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Grading the Trades

Are the industry's trade publications keeping up with advisors' needs?

David J. Drucker, 05/15/2008

(Editor's note: As is stated at the end of this article, the views expressed in this article are the author's. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.)

I started reading my first industry trade publication--Financial Planning magazine--back around 1981 and found it to be just what I needed at the time.

The experience harkened back to an even earlier era when I'd first enrolled in business school (the MBA program at the American University in Washington, D.C.) in 1973. As I took certain core business courses and simultaneously subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and Business Week under student discount plans, I had that familiar experience of finding I could understand more of what I was reading the further along I got in my course work. All of the sudden, the Journal's discussion of central bank "M1 policy" and subjects like "multinational firms' needing to bribe foreign governments" were starting to make sense. My courses dovetailed nicely with current events and what I read reinforced what I learned.

It was much like that with Financial Planning. In 1981, I had just begun my work on the CFP curriculum and was relatively uninformed in areas such as estate planning and cash value life insurance products. By studying those subjects as a CFP candidate and reading articles in the magazine on those same topics, my education progressed quickly. Over the years, though, the topics covered by the trades didn't change. I know now that these publications continuously address the major technical areas of financial planning--investing, estate planning, tax planning, yada yada--and, for some, this coverage is no longer ideal.

Blasphemy, you say? Not necessarily. Every private business must remain relevant to its customers or it doesn't stay in business. Most of the major trade publications in our industry (with the exception of Financial Advisor magazine) change hands every couple of years. That suggests to me that either 1) the whole business model is flawed, or 2) these publications aren't as relevant as they could be.

Now let's stop for a second and get specific. The three top trades I'm focusing on here are Financial Planning, Financial Advisor and Investment Advisor magazines. I have written for the first two, at various times, and today write monthly for just Financial Advisor. The reason I might write for one publication vs. another is business-related, not content-related. I'll still write for a publication if I think its content is subpar because--I rationalize--my contribution will make it better. (Hey, we all need self confidence, right?)

So what I'm getting at is, are the trade publications still helpful to the majority of advisors who read them if they're still covering the same topics they did more than 25 years ago?

Many will say the trades are still relevant and, in any event, have a mandate to continuously cover the six technical areas of financial planning. First of all, many new entrants to the field need the trades to learn their craft, just as I needed them in the 1980s. Second, and more obviously, veteran planners need a way to keep up with changes and additions to the body of knowledge that constitutes their technical expertise, and the trades are an obvious way to deliver that.

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