy The Big Money's stories even if they haven't traditionally thought of themselves as business-news readers."
We have heard this pitch a lot lately, first from the upper echelons of glossy palace Condé Nast Publications Inc. before the birth of Portfolio; then from the honchos at Fox News before they gestated Fox Business News; and more recently from TheStreet.com Inc., before it brought us its rather bizarre celebrity-gossip-cum-personal-finance site, MainStreet.com. (To be fair to MainStreet.com, we should note that it has been a lot less celebrity-obsessed since the departure in July of founding editor Caroline Waxler.) While each of these products may be aimed at different segments of the non-business audience -- something tells us Slate readers aren't rushing to MainStreet.com to learn a life lesson about money from Britney Spears -- they all share one thing in common: a vow not to get bogged down by yawn-inducing numbers, mind-numbing statistics and that great big bugaboo of the new business journalism: jargon.
In short, they aim to bridge the gap between Main Street and Wall Street and entertain along the way. They're Elle Woods goes to business school. And that's not easy. The gap between the real world and the financial one has never been wider, or more frightening, as the markets get more and more complex -- credit default swaps, anyone? -- and a larger and larger issue in everyone's lives. As tempting as it is, it's hard to reduce the entire mortgage meltdown into a jargon-free sound bite without tripping over the old clichés about Wall Street's hubris and greed.
Indeed, The Big Money, for its part, isn't really about business, per se. On Wednesday morning, not one scintilla of information could be found on the site about the bailout of AIG (except in its wrap-up of what other outlets were covering), but there was a lead story on trendy yoga-wear retailer Lululemon Athletica Inc., cleverly headlined "Lord of the Pants." (By Thursday, there was more AIG coverage on the site.) Much more than news reporting, The Big Money traffics in opinion, attitude and, of course, a big dose of personality.
Take, for example, the site's big takeout on Bank of America Corp.'s deal for Merrill Lynch, headlined "Too Big to Succeed." (Tell us how you really feel, guys.) The piece argues, based mostly on the woes that have befallen that other giant financial supermarket, Citigroup Inc., that BofA, by buying a wounded Merrill, has bitten off more than it can chew. "The more weak spots BofA invites into its business model, the more likely it is to get hit in a still-volatile economy," it intones. Though it offers little actual analysis or number crunching to back up this view -- hey, this isn't your daddy's business read -- it does grapple with why BofA would make what it clearly views as a dumb deal. Its conclusion: CEO Ken Lewis simply "can't help himself." In other words, he's a shopaholic. With a "lust for investment banks." Elle couldn't have said it better herself.
How the crew at The Big Money knows this about Lewis isn't clear. Have they met him? His psychiatrist, perhaps? And didn't Lewis have to get this deal approved by his board? Or are they a bunch of shopaholics, too?
To make its case, the piece rolls out Lewis' now infamous murmurings about having had all the fun he could stand in investment banking. "Except it wasn't he who had had enough of the fun; it was BofA's ledgers," it explains helpfully. Once they looked better, it was safe for Lewis to indulge his "compulsion to acquire, no matter the potential health risks." We're surprised The Big Money didn't recommend that Lewis check himself into rehab. That's what Elle would've done.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.