Jonathan Clements is one of my favorite personal finance columnists. He writes two columns a week for the Wall Street Journal. The column I am most familiar with, Getting Going, appears each Wednesday. The other column appears in the Sunday Wall Street Journal, which is a supplement offered in 80 newspapers around the country.
Having read his columns for a number of years now, I thought it would be interesting to ask him some questions as a way for readers of AllThingsFinancial to get to know him better. He was gracious enough to grant me an interview and I am happy to share it with you. Enjoy!
JLP: How long have you been writing about personal finance?
JC: I got my first job in journalism in January 1982, shortly after my 19th birthday. It was during a nine-month hiatus I had between finishing boarding school in England and starting at Cambridge University. At the time, my parents were living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I worked for a local paper there, covering the police, youth, sports and, occasionally, some business stories. But my real introduction to financial journalism came in 1985, when I graduated Cambridge and started working for Euromoney magazine in London. After 13 months there, I moved to New York and joined Forbes magazine, where I wrote mostly about mutual funds. I was hired away by The Wall Street Journal in January 1990 and started writing the “Getting Going” column in October 1994.
JLP: Did you plan on becoming a personal-finance columnist or was it something you just fell into?
JC: In the British educational system, you start specializing much earlier than in the U.S. By age 16, economics was one of just three subjects I was studying—and I found the topic fascinating. Indeed, initially, I thought I might teach economics, but the heavy-duty math I encountered at Cambridge really put me off. Meanwhile, my interest in journalism was growing. I was editing the Cambridge student paper during the academic year and working at the suburban paper in D.C. during summer vacations.
And financial journalism had always seemed like a possibility, because that’s what my father had done. He had quit journalism by the time I was age three, but I grew up with the stories of how he worked for London-based papers like The Financial Times and The Daily Telegraph.
JLP: How do you keep up with what’s happening in the finance world?
JC: I regularly correspond with a slew of financial experts and I read widely, including a lot of academic papers. But many of my story ideas are sparked by emails from readers. It’s my way of keeping tabs on what readers are worried about, what they’re confused about and what products they’re getting pitched.
JLP: What’s it like writing for one of the world’s best-known newspapers?
JC: Sometimes, I get up in the morning, and I think I have the best job in the world. And sometimes, I get up in the morning, and I want to blow my brains out.
In other words, it’s just like any other job. I am sure there are folks who think writing for The Wall Street Journal is exciting and glamorous. The reality is a little different. In many ways, it’s quite mundane. Other people produce widgets, I produce words. At the same time, it’s unbelievably intense. There’s enormous pressure–much of it self-inflicted–to produce columns that are timely and well written, and there’s the intense scrutiny that comes with putting the written word in front of millions of readers.
JLP: How much time do you spend preparing your columns for publication?
JC: I write two columns most weeks. One appears in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesdays and the other appears in 80-plus newspapers around the country on Sundays. The Sunday column can also be found at a free site, Sunday.WSJ.com, as well as at the Journal’s subscription site, wsj.com. The two columns are meant to be original, rather than being different versions of the same basic article.
To reduce the pressure on myself, I try to work a little ahead of schedule, rather than producing everything on deadline. I might research a column on Monday and Tuesday, get a complete first draft together by the end of Wednesday, rewrite on Thursday and then give the column a final few tweaks before filing on Friday. This also makes for much better columns. It gives me the chance to think through my argument and the time to polish my articles. Good writing takes time and effort.
Part 2 will come tomorrow…