Smart Money

I don't doubt that the folks at Dow Jones know a bit more about finance than I do. They publish The Wall Street Journal; I, on the other hand, invest in iPod accessories and chimichangas. And yet paging through the May issue of Smart Money, ostensibly one of the company's flagship tracts (co-published with Hearst), I still questioned whether it's actually, you know, smart.

The mag's reporting remains uniformly solid and devoid of frills, and it looks airier and reads cleaner than competing publications. But way too much of the issue has a been-there-read-that feel to it - and given the glut of would-be personal finance experts both offline and on, that amounts to a death sentence.

Of the May issue's six features, three don't exactly scream "breaking story" or "new take on an old story" or even "something kinda diverting, sort of." A look at flat-screen TVs veers into Consumer Reports territory, but without the no-ads credibility. "Ten Things Your Casino Won't Tell You" belongs in an airline magazine; "The New Middle-Class Luxury Home" merely adds a few dollar signs to a trend piece that's been written 62,946,854 times in shelter mags - those other great purveyors of creative thought.

An analysis of potential stock winners and losers in the wake of Bush's budget doesn't feel particularly knowing, and it's hard to take seriously any Q&A that includes the sentence, "It sounds like your business is going gangbusters." Then there's the "Smart Traveler" scoop that the photographs of hotel rooms used in marketing materials don't always accurately depict those rooms. Wait a second... you mean to tell me that advertising isn't always 100 percent honest and accurate? That's crazy talk!

Even when Smart Money offers something slightly different, an evaluation of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), it does so in a way that wouldn't seem to appeal to the target audience of affluent personal-finance zealots. If a story in a publication of this sort engages a halfwit like me, that likely signifies the intellectual price of admission has been slashed. Separately, as a self-appointed member of the cliché police, the contents-page billing of ETFs as "the hottest thing since sliced bread" forced me to unholster the pepper spray and call for backup.

Maybe Smart Money should reorganize around its columnists, as nearly all pull off the neat trick of coming across as authoritative without the usual dose of smugness. I'm not exactly sure why one of my favorite writers, U.S. Smartass Laureate Joe Queenan, has been given a monthly column in a finance magazine, but the guy's incapable of being anything less than entertaining.

That's what I took away from Smart Money: a few nuggets of cleverly worded advice presented in a relatively appealing setting, but one expects quite a bit more from any publication bearing the Dow Jones imprint.

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