While you're busy grinding out a living each day, you hope your investments are working as hard as you are. But how can you tell? For the longest time, getting up-to-the-minute financial news meant shelling out $1,000 or more a month for a Bloomberg or Quotron machine--a luxury only Wall Street professionals could justify. Luckily, a growing number of affordable news services let you keep close tabs on your investments during the day--without lifting a finger. While online services used to require you to log on for updates, newer products deliver the news automatically to your PC, pager, or other wireless device.
For investors on a budget, the most reasonable sources of financial news are CompuServe, Prodigy (800 776-3449), America Online (800 827-6364), and the new Microsoft Network (800 386-5550). Each offers a free trial that lets you take their service for a quick spin via modem. After that, most charge around $10 a month for the first five hours of access, though CompuServe and Prodigy add surcharges just for access to their investment forums.
MAPS AND MESSAGES. Given the aim of these mass-market services to offer something for everyone, they may leave many serious investors wanting more. All offer wire-service news as well as access to other financial publications and the Internet. But unlike the others, the new Microsoft Network still doesn't provide delayed stock quotes--although it gives access to Web sites that do. And only Prodigy alerts you when there's news affecting your stocks. The biggest problem is the inability to deliver news to you automatically and in a way that's tailored to your interests.
Fortunately, there are add-on software programs that can remedy this, at least for CompuServe subscribers. These "agents" dial in at designated intervals to retrieve updated news and quotes. The most comprehensive is the $39.95 Rosebud from Magee Enterprises (800 662-4330). It retrieves news on any company, industry, or market you specify, updates your portfolio value, and even transmits a splashy weather map.
For mobile investors, Rosebud also sells a $25 program that alerts you via pager to critical developments such as a sharp swing in a stock price. If you just want to monitor a specific portfolio, Virgil (415 433-9025) sells a $59.95 CompuServe add-on, StockTracker, that retrieves quotes and news on as many as 250 stocks and mutual funds, then sends you a pop-up message when it's done. Tracking 25 stocks averages about 15 cents per session, so four daily updates would add around $12 to CompuServe's basic $9.95 monthly fee. All of these services draw their news from the leading financial wires, such as Dow Jones and Reuters, both of which cater to Wall Street.
Sensing there's money to be made on Main Street, Dow Jones and Reuters now offer services of their own, priced for the small investor. Dow Jones's latest offering is Personal Journal, which provides top news from each morning's The Wall Street Journal plus Dow Jones wire updates. Designed to combine the Journal's authoritative analysis with the immediacy of a wire service, Personal Journal falls short on both counts. For about the same price as a subscription to the newspaper, you get a fraction of the printed content. And Personal Journal allows users to track news and quotes for only 25 companies--fewer if you want to follow the paper's popular features, such as the "Heard on the Street" column. Also, you must pay extra if you want more than one daily update.
If you need running updates throughout the day, the service worth watching may be Dow Jones's evolving Internet Web site, meant to be an interactive version of The Wall Street Journal. For now, it's free, but by spring, Dow Jones plans to charge for access to the full text of that day's paper, plus news updates from the Dow wires, stock quotes, charts, and financial data on more than 6,500 companies. For a peek, point your Web browser to http://update.wsj.com.
A LA CARTE PLANS. If you can wait until after the markets close, the Private Investor edition of Dow Jones's extensive News/Retrieval service may offer the best value. For $29.95 a month, you get eight hours of access to some of the same wire services and databases for which corporate users pay hundreds of dollars. The catch: You can only use the service evenings and weekends, or you get slapped with the same surcharge corporate users pay--$1.50 for each 1,000 characters, or about a screen of data. And Private Investor doesn't allow you to create "folders" that collect news on a portfolio of stocks; you have to enter manually each ticker symbol or company name you want to search.
Reuters Money Network should be the perfect service: For $7 to $30 a month, you can download up to 1,000 articles on your companies a month, screen through a universe of 5,200 stocks by such criteria as dividend yields and earnings growth, and create alarms that alert you to news affecting your stocks and funds, such as a major price move. But the program can be difficult to configure and use. What's more, Reuters doesn't always move news as quickly as its rivals: When the Talbots retail chain reported third-quarter earnings, the news moved within minutes on Personal Journal but took more than an hour on Reuters Money Network.
If headlines and wire stories leave you hungering for meatier information, you may find two new services more satisfying. Instead of charging a flat rate for access, Profound and NewsPage offer "a la carte" pricing plans that let you pay largely for the news you can use. A recent search through NewsPage, which operates as an Internet Web site (http://www.newspage.com), for articles on Intel turned up 18 stories from various sources. NewsPage organizes stories by topic, leaving you to dig through several layers to find items of interest. You can use your Web browser to leave "bookmarks" for easy reference.
Profound (800 270-9896) charges $19.95 a month, plus $6.95 an hour, to search its databases. But what databases: The dial-up service provides access to more than 4,000 periodicals, including Wall Street research reports (albeit a month old). A Dean Witter Reynolds report on Intel, for instance, cost $25. Profound is also distinguished by its use of Adobe Acrobat, which displays reports in their original form--complete with graphics. While Adobe documents are impressive when printed out, they can be hard to read onscreen and painfully slow to save to your hard drive. Downloading Profound's eight-page news summary, updated each hour, took more than 10 minutes with a 14,400-baud modem--delivering, in effect, a $1.50 newspaper.
Some entrepreneurs have seized on the Internet's growing reach to deliver news by electronic mail. If you have Internet access and an internal E-mail system at the office, these programs can deliver news flashes straight into your computer. And they're ideal if your job takes you on the road with a laptop. The best E-mail program is Farcast, which transmits news from the Associated Press, United Press International, and corporate releases.
DOWNTIME. For around $30 a month, Farcast sends you periodic news summaries, portfolio updates, plus headlines for any 15 companies or key words. You simply E-mail back the numerical codes of the stories you want and within minutes, Farcast shoots you the full text. QuoteCom provides midday and end-of-day quotes for up to 200 stocks, plus news flashes, starting at $9.95. The weakness of the E-mail services is that, with the Internet straining under the weight of its growth, messages occasionally take hours to arrive: News that Salomon Brothers updated Chips & Technologies to a "strong buy" moved three hours after Standard & Poor's issued the notification.
While most of these services promote themselves as affordable, it's still easy to rack up huge bills if you avail yourself of all their bells and whistles. How much should you budget for news and quote services? Financial experts recommend spending no more than 1% of your portfolio's value on research and brokerage commissions combined--about the same level of expenses charged by the average mutual fund. With luck, you'll recoup the costs of these services many times over.
Online News and Quote Services
COMPUSERVE Dial-up service. $9.95/month for 5
hours; extra hours, $2.95. 800 848-8199
DOW JONES NEWS/ Dial-up service. $29.95 for 8 nonprime
RETRIEVAL-PRIVATE hours, extra hours, $3.60. 800 815-5100
FARCAST Internet E-mail service.$29.95/month.
415 327-2446 / email@example.com
PERSONAL Dial-up service. $12.95/month for one
JOURNAL 2.0 daily update; additional updates, 50 cents
each. 30-day free trial. 800 291-9382
QUOTECOM Internet (URL: http://www.quote.com).
Internet E-mail service. $9.95 for basic.
800 261-7740 / firstname.lastname@example.org
REUTERS MONEY Dial-up service. Basic software, $25;
NETWORK Monthly service, $7 to $30. 800 346-2024
COMPUSERVE News wires, plus thousands of periodicals.Two add-
on programs, StockTracker and Rosebud, automate
news and quote retrieval.
DOW JONES NEWS/ Lets you search five Dow Jones wire services evenings
RETRIEVAL-PRIVATE and weekends for company news. Can't create "fold-
INVESTOR EDITION ers" that collect news automatically.
FARCAST Business news via E-mail from AP and UPI wires, cor-
porate press releases. Free 10-day trial.
PERSONAL Top stories from The Wall Street Journal, plus news
JOURNAL 2.0 updates for any 25 companies. Can also monitor pop-
ular WSJ features such as "Heard en the Street"
QUOTECOM End-of-day quotes for up to 200 stocks, plus breaking
news and analysis sent via E-mail.
REUTERS MONEY Basic $10 plan gives you unlimited news and price
NETWORK quotes for your stocks. Provides news alerts for
specified stocks and funds.