A fond farewell to a MoneyWeek legend
John Stepek, MoneyWeek’s executive editor, is leaving for fresh pastures. Dominic Frisby shares his thoughts.
John Stepek is leaving MoneyWeek.
I’ve known for a while, but as his final day is today, the implications are just sinking in.
I first started writing for MoneyWeek in 2006, which means John has been my editor for 16 years. Week in week out, he’s had to plough through my twaddle. I reckon I have written at least 800 Money Mornings in that time (one Money Morning per week for 16 years), though the figure is probably closer to a thousand, as I’ve often written two per week. Plus the stuff I’ve written for the main mag.
Each Money Morning averages 1,000 words, often more, so I make that close to a million words of mine that John has read, suffered and edited.
What a saint.
A happy accident
I’ve been racking my brains as to a memorable and suitable present to buy him, to say thank you. Then it came to me. What more appropriate way of expressing my gratitude than through a Money Morning itself.
For all our plans, for all “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men”, life has a habit of taking the accidental route and so it was with my relationship with John. Although it never went, “gang aft a-gley.”
Now if John was editing this, he would demand that I explain that Scottish poet Robbie Burns reference. I would say, “everyone knows that quote, we don’t need to explain it.” John would insist we do. And, in order not to patronise those that do know it, I would then find a way of explaining that “gang aft a-gley” means “go wrong” without overtly looking like I am explaining it. The result would be something along the lines of what you’ve just read.
You now know, if you were in any doubt, that “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft a-gley” is a quote by Scottish poet Robbie Burns meaning, “even good plans go wrong”, but you don’t feel patronised because I’ve explained it, while apparently talking about something else.
I learned how to do that through working with John.
In MoneyWeek, of course, usually what needs explaining isn’t a great Scottish poet, but some incomprehensible financial or mining jargon.
Back to the point. My relationship with both John and MoneyWeek all happened by accident. Back in 2006, as a jobbing comedian and voiceover artist, I had made a bit of money and I was trying to figure out what to do with it. In fact, specifically, I was trying to figure how to turn the pot I had into three or five million quid in order that I could make the musical Kisses on a Postcard happen.
I didn’t entirely trust the fund managers I had met to achieve the unrealistic and astronomical multiples I was hoping for. So I started a podcast and began interviewing all these clever people I saw talking on the internet, such as Jim Rogers, Jim Dines and James Turk, to see if I could figure out a plan. Commodities and gold in particular seemed the route, and the show was called Commodity Watch Radio.
One of the people I interviewed was Merryn, who said did I want to write a newsletter about commodities? I said I wasn’t sure I was equipped to do that. She said come into the office and have a chat. In I went to meet Merryn and the then MD Toby Bray. There was also some quiet bloke in the corner, John Stepek.
We agreed that thrusting me into a newsletter might be a little premature, but John had started this daily email, Money Morning, and perhaps I could start writing, say, one per week and then we’d see how it goes and take it from there? Fine, I agreed.
Here we are 16 years on and it’s still going. A temporary plan became permanent. A bit like Income Tax.
MoneyWeek’s quiet, consistent rock
Clarity has always been John’s priorities, but also neutrality. “You’re great on the financial stuff and the macro stuff, Dominic, but when you get onto politics, you get ranty. You confirm the biases of those who agree with you, you annoy those who don’t and you alienate the undecided,” he once said to me. That expression has always stayed with me: “alienate the undecided”.
In today’s polarised worlds, if you want notoriety, it pays to be an Owen Jones or a Tucker Carlson, but that was never measured John’s priority, nor is it the MoneyWeek way, which aims to stay broadly neutral on politics.
John has always edited my stuff quickly and well, but he’s never been precious about his edits. I, on the other hand, am a control freak, and John has let that be. He doesn’t seem to mind me re-editing his edits - no control freak he. The resulting compromise has almost invariably been a better piece.
I have learned so much about writing in our time together. I always wanted to be a writer. I went to drama school because all the best writers started out as actors. But, bizarrely, it wasn’t the entertainment industry that ever gave me the break. It was finance, MoneyWeek, Merryn Somerset Webb and John Stepek.
I’ve since written three books, several films and endless content, as you probably know.
And here’s the bizarre thing: in all that time, I’d say I have met John in person fewer than ten times. Our entire relationship, one of the most successful professional relationships of my life, has been conducted almost entirely by email. Occasionally we speak on the phone, but rarely.
Who says in this new age of digital nomadery we actually need to meet the people we work for?
John must get more emails than Gary Lineker does complaints and yet throughout all of that time he has always replied to me promptly and thoroughly. It sounds trivial. But I’ve had book editors who don’t reply to emails, and it’s a blooming nightmare. Communication breaks down.
I usually reply to emails quickly as well, and that has been key to our success.
I once heard Merryn describe John as her rock, and he really has been that to the entire MoneyWeek operation. A pillar of quiet consistency, happy for those he edits to get the praise and the glory, while he quietly gets on with it.
He can be strong and stubborn when he needs to, but he’s also been very much live and let live, tolerant of his contributors’ eccentric and idiosyncrasies – embracing of them even.
In all that time, we have never had a falling out. In fact, I can only recall one angry word. I had been trying to write a hugely witty debunk of some nonsense from Nouriel Roubini on gold, in the same ten-point format of Roubini’s original article. But I couldn’t write it to the 10-point Roubini template – we obviously think differently – with the net result that the article I submitted was both late and unpublishable. It meant John had to write a last-minute replacement when he had better things to be doing, such as getting that week’s magazine to print. No wonder he had the hump.
I’ve spent this entire article praising John as an editor and I have’t even got to his writing talents. And yet they are what his new employer has signed him up for.
John, thank you so much for everything. I will be forever grateful. I wish you the very best of success in your new job. And you will, I’ve no doubt, have it. Because fortune favours the prepared.