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So What Do You Do, Michelle Singletary, WaPo Columnist and Finance Guru?

'I've always believed your passion has to come first, then all the other possibilities will follow.'

By Janelle Harris - October 2, 2013
The footpath to a career in journalism can be a windy one, colored with the most seemingly arbitrary pit stops and test drives through other jobs. Michelle Singletary bypassed that nonsensical route, however. "I'm one of those rare birds doing exactly what I wanted to do. I thought at one point I might be on a network news program," she remembers. "But after working at the high school newspaper, I realized that I really love print. I've always wanted to work for a newspaper."

So she did and she's built quite a name for herself in the process with personal finance as her bailiwick, spanning all media including a radio program and a now-defunct TV show. Her Washington Post column, "The Color of Money," is syndicated in more than 100 newspapers. The advice she dispenses therein isn't tangled up in jargon or drenched in verbal pitty-pats. It's real and reflective of who Singletary is: a journalist with an expertise for distilling the complicated issues around money into digestible, opinion-laced info for her readers. Here, she talks newspapers, branding and keeping it real.

Name: Michelle Singletary
Position: Author and award-winning columnist of The Washington Post's nationally syndicated "The Color of Money"
Resume: Attended University of Maryland on full academic scholarship from the Baltimore Sun. First female president of the Black Student Union at her alma mater. Interned for the Sun and the Evening Sun in Baltimore. Offered job at both papers based on merit; she chose the Evening Sun. Debuted column in The Washington Post in 1997 and was nominated for a Pulitzer the same year. Hosted nationally televised show, "Singletary Says," on TV One. Author of three books: Spend Well, Live Rich, Your Money and Your Man and The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom. Honored with Matrix Award for Professional Achievements from The Association for Women in Communications in 2009.
Hometown: Baltimore, Md.
Education: Bachelor's degree in in radio, television and film from the University of Maryland College Park and an MBA from Johns Hopkins University
Marital status: Married
Media mentor: Oprah. "I love her down-to-earth style, which is similar to my style," says Singletary. "I also like the way she encourages people to give back."
Favorite TV show: Chopped and Project Runway, both on Bravo
Guilty pleasure: Watching really bad reality television
Last book read: Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Twitter handle: @SingletaryM

There was a mixed bag of reactions to the sale of The Washington Post back in August. How did you respond to the news? How has the transition of ownership to Jeff Bezos affected you?
Like everybody else, I was shocked. I was on my way to pick up my kids from summer camp when I heard the news. I think initially I was optimistically cautious. Whenever your company is sold, there's a lot of fear. You're not sure what's going to happen. But what I knew of Jeff Bezos and his running of Amazon, I liked. I've admired him. I'm a frequent customer of Amazon, and I like the way it's run. I'm pretty tough on companies, and I don't have any complaints about Amazon. So that made me feel a little relieved because if he runs the Post like he's run Amazon, we can't help but get better.

He came and spoke to the newsroom, and I was pleasantly surprised. He was very down-to-earth. He doesn't come off as being elitist. He's just a really nice guy. He said a lot of things that agreed with my philosophy on how to deal with our customer base, which is primarily our readers. And he spent a lot of time talking about how we need to make our readers the center focus of what we do, even saying that may not necessarily win us Pulitzers, but it will win us with our readers and our customer base -- and that's what's going to make us survive. So I'm really encouraged.

"Whenever your company is sold, there's a lot of fear. You're not sure what's going to happen. But what I knew of Jeff Bezos and his running of Amazon, I liked."

You've parlayed your expertise into a multimedia platform, including a show on TV One at one point. What happened to Singletary Says and how did your experience as the host of a regular television show differ from being a columnist for a major newspaper?
I've worked in every form of media -- radio, television, print -- and I like each one very uniquely. Each takes a different set of skills. I loved having a TV show. The first taping, I was crazy panicked and my team tried to calm my nerves and remind me, "You can do this." I'm immensely thankful to TV One for giving me that opportunity. I was definitely disappointed when it got canceled after two seasons, but TV business is tough, especially cable. TV One was a newer network so they were still trying to bring in viewers. Every host of every show always complains that they weren't promoted enough and maybe that would've driven more viewers. There [are] no hard feelings -- I still do things with them. Maybe one day they'll see the light and do my show again. People still ask me about it. I don't think I've ever been to a speaking engagement where someone hasn't said, "Where's your show? Can they get it back on?" It was a great experience and it definitely helped me be a better journalist.

What would you do differently?
I don't know if I would do anything differently, but I would absolutely do it again. I would just really work with the network more for promotion and marketing. If I have a shortfall in my career, it's that I'm not very good at marketing myself. I just let my work and my person to speak for themselves, but sometimes that's not enough. There are tons and tons of really great books that people never read because they don't know about them. You've got to help drive people to your material. So I'm getting better at that.

We know a multimedia platform is necessary for journalists and media personalities, but how has it helped you build your own brand?
Well, people keep telling me I'm a brand but I never thought of myself as one. I have a unique perspective on how to handle money so I want that platform because I want to get the information out. I'm a huge advocate of financial literacy. I want to bring something different to the table to help people understand how to deal with their money. It's sort of like, people talk about Oprah and they say, "Oh, she's this great media mogul." But when you think about it, while she definitely is a skilled media person, she got where she is because she had a passion to talk to everyday women. The fame and the fortune followed that mission.

I've always believed your passion has to come first, then all of the other possibilities will follow. People found me, and I became this thing I never envisioned. I'm an accidental brand. It was not accidental in the sense that I didn't do anything to make it a brand. I follow my passion, which is to teach in a simplistic way how to handle your money and I speak my mind. I speak the truth. That's who I am. A lot of personal finance experts write about it but they don't actually work with individuals. They're writing about it in theory. I actually know it's not about money when people can't handle money. It's about their issues. It's not about the fact that they can't pay their cable bill. So when you're passionate, that comes through on radio and television. Well, it could be that you're passionate or it could be that you're just straight up crazy. Because radio and television will pick on that up, too.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Kara Swisher, Co-Executive Editor of

Given the grim forecast for newspapers, how are you planning to reconfigure your evangelism of financial responsibility?
Like most people, we hit a snag [when] papers were cutting back. It's not like they wanted to cut my column because they didn't like it. They cut it because they didn't have the money. I haven't seen the same kind of shrinkage as some other people. In fact, we've been picking up papers, especially with the new healthcare law coming on board. Lots of editors want to help their readers understand what's coming with it. So I've been fortunate to hold steady. I just do what I do, and I do it as well as I can.

Are you critical of low-income or financially strapped folks indulging in personal luxuries, like trips to the hairdresser or buying new video games? What does Singletary say about that?
I would say shave off money to get your hair done. That's OK. But then you can't have an expensive iPhone or you can't have a phone plan that's $50 a month or you can't have the whole cable package. I try not to say what you shouldn't do with limited funds, but understand that you do have limited funds. And just because you're poor doesn't mean you shouldn't look good. I don't get my hair done a lot but that's not of value to me. I just pull my hair back in a bun and I'm good. But for some people, especially people who are low income, they've got to have something to make them feel good about themselves. So I'm OK if a woman gets her hair done, but with the rest of the money, she has to be tight.

You got some heat for a column you wrote back in February discussing how Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and his family were spending campaign funds. How do you generally respond to feedback? What's been your worst experience with criticism thus far?
A lot of times criticism is more about the person speaking than the person that they're criticizing. When I wrote that piece, I was actually very critical of them. Probably what I didn't do was say, "Damn him to hell." That's not going to help anybody. I tried to use that as a teaching moment. I tell readers all the time it's not about how much money you make. It wasn't enough for the Jacksons when it would've been enough for a whole lot of other people. So every time you say, "I wish I made more money," just think about them and people like them. If you're not good at handling your money, the more you get, the more you're gonna be jacked up. So because I came at it from that perspective, maybe people didn't think I came at them hard enough.

"I follow my passion, which is to teach in a simplistic way how to handle your money and I speak my mind. I speak the truth. That's who I am."

I'm about personal responsibility, but I also have compassion. There's no point in kicking somebody when they're down because he already knows he messed up. They were absolutely wrong and they were trying to live above their means. But let's see how people can learn from them. I welcome criticism -- I'm a columnist. How could I not? My advice is informed by my education, my religion, my experience, my values, so if you ask me, you're gonna get all of that wrapped up in a package with my answer. By the mere fact that I'm giving my opinion, I'm opening the door for people to give their opinion about my opinion. I try not to take it personal but sometimes I do. If I can give it out, I need to be able to take it. But I know most of the time, I'm right.

Besides being real, how do you think you're able to reach so many people from so many different backgrounds - African-Americans, senior citizens, Christians, suburbanites. What is it about you that makes you appealing and more importantly, makes people listen to you?
I got an email last week from someone, I think [it] was a white gentleman, and he said, "When you first got your column, I thought you got it just because you're black." Now, most people would've stopped right there and said "I can't believe this man just said that." But he said, "I read it for a couple of months and I realized why you got it: because you're good." It started out as an insult -- I'm used to that, people thinking that you get stuff just because you're black.

As part of my college scholarship, the Sun papers would offer you a full-time job if they thought you deserved it. I was offered a job at both The Sun and The Evening Sun. I chose The Evening Sun, which was a much better fit for me. The staff was much more welcoming and encouraging than many of the staff members and editors at The Sun. I once overhead two Sun reporters talking negatively about the black "Sun Scholars," as we were called. They said we were only getting the experience because we were black. It was heartbreaking -- I went into the bathroom and cried. Others made it known that they didn't think we measured up. But we got the last laugh. I became a well-known and respected personal finance columnist, and other Sun Scholars have gone on to do wonderful things in journalism. Angela Davis has anchored newscasts and Monica Norton is a metro editor at the Post. That criticism made me work harder to prove I wasn't hired by The Evening Sun or the Post just because I was black, but because they saw the value in what I had to offer.

I think I appeal to all kinds of people because I don't equivocate. Sometimes people criticize me about that. When it comes to money, people just want to know "What should I do?" Financial stuff can be a little scary and intimidating. When I speak to groups in the DC metro area, and it's diverse -- old folks and young folks and Jewish folks and Christian folks -- I'm thrilled because it allows me to cross all of those boundaries with the same information. Sometimes at the Post, I think we have a reputation of talking over people's heads and that's not going to endear us to or help our readers. Just talk at their level.

Janelle Harris resides in Washington, D.C., frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Kara Swisher, Co-Executive Editor of

© Mediabistro Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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