The media world is filled with personalities who started out in other fields entirely and were able to use their previous experience to break into TV news or publishing. For Jeff Macke, the reverse was true: when he started writing on investment site The Motley Fool in the 1990s, he saw it as a way to advance his career in finance. That’s when he discovered a need he could address: spot information holes and fill them. When Macke looks at a stock, he sees its backstory: where a company has been, where it’s headed, what it’s doing right, what it’s doing wrong. That ability to see the story behind the symbols on the rolling stock ticker, combined with an innate on-screen comfort, made him a natural fit for the world of stock punditry. Soon, the former hedge fund manager found himself making the jump from finance show guest to one of the founding hosts of CNBC’s Fast Money.
Now a reporter on Yahoo Finance, and with a new book, Clash of the Financial Pundits, co-authored with Joshua Brown, under his belt, Macke still views himself as a trader exploring the intricacies, trend lines and possibilities of various investments, albeit publicly. And because his stock tips and investment advice are playing out in front of an audience, Macke sees a dual mission for his work as “trying to educate and inform at the same time.”
Macke talks with Mediabistro about how hosting on a digital site differs from broadcast TV and how he follows his own instinct and curiosity as a way to stand out from the competition.
Name: Jeff Macke
Position: Yahoo Finance business and investing reporter
Resume: Started hedge fund Macke Asset Management in 1998. One of the founding hosts of Fast Money on CNBC in 2006. Reporter and host on Yahoo Finance since 2011.
Birthday: April 7, 1969
Hometown: Edina, Minnesota
Education: B.A. in psychology, Dartmouth; M.B.A., Stanford
Marital status: Married
Media mentors: “I think that the spiritual godfather of modern punditry is really [Jim] Cramer. In terms of just strictly media, Dylan Ratigan is someone I have gotten to know [that] had a lot of insight over the years.”
Best career advice received: “A lot of the best advice you don’t realize is good advice until after the fact, unfortunately. But I think that for me, something that’s been a theme is trying to always keep exploring different ideas, and different angles and concepts.”
Guilty pleasure: “I’m just trying to get rid of guilt entirely. I truly, genuinely don’t believe in guilt all that much.”
Last book you read: Batman; Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell
Twitter handle: @jeffmacke
You started writing about your craft when running a hedge fund. What led you into writing?
I started writing before that. I’ve always been writing to a degree. People started paying attention when I was running the hedge fund. There was this early kind of wave of investment writing that took place in the mid-90s, when I started writing for the The Motley Fool. Frankly, I was just going there because it was an easy way to get information before I had set up my hedge fund and was paying for all the top-notch information. Through communicating with people in forums I started writing about stocks just to fill gaps that seemed to exist. I was trying to fill voids and trying to both learn and help people at the same time.
Dylan Ratigan, former host of CNBC’s Fast Money, reached out to you about appearing on his show. How did that happen?
I got to know Dylan from doing hits on CNBC. I started doing his show Bulls Eye as a relatively regular guest with weekly or twice-weekly hits. There used to be a segment of it called ‘Wine and Cheese,’ where I was in New York and I would hang and they would serve wine at the end, which was ironic because Dylan and I don’t drink. As a function of that, we started talking about the limits of financial media as it existed then and the ways it could be made better and the ways it could be more exciting. They were building [Fast Money], which Dylan and Susan Krakower were developing together, and I got put into the mix for that. They flew me out weekly for the better part of the year and we would come out and work with different people and beat the show into shape, and try to come up with a way where there would be an advancement on the idea of, ‘Here’s a box. This guy’s a bull. This guy’s a bear. Let’s have them fight for a while.’
How comfortable were you interviewing guests on the TV platform?
[It] is very much like doing a remote hit, where they lock you in these little tiny rooms and you’re usually at some satellite studio in the middle of San Francisco or Detroit or whatever city. It’s a tiny little studio and you’re looking at a camera. You’re either watching yourself on a five-second delay or keep the monitor off so you’re staring directly into what looks like the old VCR cameras. In one ear you hear someone talking to you and asking you questions and you either feel comfortable doing that or you will never feel comfortable doing that. I always felt comfortable doing that.
You can tell when a guest feels comfortable in their space. I view my job as a host is to put people at ease and help them be their best version of themselves in tiny blocks of time. Some people are really comfortable with that and other people just can’t [do it]. That absolutely does not reflect anything about them qualitatively other than their ability to be on camera. It doesn’t make them smart or dumb. It doesn’t make them particularly articulate in any other form. It’s just a very select thing; either you can or can’t.
How does hosting digital videos on Yahoo differ from hosting a cable network show?
I think it’s easier to write things to fill the viewer’s needs or to try to give the viewer what they need at that given moment. With the model of broadcast television in general, you’ve got to fill space. Sometimes it’s really easy to fill that space because there’s a whole lot of things happening and a lot of things to talk about. At other times the content becomes filler between ads for Lexus. If your viewer is coming online to see you, you have to give them something that they’re actively selecting — that they want to see. You don’t have a passive audience that’s just going to drift across your stuff. We’re conscious of the fact that we’re competing against not two other financial news stations, but everything. Your competition, if you’re doing an online show, is pretty much every piece of digital content conceivable, which is an awful wide space.
How do you register who your audience is and what they’re asking for?
I come at it from investing. I go off what I’m interested in and what I think matters to the people I know. I don’t think of myself as programming. I know what people are talking about on Wall Street, and I know where I’m looking to make money. I know where I see a situation that I think they’re efficient, or something that’s trending that I want to know about. That’s the muscle you have to build up from the broadcasting side.
For someone that’s trying to broaden the story, I’m taking the same basic trend and trying to make it more consumable, more palatable for a wider audience. It’s a little less of a deep dive, but it’s going to be this same type of process of looking for the trend and stay[ing] one step ahead of ways that people can make money and then just staying on top of a story as it unfolds. It’s a strange combination on the Internet because you’re dealing with stories that, as an investor, take a long time to develop. Spotting trends, seeing them unfold and making money from it that, to me, just makes my mind all percolate.
Who is your core audience — people who are already financially savvy, those who are trying to educate themselves or something in between?
I think it’s people who have some financial savvy, primarily because I hope that it is. I don’t think anyone should be making investment decisions based on what I or anyone else on TV says. I would hope they bring a certain level of knowledge to the party. I say that to any consumer of financial media. I’m always trepidatious of giving a stock tip or thinking that’s going to be the end of a research process for somebody, that they’ll just go out and buy shares because they think I told them to. I view what I’m trying to do as provoking ideas, getting people to start thinking and looking into things for themselves.
This is territory that you covered in your recent book, Clash of the Financial Pundits. How do you feel financial punditry can change so that somebody watching an investment show will know to use the information as a jumping off point for further research?
People love stock tips. The idea of giving someone a fast pathway to riches is endlessly appealing. That’s why snake oil salesmanship as an industry will, unfortunately, never ever go away. Short of running disclaimers and making every show that’s three minutes long have 90 seconds of it dedicated to making sure no one pays any attention to the advice that I give… it needs to be clear to folks that any investment advice has to be applied to them in context. I don’t know to what degree punditry as a whole can help that. That’s going to be on an individual basis in terms of each of the people speaking. They kind of have to keep in mind that there’s an audience with actual real live money at stake.
But at the same time people have to make their own financial decisions. It’s a television show. It’s entertainment. A strongly worded opinion is not the same thing as someone being your broker, or being your financial advisor.
How careful do you need to be in terms of vetting guests for shows like yours?
Josh Brown and I were sitting in [Jim] Cramer’s office and we were watching some guy who was making an appearance on the network and we’d never seen him. These people aren’t vetted, they’re just some financial professionals who were booked by television producers to come on and fill a slot. It brings their firm some sort of credibility. It brings them some personal credibility. It gets their name out there. It makes it easier for their brokers to sell stock. That guy’s motivations are much different than if you’re a regular who’s going to be accountable for these calls over time. If you want to be seen and be heard you have to sound your yawp with a onetime appearance on CNBC. For your first shot on FOX Business you have to come on and make some sort of call in the extreme. Now if I’m on the other side of that, I’ll take the person down and keep them in check. I’m not always on the other side of that.
What advice do you have for people looking to break into journalism as you have?
I’ve been through absolutely everything — highs, lows, and through the ringer. So much of what I’ve learned is that a lot of this is just showing up — show up, and actually have the grit and gumption to stand up and be heard.
There are so many different places to be heard now. It’s absolutely an incredible time for the age of information. The trick really is teaching people how to consume this information. If you want to break into journalism, write something interesting that people want to read, and just keep doing that, and just work your voice, and beat the lousy out of your writing, which is an endless process.
Corinne Grinapol is an editorial intern at Mediabistro. Follow her on @corinneavital.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.