The official site of author Ed Lin.

My Life in Financial Journalism

Posted by on Mar 4, 2008 in Asian American, Ed, Journalism | 1 comment

edlin.jpg

This is my Business Formal look, from my Forbes.com days.

Here’s an essay I wrote late last year and sent it out on the Asian American Journalists Association’s listserv in an attempt to sort of jump-start informal chatter and more open discussion.

It didn’t work, but I think it’s a hell of an essay, so here you go!

This year is my 15th in the hurly-burly world of financial journalism.

I’m amazed at what I’ve been through (being promoted, being fired, being downsized, being hired by a guy who was fired a month later and taking his job) because it feels like it’s been a relatively bump-free ride. I guess time smoothes out the edges both in historical financial charts and in life.

Now, the company I work for, Dow Jones, is poised for its first change in ownership in more than 80 years – and the buyer is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

In general, there seems to be more bemusement than panic in the air.

This is my second go-round with Dow Jones. I’m a manager now. Fourteen years ago, I was a punk J-school grad who was going to change the world. I fell into Dow Jones through the wire service. I had majored in engineering as an undergrad (mining, a degree that Columbia has since put through the PC-varnish and renamed “earth and environmental engineering”), so I had a facility for numbers. I passed the editing test easily and moved up fairly quickly.

I started when daily trading volume on the NYSE was about 250 million shares. (Now, that volume represents about 15 minutes of trading.) Over the next six years, stock trading – and financial journalism – exploded.

Early on, I chose to go the route of being a rim editor at the wire service. I figured it would be less taxing on my fiction writing than being a reporter.

As a rim editor, basically I was bombarded with press releases that companies were required by law to disclose material news. Of course, when the news was bad, the press releases would be written with such opacity, you could pour it in your cereal.

Basically my job was to pull out newsworthy items from those press releases and write 60-character headlines.

“Ford Sees Q4 Sales Down 44% From Yr Ago”

“Halliburton Gets $4B US Defense Pact”

“Ed Lin’s Eyes Glazing Over”

These headlines had to be written in a matter of seconds. Beating Reuters or Bloomberg in those days by 30 seconds was a coup. Getting beat by a minute would land you in a conference-room meeting with the “beat sheets” with your name in highlights.

But the payoff to the job was the regular eight-hour shift. I could go home and stretch out my “real” writing. But of course, the real writing didn’t seem to be coming together.

It’s a common critique that first novels are thinly disguised autobiography. My writing always seemed to loop back to my somewhat traumatic childhood of renting out rooms to johns and hookers at my parents’ sleazy motel in New Jersey. Writing it felt fake because I was pulling punches on the sex and softening the rampant mid-80s Jersey homophobia.

Then my younger cousin Charlie killed himself.

His family, like mine, ran a sketchy motel in Jersey. One thing that I have come to understand is how prevalent suicide is in the Asian American community. Nearly everybody knows someone who has committed suicide, but nobody ever talks about it. This became the catalyst that pushed my pen.

I just wanted to embrace everything horrible about that motel, that boy I was and that childhood, and yet still come out somewhat hopeful. It took about six months of writing nearly every day.

Meanwhile at work, I had briefly moved to a Web site Dow Jones had up at the time and then shut down after my 10th day working there. Then it was back to the news wire.

I was promoted to copy editor, which was like getting tenure. I was only 28 while several of my peers were in their 40s and 50s.

I knew a lot of editors and reporters who talked about their fiction manuscripts in the bottom drawers of their desks or their minds, but I shut up about my book and took a hard look at the newsroom around me.

“Now that I’m a copy editor,” I asked, “what do I do?”

“Do this until you crack,” joked another copy editor. Only it wasn’t all kidding. There was already one guy who was “hearin’ the voices,” as we called it.

I talked to one jaded grizzled veteran who was essentially my mentor at the newswire. Actually, I shouted to him, because between us was an old dot-matrix printer that fired off hardcopy like a machine-gun nest.

In my earlier days, when I was first in the so-called final seat, which published directly to the wire, I asked him how the hell I was supposed to read a dozen 500-word stories per minute.

“You just have to kind of eyeball it!” he shouted.

“What if the lede sucks?!” I yelled back.

“I’ve got two words for you, Eddie: F-11.”

F-11 was the function key that sent stories to the wire and queued up the next one.

Now that I was tenured, though, his advice took on a serious note.

“How do I make a career out of this?” I yelled.

He looked at me hard and said, “You really want to make something out of yourself?”

“Yeah!”

He leaned over, put his elbows on the printer and gently said, “Get out of here.”

Looking back at it, I’m reminded of the scene in “Cinema Paradiso” where the blind Alfredo forces Toto to leave the small town at the train station.

To show me he was serious, my mentor quit two weeks later, mumbling something about working on his collection of short stories. Maybe he knew it would spook me. A headhunter called me without naming a specific opportunity so I sent off a resume.

I got a call the next day from a guy who said he was putting together a new wire service and wanted to know if I was interested in helping to manage it. It was January 1999.

This unnamed new wire service, whose inevitable demise was hastened by 9/11, was put together by a private-equity firm that was known for buying up “distressed” businesses and rehabilitating them by chopping them up and gluing disparate pieces together. Later, when the Frankenstein’s monsters could sit up and walk away from the operating table, they’d be sold off.

The new wire was comprised of cast-off services from several national and international media operations. Unfortunately, the ratio of managers to workers in the newly acquired staff was about one-to-three, which basically set up a mass rope climb for the highest parts of the hierarchy.

I had come aboard to supervise a staff of about five with a directive to boost that to 20 by the summer. I was greeted with open suspicion by other managers and with guarded suspicion by my subordinates.

Luckily though I attended the 1999 Asian American Journalists Association’s Executive Leadership Program session in Los Angeles. It was comforting to hear other peoples’ stories of confusion and doubt, to know that I wasn’t alone. My big takeaway about the workshops is that being a leader requires supplication, savvy and a bit of showmanship in the newsroom. I remembered in particular Ron Brown saying that the quest for the corner office was “fun.”

It was tough to have much fun in my 12-hour days when I got back. I wish I had read “The 48 Laws of Power,” or at least browsed it. The very first law is, “Never outshine the master.”

My immediate supervisor was an all-too-typical kind of guy who was probably too scared to talk with his kids and was definitely too scared to talk with his reports, including me.

Although I was certainly supplicant to him, I was emerging as a threat to his position because I was gaining capital in the newsroom. I had fired two people, a nonproductive reporter and a chronic plagiarist (one time he had even left “Bloomberg” in the dateline), and dismissing staff flags one as someone to look out for. In fact, those were the first two dismissals at the new newswire.

I guess the beginning of the rot was when I caught a reporter who was under another manager who rewrote a press release into a bylined story, incorporating quotes as if she had gotten the CEO on the phone.

When I complained to her manager, he didn’t pull the story. I’m not even sure he compared the press release that was only about 10% different from the story.

I should have brought it up with my supervisor who may have quietly dropped the matter into the wastebasket. Instead, the reporter’s manager complained to my boss’s bosses.

When my supervisor fired me, he couldn’t even look at my face. He had his eyes fixed on my shoes. He told my Allen Edmonds that I didn’t have the skillset needed for the job.

I was hurt, angry and flush with cash. They had given me $50,000 to simply leave that day. It was November 1999.

A friend had cast me in the reading of a play by Diana Son ahead of Thanksgiving. It was down in Philadelphia and I took the train there and back with a fellow cast member, a woman I knew but had fallen out of contact with. It’s a long ride, more than two hours each way. This woman is now my wife and as of October 2007 we’ve been married five years.

In January 2000, when the world didn’t end, I figured maybe now was a good time to get in on some stock options with one of the crazy Internet start-ups sprouting like cicadas in New York’s Silicon Alley.

Getting an editorial position at a financial Web site at that time was easier than putting on a tie, which I managed to do before heading off to a crazy interview with worldlyinvestor.com. The burgeoning newsroom was in a former factory in Chelsea and the interview was held in the CEO’s office because there wasn’t room anywhere else. The CEO fumbled around with his Hot Wheels-themed keyboard and mouse as we joked our way through an interview.

“What is the goal of worldlyinvestor?” I asked.

“To lose as much money as possible!” said the editor-in-chief. I looked at the CEO and he didn’t flinch. In terms of professionalism, the interview went downhill from there.

When I got home, there were two messages already. The first one was a job offer. The second, and more urgent message, was that I had to go to the worldlyinvestor party celebrating another investment round.

After the free beer on Friday policy was abolished (it had lead to some interesting headlines), the fortunes of the Web site could be judged by the price on the soda machine. It went from free, to 25 cents, to 50 cents, to 75 cents and then to a dollar, but by then people were bringing in outside drinks, the ones that were left.

When I was hired, the in-house editorial staff numbered about 15 with a number of outside contributors. I had a vague senior editor title, which meant that I did just about everything and had a right to kill a story on sight. The editor-in-chief left in my fifth month there, as an ill wind from the rapidly swooning Nasdaq index portended doom and higher soda prices.

By December, the plug popped out of the socket. As staffers staggered in late and hungover from the holiday party the night before, about a third of them were sacked. Horrible timing or perfect timing? It depended on what you were waiting for: hanging on in a place devoid of morale or ending the year with time to watch the fired-dot-commer special of “X-Files” marathon reruns on TBS.

I put my feet up on the empty desk next to me, still waiting for Ron Brown’s “fun” to kick in. I had a frank talk with the then editor-in-chief in which he said worldlyinvestor was trying to sell itself and that it was tougher than hawking black-and-white television sets.

Meanwhile, I had actually found a publisher for my little novel. Kaya, a nonprofit Asian American press, picked up my manuscript. I had tried to find a literary agent for the book, but the general response was, “You’re a good writer, but you’re crazy if you think anybody’s going to publish this.” One guy told me to go see “Cider House Rules” to learn what a really good story is. Thing is, it would take a while for the tiny press to publish my book, but all I had was time before the axe fell on worldlyinvestor’s neck.

Then, strangely enough, a bidding war broke out for worldlyinvestor early in 2001. The winner was a software company out in California that had vague plans to incorporate us with their stock-analysis platform.

By March 2001, with the transaction about to close, worldlyinvestor’s editor-in-chief split for a rival site and handed over the reins to me. The catch was, I had to fire about a dozen editorial staff, in and out of the office. Most people knew what was coming, but I still felt horrible about it. I even reached one guy by cell phone who was on vacation, fishing on a lake, to tell him there wouldn’t be a job when he got back.

“Do what you gotta do,” he said, laughing. I think he was drunk.

As the editor-in-chief, I had to make sure our syndication requirements were met in the morning, or we wouldn’t get paid. One guy did our morning column that was supposed to publish at 6:30 a.m. to reach our syndication partners. He was usually on time, but once in a while he’d file late as I desperately clutched my coffee mug.

One day he didn’t file until 6:28 a.m. By the time I had the document set up in our publishing system, I had about 30 seconds to copy edit a thousand words.

“F-11,” I recalled from my old mentor as I scanned through the story. With about five seconds to spare, I still had to write a headline. The column was about being bullish, or “long” in stocks, so I banged out “Pippi Long-in-Stockings,” and published it.

The writer sent an angry instant message to the copy desk: “Is Ed Lin on drugs?!?!?!?” But after I had a talk with him, he never filed that late again.
In fact, he turned out one of the most touching columns on 9/11 the day after. But that column, along with the Pippi headline and three years of other stories, have been obliterated and aren’t even accessible via the Internet archive’s Wayback Machine.

I was the second of the last two guys in the space and I literally turned the lights out on the project. When worldlyinvestor was shut down for good, the site was wiped clean and the only things I had to show for my time there were the coffee mugs, customized Post-its and bottle-openers. It was February 2002.

A few months later, in May, my novel, titled “Waylaid” was published. It won some high praise and some thorough damnation. I did readings around the country and basically recast myself as a full-time novelist. Thing was, though, I had become so accustomed to writing at night after working during the day, that it became impossible to write. An oyster needs a grain of irritating sand to make a pearl, right?

After helping out a friend at a nonprofit center in Chinatown for the summer and fall and much eBay surfing through the winter, I finessed my way through three rounds of interviews for a copy-editing spot at Forbes.com. It was April 2003.

My first day there everybody I met told me two things. That I was the first new hire there since 2000 and that they hated their jobs. Morale was awful, yes, but the good thing about the place was that you could write about nearly anything you wanted to, including “reviewing” various upscale products and vacations (that policy has since been revised).

Pretty soon, I had a support base established in the newsroom (by drinking heavily and pretending to drink heavily), and soon a breaking-business-news desk was created with me heading it.

In the end, if you’re a manager, you can talk about improving the product with just about anybody. But if you have to sit through hours and hours of seemingly pointless editorial meetings, you’d want to sit with someone you enjoy being with. That is the person I have set myself to be, and it’s fun working in this professional persona.

But back to drinking. Yes, the boozing journalist is an archetype, but Forbes.com had some of the most serious drinking I’ve ever stumbled through. I shuffled in the door one night and found a chicken-salad bagel sandwich that I didn’t remember ordering in my coat pocket. I hoped it was paid for!

In any case, much has been written about the Forbes.com newsroom (http://www.observer.com/2007/revolt-page-slaves?page=0%2C0), and I haven’t much more to add to it.

As time went by, online financial sites began hiring again and most of my friends left. The writing was on the wall for me as well, with a headhunter hounding me. I had barely sent my resume out to him before landing the interview at Barron’s Online. How similar it was to kicking off my resume all those years ago to that nameless new newswire! Only now it was for an established brand and mature newsroom.

I started at Barron’s Online in December 2005. It’s funny, but I can’t think of a single thing to say about my time here, except that my second novel, “This Is a Bust,” will be published by Kaya in early December 2007, probably around the same time that News Corp. will close the acquisition of Barron’s parent Dow Jones.

I am 38 years old.

I am in my 15th year of business journalism.

Although I’m a “print” journalist, I have never worked at a print publication.

I have published two novels.

I am not certain what will happen.

I love what I do and I am having fun, Ron.

One Comment

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  1. Lois Lane

    nice power shot, great “how i met my wife” story, and wow… you’re 39? you look so young…

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