A 50-year-old with a hairpiece and a Miata. A beloved former ingenue wearing too much makeup. Ross Perot. To the ranks of these pathetic has-beens, add money magazines.
There are four major personal finance magazines, listed here from largest circulation to smallest -- Money, Kiplinger's, SmartMoney and Worth. That's twice as many as there were five years ago. And it's about five years away from being four too many unless some big changes are made. (Disclosures: I work for Worth, happily, and also put out my own personal finance magazine, Green, aimed at younger or novice investors.)
Today's personal finance magazines rely on a concept that's become outdated in recent years, due mostly to the medium through which you're reading this now. The bread and butter of these magazines is their ability to provide timely advice to do-it-yourself investors. But these same do-it-yourselfers have discovered the stock market's dirty little secret: he who knows first makes money. Mostly by selling stocks to he who knows second. That's the guy who gets his personal finance magazine in the mail 4 weeks -- a lifetime by investing standards -- after the insights within were first revealed.
As readers get wise to the serious financial consequences of this lag, the magazines are striving to alleviate it. By providing more timely information? No. The US Mail is what it is and it's tough to speed up the editorial, design and manufacturing requirements of a glossy paper magazine. Are they rushing to take advantage of the Internet to provide readers with instantaneous updates on recommended strategies? No. Only two of the four have web sites and neither comes close to the quality of many financial web sites that don't have the benefit of large staffs and story-generating machinery.
So what drastic step are all four PF mags taking to keep their information timely and relevant? They're putting the word "Now" on the cover:
Best Mutual Funds to Buy Now
Top Yields Now
Bargain Stocks to Buy Now
Four Best Health Care Stocks Right Now
Best Short-term Investments Right Now
Six Best Places to Put Your Money Now
Experts tell where to Put Your Money Now (this "now" was even in italics)
All of these headlines appeared on the covers of personal finance magazines this year. Imagine the focus group meeting. A collection of editors behind one-way mirrors. The selected readers keep saying, "I need information that I can use now." "We'll give 'em what they want," nod the editors. So they add the word, but not its meaning.
And then there's the need to attach arbitrary numbers to cover stories.
7 Great small stocks
34 First-Rate Financial Websites
8 Steps to a Great Car-Lease
14 Best Car Buys
5 Technology Stocks Set to Bounce Back
7 Best New Mutual Funds
6 Stocks They Like
The greasy fingerprints of marketing consultants are everywhere. "Your readers need a number to connect to a story. 'First-Rate Financial Web Sites' just sits there like a turd on a Parisian boulevard. But '34 First-Rate Financial Websites' -- now there's a story." And using the numeral instead of spelling it out -- now there's a design idea. (To Worth's credit, "now" appears on none of its '96 covers, and it's also less guilty on the numeral business. But lest you think I'm favoring the company that signs my paycheck, Worth is guilty of "Best Blue-Chip Stocks to Own Today," which is almost as bad.)
The personal finance press should give up the ghost on timeliness and turn its attention to the big-picture stories it has always done better than any other source -- long-term investment strategies, investigations into corporate hijinks, deep explanations of the world of money and its mechanics -- the magazines that do these stories well will survive to see the year 2000.
Meantime, I'm rethinking Green's covers of late. I wonder if we'd be profitable and packed with ads by now if we'd changed our cover stories just a tad.
I Know Jack About Investing Right Now
Homesteading on Avenue B Is As Now As it Gets
How to Do Stuff 4 Times
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em -- now.