In this fifth feature of our Reporters on the Record series, we spoke with Terry Flanagan, Editor at Markets Media Group. Terry has been a journalist for the better part of 25 years, but it’s clear that his passion for the job is as present as ever. In our conversation with Terry, we learned about his first job as a journalist, his dream interview and what he sees as the most important trends affecting the capital markets and fintech.
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What was your first job?
My first real job was out of college in 1992. I worked for Bankers Trust as a 401(k) plan administrator but only spent a couple years in that field. My first job in journalism was at Bloomberg starting in 1996. I was an electricity reporter in the energy group, which was at the time an adjunct to Bloomberg News. We covered wholesale electricity markets in different regions, which entailed gathering prices and writing some perfunctory, Mad Libs-type market stories.
When and why did you decide to become a journalist? Why did you choose to work in financial journalism?
It was really a process of elimination. My first career wasn’t my cup of tea. After I washed out there I had the idea to go into teaching, so I took a bit of time off to travel and ponder my existence, but then I had second thoughts on that career path. As it turned out, my sister knew someone who worked at Bloomberg, which I had barely heard of at the time. She referred me, I went in for some interviews and lo and behold I was at Bloomberg for almost nine years. So, it was some combination of wanting to be a journalist and sort of stumbling into the field. As for being a financial journalist, I was an economics major and always had an interest in this area, and I thought combining that with writing made the most sense for me.
How has COVID19 affected your reporting? Are you still seeing as much of an impact on your day to day recently?
It hasn’t affected reporting a whole lot. If anything, I would say that early on, people were more accessible. More recently, the impact has been reduced because things seem to have stabilized – going on ten months now, it’s long established as the new normal, whereas in the spring it was everyone’s first point of conversation. In the same vein, from a content perspective, some of the features we were doing back then explored how people were adapting to working from home, decentralized technology and the like, and that’s less interesting too, because people are now used to it. So COVID-19 certainly has had an effect, but not a massive effect, and less so as time has gone by.
What recent industry trends are you especially interested in covering?
Artificial intelligence is one. It’s interesting to follow, as there are a ton of applications right now, but it’s still mostly a future story and it remains to be seen just how much it will affect workflows and how people do business in our industry. Another one is the electronification of the corporate bond market. I have a bit of a fixed income background. During the second half of my time at Bloomberg, I was a corporate bond reporter, and I also worked as an analyst at an independent research firm covering high yield bonds. It’s interesting how different corporate bonds are from equities in terms of how expansive and non-standardized the space is. In some ways, it is following the path of equities, but in other ways it can never truly do that because it is so different. The stats right now show that electronification is going up in the corporate bond market – it might be as much as 50% of trading within a few years – but just how they’re getting these trades on screen is going to be interesting to see. Lastly, and this is a more granular topic, but SEC Rule 606(b)(3), which gives the buy side more trade routing and venue data. We’re still in the early stages of the update, but there appears to be strong buy-side interest in this data. There are expectations that the buy side will demand more information in the coming years, so it will be interesting to see how that shifts the balance of power between buy side and sell side.
What is your favorite part of journalism? What would you change?
For my favorite part, it still comes down to writing the articles. I like having a bunch of raw material in front of me in the form of interview transcripts, background, data, et cetera, and my task is to make it into a finished product. I still get a lot of gratification out of doing that. It’s challenging and sometimes more difficult than it needs to be, but it’s still my favorite part of journalism. As far as what I would change – sometimes reaching out for high-value sources, which in our world is institutional investors, can get a little old. The buy side is at the top of the food chain in the business of trading, and in general, the media needs them more than they need the media. We always get buy side for our editorial and awards events, but as I imagine is the case for other media platforms in our space, it’s never enough. So, it’s an ongoing challenge to reach out to get them to participate with us. It’s generally fine, I have some good relationships and sources, but sometimes the outreach campaigns get old.
How big of a role does social media play in your reporting? How about in your interactions with communications professionals?
I can’t say it plays a big role – more like a small- to medium-sized role. Twitter can be helpful – I scan it multiple times a day to look for breaking information. Sometimes we embed tweets in our articles, whether they’re from a conference or just supplemental information on a given company or topic – that can really add to the story. I’ve also done a couple of articles that are purely for Twitter, where I go onsite and tell a company’s story, mostly through their people. It ends up being an interesting photo-oriented piece, where I might send 20 tweets in a row and create a thread that profiles the company. LinkedIn can be helpful as well. I’ve seen some good thought leadership content there, and we’re also interested in personnel moves, so we get a lot of information there. As far as interactions with communications professionals, not a whole lot. There is the occasional like or engagement on Twitter, similar on LinkedIn, but I don’t often use social media to interact with communications professionals.
What makes a good pitch?
It should be focused and concise. It should be bolstered by a data point or two and perhaps even a small quote that can be used even if I don’t want to follow up on the pitch – that’s always helpful and builds good will. If it’s a high-level source, the pitch isn’t particularly relevant – you could write to me inviting me to interview Blackrock’s head of trading and the answer would be yes, even if the pitch is riddled with typos and you insult me. But generally, as long as it’s focused, concise and not out of left field (we get a lot of robo-pitches), it’s fine. Another way to look at this question is what makes a bad pitch? I think there are some unforced errors on the part of communications professionals, like when the PR person forgets to update the name up top, or when different fonts are used so that it looks like a ransom letter. These are minor things of course, and ultimately we engage with what they’re writing about so we’re not going to throw out a pitch based on those mistakes alone, but they can be annoying. The worst pitches are ones where a person expresses some self-importance or is pushy about things – phrasing it as “when can we schedule something?” as opposed to “can we schedule something?” for example. And the absolute worst is when someone flags an email as urgent when it’s really just a garden variety pitch. Just no.
Other than Markets Media, what publications do you read?
Within Markets Media Group we have Markets Media, Traders Magazine and Global Trading, each of which I’m closely involved with. We also have on the European side The DESK and Best Execution, which I keep up with. Beyond that, in the industry, The TRADE and WatersTechnology put out some great stuff. I read the Forefront Fintech Digest, which is a quality read each morning so I can see what’s going on (and I’m not just saying that because you’re Forefront). It’s a really well put together, well curated newsletter. Outside of our narrow space, in terms of business I read Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and more broadly than that I read the Washington Post, ESPN, NJ.com and some other sports-oriented outlets. I would say my reading over the course of the day is probably one-third specific to the industry, one-third broader business and markets and one-third general interest.
Who would be your dream interview?
Great question. There are a couple of names that come to mind quickly – Larry Fink of Blackrock, Warren Buffet, you certainly can’t go wrong with either of those gentlemen, but they’re out there in the media a lot already. I think oftentimes the people who are most interesting are the ones you don’t hear of, or even don’t know of. It would be great to talk to the head of trading or technology at Bridgewater Associates, which is the biggest hedge fund and a very secretive firm. Ray Dalio is out there sometimes talking about big picture-type stuff, but to my knowledge they’re otherwise walled off and don’t do any real media interviews. We always hear a lot about them when we’re reaching out for our awards about who’s the best in trading and technology, so someone who is a leader there would be very interesting. Whoever it would be, I picture them showing up to the coffee shop with a Matrix-inspired black trench coat to go with the whole mystery motif.