It took Mr. Levine exactly one week to find his voice.
Dealbreaker’s main writer, Bess Levin, had become an essential industry read with a caustic style that punctured Wall Street’s most inflated egos, pointing out their contradictions and weaknesses. Mr. Levine tried to write like that, with snarky punch lines, and failed. Part of the problem was that he couldn’t really access a contempt for Wall Street titans. He was of the place, and he found its workings genuinely interesting.
“I encouraged him to use his own voice,” Ms. Levin said. “I was writing more about the gossipy side of Wall Street and more the culture of it, and I thought it was a great opportunity for him to use his incredible knowledge of how the business works.” Mr. Levine regrouped. If Ms. Levin found an audience by tearing down the personalities of Wall Street, Mr. Levine set to work pulling apart its structures, to better explain the wiring in the walls.
He began by combing through the complex legal battles stemming from the 2008 financial crisis over who deserved to be paid and who deserved not to pay, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the combatants’ claims. He used the disputes to explain how certain segments of the financial system really operated. He seasoned his analyses with humor and a nerdy, confident tone. It was like a combination of everything Mr. Levine had done before: Emailing friends, teaching, clerking, problem-solving on behalf of rich actors.
Before long, Mr. Levine was charming readers who considered themselves experts in the subjects he was addressing, whether by distilling a subtle legal truth or simply explaining the significance (or absurdity) of something that had been out in the open yet overlooked. “Matt’s the perfect complement to Bess,” Felix Salmon, another financial blogger, wrote in October 2011. “I just hope he doesn’t get poached by some deep-pocketed mainstream news organization which will end up stifling the very thing he’s best at.”
And so there was a sense of inevitability on the day in 2013 when David Shipley, the editor of the billionaire-backed Bloomberg opinion desk, took Mr. Levine to lunch and offered him a job. “It was like this long, Matt-type silence, and then kind of a sigh, and then: ‘OK,’” Mr. Shipley recalled.
‘People want a lock of his hair’
Bloomberg offered Mr. Levine stability and a larger platform. His readership grew, and became more obsessive. A group of fans once made themselves T-shirts bearing the text of one of his tweets about cryptocurrencies. Some of Mr. Levine’s readers write to him and attempt to mimic his style, as if he were J.D. Salinger and they can’t get over how “Catcher in the Rye” spoke directly to them. I asked Mr. Levine for some examples, wanting to see exactly what shape this took, but he declined, because he considers these correspondents to be sources.
“He gets these letters from people, like: ‘My boyfriend loves you; can I get an autographed card for his birthday?’” said his friend, the journalist Mary Childs. “I joke that people want a lock of his hair.”