Writing About Banking Changed My Views About Money
And basically everything else, too.
Four years ago today, I packed up my belongings, said goodbye to New York and my videographer gig, and headed north for Boston. Leaving New York wasn’t the hard part. Relocating to Boston — and returning to the newspaper industry — was.
That summer, I’d finished grad school in Brooklyn, defended my thesis and landed a job. I did not, however, find an apartment before my lease expired, and an aunt in Westchester County generously offered me her guest room (and basement as storage) until I could save some money and get back on my feet.
I would like to say that New York City chewed me up and spat me back out, but it’s a purely romantic notion to think that a city itself gives a damn whether you stay or go. The truth is that I was having a hard time making a living and that made me miserable.
A company that made most of its money training videographers hired me as an independent contractor to produce short features for a cable news network on Long Island and worked me north of 40 hours a week. When I wasn’t commuting between Mount Vernon and Suffolk County for video shoots, I was holed up in said guest room, editing videos about dog obedience school graduations and bicycle helmet safety classes into the wee hours of the night. I was isolated from my friends in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and on top of that, I had a fresh case of asthma (probably because my Bushwick digs were mold-infested) and no health insurance (I was an independent contractor, after all).
When I wasn’t pulling all-nighters to meet my deadlines, I was searching JournalismJobs.com and flinging my resume at every newspaper reporter gig on the East Coast. Then in October, I got a bite. A small publishing company based in Boston’s Seaport District invited me out to a job interview. I nailed it and immediately accepted their offer, which offered benefits and also bumped me up a tax bracket or two. I found a room with a childhood friend whose ex-boyfriend had just vacated his half of their apartment. I packed up the crap I had left that wasn’t still stowed away in cardboard boxes in my aunt’s basement and hightailed it to Boston.
I know now that I was very, very lucky, but in spite of the immediate and overwhelming relief I felt, it would take me a long time to accept this.
The truth is that I had somewhat mixed feelings about accepting the job offer in the first place. I would be covering banking and lending news for a variety of trade publications, meaning that I would be writing about banking for an audience that largely worked in real estate and banking. In my previous newspaper experience, I’d covered crime, courts and prisons.
In 2012, I had a pretty dim view of both capitalism, generally, as well as anybody who chose to work in financial services. I had worked part-time as a bank teller in college and actually turned down an offer to pick up more hours at that job when I graduated from college in the spring of 2007. I hated customer service and treated that bank teller job in much the same way I treated my job as a cashier at Burger King — as a part-time gig that afforded me some income while I searched for something I could actually take seriously. Writing was my first and only priority.
In November of 2007, I jumped ship from the bank (which has long since been acquired twice over) and started work as a reporter for a local, afternoon daily in North Central Connecticut. I’d finally landed my dream job, even without the requisite journalism degree, and I couldn’t have been more pleased to see how people reacted at parties when I told them I was now a newspaper reporter, as opposed to a bank teller. It felt like bragging to people that I was a lion tamer.
Then the world fell off a cliff.
I very clearly recall one particular day in 2009 when our managing editor called a staff meeting to announce that the sky was falling and we were essentially rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If any of us had another job offer on the table, he urged us to take it.
I didn’t, as it happened, but I left a year later for grad school in New York. I enjoyed working in media, so a degree in television production seemed like a good idea, and hey, I’d always thought I might go back to school anyway. I’d paid off a car loan by that point anyway, so student loans didn’t seem like such a big deal. (The interest rate on my student loans was quite a bit lower, too, for what that’s worth.)
And besides, I needed to leave Connecticut. I had to get out before my 25th birthday, or I never would. So I sold half my belongings, packed the rest into cardboard boxes, and moved to Brooklyn.
Among various other personal and political highlights and lowlights, Occupy Wall Street happened while I lived in New York, and the movement struck a nerve. I gleefully occupied Zuccotti Park in the wee hours before class and after work. I marched, I chanted, I filmed interviews with other occupiers. Once during this time, I was sitting in a bar with a friend when a man started chatting us up. When he told he he’d recently retired from his job as a stockbroker, I asked if he felt bad about crashing the economy before giving him the cold shoulder.
I was not exactly the most likely candidate to start writing for a business-to-business trade pub covering banking. I had some hesitation in accepting the job, but my practical side and desire for health insurance ultimately won out. Plus, I figured, it wouldn’t be forever. I would do this job for one year — maybe two, max — before returning to New York and “real journalism.”
I didn’t have a direct supervising editor for my first six months on the job and had to essentially teach myself about the banking industry. I networked with bankers and lawyers and consultants. I asked questions without fear of revealing my ignorance. I learned about net interest margin and loan loss provisions and CRA ratings. I challenged myself in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. More importantly, I had to learn who my audience was.
Massachusetts is home to more than 160 banks, many of them mutual or cooperative in structure and the vast majority under $5 billion (or even $1 billion) in assets. I wasn’t writing for multi-trillion dollar investment banking institutions. I was writing for community bankers — a largely decent, honest bunch who gave a damn about their communities and didn’t want to compromise underwriting standards for a quick buck. I soon learned that most of them were just as pissed off at Wells Fargo or Bank of America as I was. They were likable people, too. Most of them served on boards of local nonprofits and cut checks to community organizations doing work to feed the hungry and improve affordable housing.
The job turned out to be comfortable, and I found it increasingly difficult to summon the motivation to leave the regular hours, my eminently reasonable boss, and regular pay increases. Moreover, the publishing company’s business model differed substantially from most newspapers. The company relied less on advertising revenue than most papers do and more on collecting and publishing real estate transactional data and organizing trade shows. I didn’t have to live with the looming anxiety that I could be axed from the newsroom at any minute.
But more surprising, I actually began to like the job. My readers and editors appreciated my work, and they told me so often. It’s a good feeling when somebody compliments your words, and that gave me a sense of value about my creative labor.
The publishing company periodically hosted small awards events, recognizing many of those people who read my words as community bank heroes or as women who’d made great strides in typically male-dominated fields. My cynicism about banking melted away as I watched these people recall long hours at work or tearfully thank their partners as they accepted this recognition, however minor it might seem in the grand scheme of things.
I’m fast approaching my fourth anniversary in this job. While I still don’t think this is what I’ll necessarily do with the rest of my life, writing about banking has fundamentally altered the way I think about work, money and the people who work in the business of money.
Laura Alix is a business reporter in Boston. She writes, grows things, and drinks far too much coffee.
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