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Money Observer: 40 not out and still going strong

Money Observer celebrates its 40th anniversary this October. In an exclusive Q&A, MO’s editor Faith Glasgow told me about the title’s birthday makeover, “sticky” readers (and how much they invest), plus the challenge of balancing content across multiple platforms.

Andrew Michael (AM): Slightly premature congratulations on MO’s 40th birthday! The latest issue [September 2019] refers to a makeover. What’s the thinking behind that?
Faith Glasgow (FG):
It’s been a while since we tackled a redesign, and with the big 4-0 fast approaching we thought it was a good opportunity to ensure the magazine is looking trim, well-honed and elegant as it heads for middle-age. The aim was really to make it an easier read, so we’ve introduced more infographics, made the pages less dense textually and generally tried to declutter, on the ‘less is more’ principle.

AM: You’ve also taken the opportunity to re-jig some of the content, regular features and so on. What are the main changes?
FG: We surveyed our readership earlier this year, so we had a pretty good idea of what they like and what they’ve been less bothered about. We’ve not messed with the basic feature balance of macro insights, practical investment pieces, industry analysis and high-profile manager interviews…

… but we have overhauled the portfolios section, culling some less popular ones and introducing a couple of new ones, for example, an ethical portfolio run by Castlefield and a very interesting-looking global value ETF portfolio. We’ve also introduced a regular series of pretty comprehensive Essential Guides to the most important areas of personal finance.

Faith Glasgow: Money Observer helps people make the most of their wealth

AM: The magazine says its aim is “to remain the go-to publication for self-directed investors seeking insights, robust investment guidance and a wealth of tips”. How do you achieve this?
FG: I think by maintaining a broad spread of coverage, by always responding to readers when they write in with comments or suggestions, by using a stable of exceptional financial journalists, and by always remembering what we’re there for, which is to help people make the most of their wealth.

AM: A magazine doesn’t make it to 40 without a good understanding of its readers. Describe a typical one. Has his/her profile changed much down the years?
FG: The survey showed that we have a very sticky readership: 65% of respondents have read MO for more than four years, and 14% for more than 20 years. So there’s a hard core of readers aged 55-plus, mainly male, with investments largely worth between £250,000 and £1 million actively managing their ISA and SIPP portfolios, very keen on investment trusts.

I suspect that profile has not changed all that much. But there is also a distinctly younger contingent who make use of the website. I think the Retail Distribution Review [launched on 31 December 2012] definitely helped to boost the number of self-directed investors looking for guidance and investment ideas in preference to paying a financial adviser.

AM: The strap underneath the MO masthead declares ‘40 years of investment insights’. Pick out some of the highlights.
FG: That’s a bit of a challenge, as I’ve only been at the helm for the past four years or so. But I was involved with the magazine on a freelance basis long before then and the previous editor, Andrew Pitts, did great campaigning work against scams such as landbanking, and also against the opacity of bundled fund charges in pre-RDR days.

He also launched our quarterly Trust supplement, which is hugely popular with readers, and set up and still runs our 12 Model Portfolios to help self-directed investors. I should also flag up the annual freestanding guide to our choice of high-quality funds, trusts and ETFs for all types of investor: Your Fund Choices.

AM: MO recently listed its readers’ favourite subjects. Fund and investment trust analysis came top, but the  likes of tax and estate planning featured as well. Did this surprise you and how do you accommodate this?
FG: No, it doesn’t surprise me. Our readers are very canny, and they know tax-efficient investment can make a huge difference to the value of their wealth over the long term, which is what they are in for. Many of them are of an age where they are either dealing with parental estates or interested in helping younger generations of their families, or both, so we get a lot of letters about estate planning. We make sure we include regular coverage of the likes of VCTs, EIS and Aim investments, as well as inheritance tax and estate planning.

AM: MO started off life as a print-only product in a simpler media space compared with today. What nowadays are the main challenges for you as editor of a multi-channel offering? What keeps you awake at night?
FG: The cat, mainly. But MO has certainly been catapulted into the 21stcentury with the introduction of our in-house media suite, and we now do regular podcasts, videos and social media campaigns. I think the main challenge for me has been learning to think in all these different contexts, but luckily I have a terrific and highly talented team to whom it seems to come pretty naturally!

AM: How important is the MO website?
FG: It has grown massively over the past four years or so and continues to do so; page views are up by almost 250% over the past five years. It’s important as a standalone news hub, as well as for the fund and investment trust research tool and increasingly video and podcast content, but we also post most of the content of the current magazine over each month.

AM: On that point, you give away a fair chunk of your online content for free. Great for casual readers, but isn’t that a negative in terms of the magazine’s commercial success? How do you decide the balance?
FG: We make no charge for use of the website, but as explained above, it serves a somewhat different purpose from the magazine. Magazine readers receive all their content upfront, on publication; those who rely on the website alone have to wait!

AM: What’s clogging up your postbag currently? Is it all about Woodford?
FG: The Woodford debacle seems to have quietened down. We always get comment about specific features we’ve published – most recently, our annual review of online Sipp charges attracted quite a bit of attention. But there’s also a steady stream of reader questions – about their pensions, investments, tax and particularly estate planning.

AM: The MO flannel panel hints at a big team of external contributors. Is there any point freelancers pitching to you? How far ahead do you work on the magazine?
FG: We rely heavily on a well-established pool of freelances. The nature of what we cover and our audience means writers have to know their onions but be able to write elegantly and accessibly. So, while I’m happy to receive well-targeted pitches and am always on the lookout for new additions to the reliable, high-quality freelance pool, I don’t often take on new regulars.

I plan the following month at the start of each monthly cycle – so for example I’d aim to have November’s features and regulars all lined up by a week or so into the October cycle. But I’m open to ideas anytime! The feature ideas folder has an insatiable appetite.

AM: How important are PRs to MO? Who should be getting in touch and who’d be better off giving you a swerve?
FG: We have a good relationship with investment and pension-focused PRs and make regular use of good quality press releases and research for news and sometimes even as a jumping-off point for feature ideas. But we do all get a bit fed up with calls from PRs trying to flog stories about pet insurance, utilities switching, travel money and the like. I get the feeling many of them don’t actually bother to look at the content of the mag – it is pretty specific! – before they pitch.

AM: It’s prediction time. How might the investment landscape change over the next 40 years? Will indexation have taken over, or will active managers still be in demand? Will Indian and Chinese markets be dominating the ordinary investor’s portfolio?
Crikey. Given what’s going on in parliament at the moment it feels ambitious to predict what I’ll have for lunch, let alone anything 40 years down the line. But here goes. Passive funds may lose their appeal if the global economy stutters or goes into decline, I think, but over the long term they’ll continue to take market share. However, I firmly believe there is an important place for high-quality active managers who can genuinely add value for investors, and that won’t disappear.

The demographics of the emerging economies including Africa as well as Asia and, to a lesser extent, Latin America are such that over 40 years they are likely to provide some of the largest sources of real growth. But I suspect that sustainability is another theme that will gain a lot more traction over that kind of timescale. And I’d put money on substantive pension reform as well, in due course. Maybe a flat rate of tax relief; maybe something more innovative such as a lifetime level of contribution.