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From AJR,   April 2000  issue

A Stellar Model for Consumer Reporting   

Squandering Aimlessly: My Adventures in the American Marketplace

By David Brancaccio
Simon & Schuster
288 pages; $25


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

One luxury of a good book assignment is that a writer gets paid for having fun on an expense-account adventure. David Brancaccio, host of public radio's "Marketplace," has done that and more in "Squandering Aimlessly." He has enjoyed a series of road trips, met an array of interesting people, offered some thoughtful financial advice--and underlined some important journalistic lessons.

The idea for his book is simple. He sets out to answer the question: What is the wisest way to spend a financial windfall? As business/consumer news, it is a legitimate story idea, especially in this age of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" mania. But Brancaccio's approach and attitude are irreverently nontraditional, exploding the outdated canard about business coverage being the boring stuff nobody reads.

Whatever the value of "Squandering Aimlessly" to consumers, the book makes some powerful points about journalism: Financial news is not and should not be dull. That's because financial news is and should be about real people and the decisions they make about their money. And because those issues turn on core values, they create opportunities for stories that are truly compelling and meaningful.

"As host of a public radio program about money," Brancaccio begins, "I am asked all the time about what to do with it... I needed to answer the question for myself before I could have anything meaningful to say about other people's money. What I really wanted were street smarts, so I went out on the road."

Brancaccio chose trips "to places that evoked ten plausible ways to use a lump sum": launching a spending spree; making socially responsible investments; becoming an entrepreneur; gambling; giving to charity; investing on Wall Street; buying a house; quitting a job; preparing for retirement; and saving the old-fashioned way. For each possibility, he visits a different part of the country, comports with ordinary and often extraordinary folks, and brings home lessons in finance and life.

For example, his venture into philanthropy takes him to Hawthorne, Ne-vada, a run-down town where he finds a group of civic activists on a mission to rebuild and win "All-America City" honors. "We are not picket fences and neat green lawns," a local social worker tells him. "We are a group of people willing to put our shoulders to the wheel and invest an awful lot of time to make this a community that we can feel proud of."

By contrast, Brancaccio muses: "Reporters are leeches. We show up, suck people dry, then give nothing back." He soon sheds his objective-reporter personality and pitches in with donations of money and time.

In the quitting-your-job chapter, he visits South Plains College near Lubbock, Texas, "a place that inspires grown-ups with perfectly good careers...to up and quit and...get a degree in commercial music: country, bluegrass, gospel." Here he meets a professor-philosopher who teaches "Life is not a dress rehearsal" and worries that too many people "tend to throw their anchor in too early, making it tough to explore new territory." Harmonica lessons soon follow.

But other episodes are more sobering and down-to-earth. In the preparing-for-retirement segment, Brancaccio discovers he would need about $2.6 million to retire in style. Accumulating that amount, he calculates, could take a $2,400 monthly investment over the next 30 years. Even a lifestyle of "voluntary simplicity," he learns in another chapter, would require amassing $431,000 over the next 18 years. "All I have to do," he says, "is figure out how to live in the meantime, allow the family to thrive, and pay for the kids' education."

Brancaccio is a smart and easygoing storyteller, who both respects the salt-of-the-earth folks he encounters and manages to convey their quirky flavors. He has a good ear for epigrammatic wisdom. ("Bob says if you brush your teeth and don't drink, you can always find work.") And he blends in just enough financial facts and figures to support his points without getting in the way of his tales. Among them:

* In the year following his trip, the socially responsible investment fund he followed gained 23 percent, barely less than the 24 percent gained by a companion so-called regular fund.

* In the year he studied small business entrepreneurship, 842,357 new businesses were formed, and there were "849,839 business terminations, 71,811 business failures, and 53,214 bankruptcies."

* The amount given to charity is about 2 percent of personal income in America.

Presumably, most of us will not come into sudden gobs of money, and so we won't directly benefit from "Squandering Aimlessly." As we plod forward with our meager portfolios, we can probably gain modest indirect value from its lessons.

But AJR is not the place to assess the book's financial wisdom. Instead, I salute it as a reporting model. It is a fine exhibit of how going into the world and talking to real people about real life can generate important, engaging business/consumer journalism. As the book itself puts it, quoting a West African proverb, "One must come out of one's house to begin learning."