An Interview For The Society of Professional Journalists Region 1 Conference

David Levitt of the Society of Professional Journalists Region 1 in New Jersey contacted me back in April and asked if I would be on a panel on online business journalism for an upcoming conference.  Unfortunately, when I found out I was accepted to the University of Chicago MLA program, I had to cancel. The conference was the same day, April 13, as my first day of class.

Since I couldn’t appear live, David asked me if I would answer a few questions and he would read the responses to the crowd.

How did you get into business journalism?

I have more than twenty-five years experience as a CPA in industry and public accounting firms as a consultant and internal auditor. At the end of 2006 I left PwC where I was working as a Director, auditing the firm itself. It was a mutual decision since I was stirring the pot too much. I was told, “At PwC we don’t raise our hands, we wait to be called on.”

That didn’t suit me.

I was encouraged by friends and former colleagues to write a book about my experiences working for PwC and KPMG, for JP Morgan in Latin America, for the first “too big to fail” bank, Continental Illinois. I started the blog to have a place to write, put together a mailing list and hopefully attract an agent. I got an agent right away but never wrote the book. The decision to change from a subject matter expert that writes to a writer and journalist who is a subject matter expert probably came about the time of the Lehman bankruptcy examiner report, March of 2010.

I was a finalist for the Loeb Award for blogging in 2010, primarily on the strength of my reporting on Lehman and the financial crisis from the point of view of the auditors and accounting fraud. That recognition sealed the deal for me. I consider myself a professional journalist and work now towards improving my knowledge of the business of journalism and the many forms it can take.

I was a judge the last two years for the Loeb awards in the book category but that was discontinued. This year I went out to LA and helped judge the large newspaper category.  I felt a bit of an interloper but then found out my two magazine stories for Forbes are a finalist for the award.  Shhhhhh, that’s a widely known secret until the finalists are announced at the end of the month.

I am my own PR and I do my own SEO. I use Twitter extensively (have more than 11,000 organically grown followers and I’ve been on it five years) and LinkedIn (early adopter there too.)  I don’t use Facebook. I don’t even have an account.

I am not a tabloid. I have no advertising or sponsorship. I adhere to standards of journalistic ethics and professionalism and have done that from day one. There are other blogs about the industry that have sprung up after mine that focus on gossip especially around pay, the CPA exam, promotions, recruiting and layoffs. That information is of great interest to those at the beginning of their careers, in particular.

My readers are global and include regulators, lawyers who both sue and defend the firms, academics, other journalists, investors, members of Parliament, Congress and their staffs, CFOs and other financial professionals in public and private companies, and, of course, the professionals who work in the audit firms.

Tell us about some of the stories you’ve covered.

The stories I’m most proud of on re: The Auditors are original reporting and had impact. I wrote over twenty-five posts about the Satyam fraud in India. The story was big here because PwC was the auditor and it was pretty brazen but was covered in the US only when something happened in the courts.

My reporting on the MF Global failure has been unique and focused on the accounting and the auditor, which no one else did. Everyone else focused primarily on Corzine. Since I know the futures industry and I’m based in Chicago it was a natural. The coverage of the Lehman bankruptcy and the role of Ernst & Young has been an ongoing success because it keeps auditors in the spotlight and is a great example of everything that’s wrong with financial services and regulatory oversight of it.

When the Lehman bankruptcy examiner report came out – written by a team led by Chicago lawyer Anton Valukas – it broke down the barrier for talking about the “crisis as fraud” and talking about the role of the auditor. Those stories were a big catalyst for traffic and interest in my site.

One story I’m particularly proud of was catching KPMG providing prohibited services to GE.  The firm was doing $10 million of tax staffing work and, as auditors, they are not allowed to do that post- Sarbanes-Oxley. I reported it and an investigation by regulators – not publicized – started. The engagement stopped within a few months. There have been no fines or sanctions, yet, but I’m hopeful.

Finally I wrote extensively in American Banker about the “independent” foreclosure reviews at the banks. I broke the story there of a conflict between Deloitte and their client JPMorgan. I have reprinted excerpts of those columns on re: The Auditors and added to the reporting on my site due to space and timing considerations at American Banker. My work has been used in Congressional testimony on the issue and I have been asked to support the legislators by answering questions and providing points for investigation and questioning by those who are pursuing this issue.

How is the blog doing financially?

re: The Auditors serves as a showcase for my writing and the hub of a wheel that now has many spokes. I’m writing for and the magazine.  I had a weekly column at American Banker that I hope will restart soon after a new year’s hiatus. I’m freelancing for trade magazines like Accountancy in the UK and have written an Op-Ed for the Financial Times. I’ve had sponsors on and off for re: The Auditors but it’s currently a non-monetized venture. Now that the format is set up in WordPress I can maintain it myself. I try to spend as little as possible.

(I’m now writing for the University of Chicago Booth School of Business Capital Ideas blog and magazine.)

The site is currently free but I have plans to set up a pay meter using the model of Andrew Sullivan and the tool TinyPass. That’s because the site, now in its seventh year, has a steady stream of regular readers like law firms, the SEC and academics who stay on it for hours at a time. They use it for research. I’d like them to pay for that.

I do all the work. I rarely have guest posts. I mostly write from home and from existing sources unless someone pays me to do something for them. The only things I spend money on are travel, expensive hotels, champagne, and shoes (when I go to Washington DC and New York.) Kidding, sort of. But I would do that anyway so no incremental cost to the blog.

More and more folks are paying for travel when I do speaking engagements and I take advantage of being in a city to meet people in person. I especially like to meet with academics and talk about their research. It’s mutually beneficial. I may be able to include them in a story, they may be writing about something I can write about and bolster my writing with data I can’t create on my own.

As a CPA and former internal auditor I am writing about conflicts of interest and independence all the time. I do some limited consulting – mostly litigation consulting – to pay the big bills. I do not write about what I may be working on for others and I do not work on what I will be writing about. That limits me quite a bit since I hate to take any subject out of the mix but, considering my audience, it’s the example I have to set.

So, financially it’s a slog, but things have improved in the last few years via speaking engagements for universities like Columbia and NYU and professional associations – the lawyers pay the best and fastest – and other freelance work. I plan to focus my freelance work on magazine since it’s going well at Forbes and I write long. I can meet a deadline but prefer not to have daily deadlines. I have some other magazine pitches out there and hope to add some great financial investigative assignments soon.

Where do you hope to take it in the coming years?

I’ve tried some experiments in repurposing content and keeping it front and center for readers. I’ve put together several e-books that are compilations of certain subjects I’ve covered extensively like AIG, Goldman Sachs and their mutual auditor PwC, the MF Global scandal and now Buffett. It puts all the work on these subjects from all the places where it shows up in one document, organized chronologically and with all links intact.  (I’m very linky!)  I sell a few, mostly when I promote them because the issues are in the news again, but it’s not lottery level earnings.