On October 30, 1997, MarketWatch.com launched as CBS MarketWatch to offer stock market news and information for individual investors. Now known as MarketWatch, the site celebrated its 10-year anniversary last week. OJR spoke with its editor-in-chief, David Callaway, who joined in 1999, on the phone to talk about how financial journalism online has changed over the years. An edited transcript follows.
OJR: Walk me through MarketWatch’s milestones over the last 10 years – what the industry was like and your thoughts as editor-in-chief at each point. You joined MarketWatch in 1999. What was it like to be an online journalist back then?
Callaway: Well, back then, no one in mainstream media took online journalism seriously. In spring 1999, a radio host asked me on the air if I could think of anything lower on the food chain than an online journalist. No one is looking down their noses at the Web anymore. I believe it’s the biggest change the world has adopted – first by the readers and then by the media.
OJR: What prompted you to leave Bloomberg for MarketWatch?
Callaway: The excitement of building something in the online world. I was fascinated by the Internet, and MarketWatch was a new company. It had been up-and-running for two years before I joined. Things were very primitive. We had a very primitive webpage – in fact Microsoft had developed the platform for running yearbooks. I think at the time we had 20-25 journalists. We have about 100 today.
But our biggest goals back then are essentially what the biggest goals are now: to level the playing field. We aim to recreate the experience created by Reuters and Bloomberg for free on the Web. We try to move at the same speed as the people on Wall Street.
We are four times the size now, but every day we compete with those same competitors. Those are the companies that break news on a global basis, 24 hours a day.
OJR: In 2001, MarketWatch was one of the first websites to install an introductory message ad unit with Budweiser campaign. Why did you do that?
Callaway: We were very nervous because we thought readers would hate it. We talked a lot about how long we’d allow them to run. Back then, a couple magazine sites were doing them, some entertainment sites. Now everyone is doing them.
OJR: In 2003, MarketWatch acquired VirtualStockExchange.com, an online trading game site.
Callaway: Right, it was a website put together by college students. We used it to build out the community aspect of MarketWatch so that our readers would not only read the news but also be part of the action. It was a unique thing. It had plenty of online games not too different from fantasy football or baseball. CNBC also had big online games section, actually even bigger than VirtualStockExchange. We got a respectable amount of traffic on it.
OJR: In 2004, MarketWatch partnered with Thomson Financial to license your financial news content for institutional use.
Callaway: 2004 was a big one for us. MarketWatch originally catered to a retail crowd – it was started for small, active investors – individuals who couldn’t afford big news services. Thomson didn’t have a news service, so they came to us and asked us to create one. It doubled the size of the news operation. Thomson was running Dow Jones; they lost Reuters, and they wanted to have more than one news service.
OJR: In 2005, MarketWatch was acquired by Dow Jones.
Callaway: A huge event. It’s worked really well in the last three years. Dow Jones is a 100-year-old, preeminent company for sophisticated investors and folks on Wall Street. They wanted our readership.
Dow Jones now has the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones news wires, Barron’s, and us. Among the four, MarketWatch is closest to Dow Jones news wires – the editorial team focuses on real time news. But we work very closely with them. We appear on their site, and they appear on ours. Within the empire of Dow Jones, we maintain enough editorial independence to keep our readers happy, while helping them with their product.
OJR: And of course, in 2007, Dow Jones and News Corp. announced their merger.
Callaway: It’s not yet closed so I can’t say much about it because I honestly don’t know what will happen.
Callaway: Two years ago. I just started noticing a couple blogs that were pretty good or interesting. We have one blog on the site but plans for two to three for the end of the year. They’ll cover the election, healthcare, and the stock market.
OJR: How do you deal with false information – things like bad stock tips or false stories like Engadget’s post back in May saying that the releases of the iPhone and the Leopard operating system would be delayed, causing Apple’s stock to plunge?
Callaway: It’s a serious, serious thing. It’s something that everyone needs to watch out for. We look at stuff carefully and try not to link to everyone to keep that stuff out.
OJR: How exactly do you make that judgment call?
Callaway: It depends. For example, if a blog is pushing people to buy certain stocks – we don’t recommend stocks to buy. We look for blogs that comment on the market and add interesting angles.
OJR: What about the idea of social media? How do you use user-generated content?
Callaway: We started a new community page – our biggest effort yet to bring our readers in so that they can talk to each other and look at each other’s ideas. It’s our first real effort to develop a broader community.
Ranking stories based on how many comments they get is fun and entertaining, but it’s not news. We do that in our community page but not on the news page. All these sites are doing it, and there’s a home for that in the social networking area of the site. But it doesn’t replace hard news. I definitely believe in the separation of news and discussion.
OJR: Is there a place for citizen journalism in business news?
Callaway: Citizen journalism works best at events that require someone to be there. Newsrooms, generally speaking, are shrinking. They don’t have the staff to be everywhere. So, citizen journalism has been a huge help on bombs or things happening on the street corner that someone can record on their cell phone. In financial journalism, it’s a little different. There are not as many events for us. For the reasons I mentioned before, we want to be careful of people giving advice. That’s for the community section.
OJR: What are some bad practices in online business journalism?
Callaway: There’s a tendency for reporters to be lazy and allow sources to push their agendas. Online specifically, I see more of this through the use of e-mail. Lazy journalists are inclined to use materials from e-mails from people who want to be quoted, to just grab something without checking it out. In financial reporting, people try to take advantage of a lazy journalist to push a stock or move a stock, which is unfair and against the law. For instance, some people copy a Yahoo template and change keywords in order to push a stock.
OJR: Where do you see MarketWatch in five to 10 years?
Callaway: I’ll preface this by saying that 10 years ago, when MarketWatch started, there was no Google, no MySpace, no Facebook. So take my predictions for what they’re worth.
MarketWatch will be recognized as a pioneer for being an online-only news service. Most other online news sites are repurposing what they’re put out in print. When small and medium papers go online-only at some point, they’ll save a lot of money but face a lot of challenges too. When you own your content, you can do whatever you want. You can lead with the story you want to lead. You can throw any journalists you want at a story. The news services that own their content will be the ones that win.
I think in five to 10 years, we’ll see more news services that are only online.
OJR: But by then, MarketWatch as an online-only publication will no longer be unique.
Callaway: But hopefully we’ll be bigger.