Abstract: The Personal Was Political: Sylvia Porter and the Development of Personal Finance Journalism
Sylvia Porter (1913–1991), the creator of personal finance journalism, once described her conversational form of business writing as a crusade to translate the “bafflegab” of finance into language average readers could understand. Porter embarked on a sixty-year mission after the market crash of 1929, delivering a message of economic empowerment to 40 million readers through a syndicated newspaper column, a monthly magazine column, and a series of best-selling books. Porter remains the only financial journalist ever to appear on the cover of Time, which published a cover story in 1960 that was both astute and complimentary in its appraisal of her. Porter was one of the most admired women of the twentieth century, yet the significance of her career—and the economic roots of her populist journalism—often get overlooked.
This presentation will examine the development of personal finance journalism, a genre that emerged in response to the Great Depression and the U.S. government’s growing interest in American consumers during and after World War II. The content was popular, as demonstrated by Porter’s success as a syndicated columnist, yet inconsistent as it developed during the century. What began as a crusade to personalize macroeconomics and explain business concepts to non-elite audiences grew into a form of service journalism that did not threaten the status quo. In the 1970s and 1980s, as Porter outsourced her writing in favor of monetizing her brand, personal finance journalism became less investigative and more formulaic. As a genre, it gave rise to media brands and personalities that dotted the financial landscape but did little to change it. This presentation will excavate and unpack the roots of the financial discourse Sylvia Porter pioneered.