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Write of passage

One of the dubious benefits of having been a personal finance journalist for more than a couple of years is that, eventually, people pretend they want to know your opinion about issues related to money.

You get invited to seminars, dinners and all sorts of other engagements where you are invited to spout off or give your verdict on products and even people, including your own colleagues.

So it was that last week I found myself in central London helping to judge one of the many categories in the Headlinemoney media awards, in which journalists and PR people decide on which of their fellow writers and broadcasters were at the top of their profession in the past year.

Without giving the game away, either in terms of the category we were judging or its winner, what was particularly refreshing was the almost immediate consensus among us as to the most and least preferred journalists among the shortlisted candidates we were judging.

Afterwards, on the way home, I tried to work out why I had voted for the winner. The comment of another judge to the effect that under “normal” circumstances we probably would not be placing him or her top of the pile was close to the truth. In fact, another candidate whose work I respect enormously might well have won in any other year. This time, it was felt it somehow just did not have the “edge” we were looking for.

The winning person’s portfolio stood out because it reflected, more than any of the other journalists in our category, the panic-stricken weeks we all experienced between September and November last year when it felt as if the world was coming to an end. Equally striking for me was the fact that the person who came last was the one whom the judges felt had submitted the most lightweight examples of their work despite many qualities in other ways.

It has not always been like that, let me tell you. When Bradford & Bingley had its own Journalist of the Year awards, I remember the winner of one important category was a freelance writer whose stock in trade was simply to pen a string of gags vaguely related to money. Sometimes they were not anything to do with personal finance at all.

Yet the judges found him hilarious. His wisecracks were perceived as demystifying the subjects on which he wrote. I wonder how he would get on today.

The fact is that things have changed in the past 18 months. The old style of personal finance journalism, where we sometimes wrote makeweight pieces or where we were prepared to make use of inoffensive but fundamentally valueless rubbish if only as an antidote to more “serious” copy, has largely disappeared.

Once upon a time, Headlinemoney’s rolling news release service, in which subscribers’ press comments go up on the site daily, would have contained at least one or two semi-jokey “surveys”, the kind where car insurance companies tell us how 72 per cent of those polled admit to a moment of road rage and 12 per cent of motorists confess to picking their noses while driving.

Well, no longer. Almost all of the press releases over the past month involve “Mr Angry” comments from various spokespeople on topical issues of the day, bar one warning of the perils of DIY while uninsured over Easter. What is striking about a release like that is how, when you read it, even though it is quite inoffensive, your reaction is to find it so out of place.

There is no question in my mind that the nature of what we do as journalists has changed in the past year or so. For me, that became obvious last autumn when like many other journalists I found myself trying to make sense of what was happening both in the US and here. Every day, there was something different to learn and write about.

Other journalists I spoke to in the weeks that followed tell me they felt much the same way. My experience leaves me wondering how others in the financial industry are finding things. If things have changed for us, they must have changed for advisers too.

For a start, my suspicion is that clients will broadly divide into two types. There will be those who are sanguine about the experience and accept the past 18 months’ stockmarket falls as part and parcel of the process of investment risk that will redress itself over time, assuming they have enough of it left before they retire.

Others will feel less charitable. They may understand that their IFA is not to blame for what has happened but will find it hard not to take out their frustration and disappointment on those whom they relied on for advice.

For providers, the picture must be broadly the same, hence the fact that their press officers are churning out a totally different kind of press release altogether.

It occurs to me that in just the same way as many journalists are working at redefining personal finance writing for a new, much more serious era, maybe financial advisers are too, in terms of their activities. If so, I would be interested to know in what ways that is being applied. Let me know after Easter.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk

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