Steve Lipin didn’t fit the profile of a transformative media figure when he took over the mergers-and-acquisitions beat for The Wall Street Journal in 1995. His look was studious, his manner remarkably affable and low key, given the stress of his new job. His rise had not been particularly meteoric.
He had started in 1985 at the bottom of the business-news food chain, financial newsletters, then progressed to Institutional Investor, a magazine for pension-fund
managers, and then American Banker, another trade. In 1991, he followed his boss there to The Wall Street Journal, to cover banking. After four years of solid, unspectacular work, he moved to M&A, a beat that was at the time moribund.
Then the scoops started to come:
Kemper Agrees to be Acquired by Group Headed by Zurich Insurance for $2 Billion
That story, which ran April 11, 1995, reported that the financial services firm was ending a tumultuous year in which it had rejected a hostile offer from General Electric and had seen a friendly deal fall apart twice. The story was based on information from “people familiar with the transaction,” a form of attribution vague enough to encompass just about anyone involved in the deal—investment bankers, lawyers, company executives, public-relations specialists.
The scoops got bigger and more frequent:
First Union Agrees to Buy First Fidelity for $5.5 Billion—Swap Valued at $65 a Share; Combination to Create 7th-Largest U.S. Bank—June 19, 1995
Kimberly-Clark to Acquire Scott Paper in Stock Deal Valued at About $6.8 Billion—July 17, 1995
Upjohn and Pharmacia Sign $6 Billion Merger—August 21, 1995
Lipin’s scoops ranged across industries: banking, consumer products, pharmaceuticals. It didn’t seem to matter:
Boeing and Mcdonnell Douglas are Holding Merger Negotiations—Commercial, Military Aircraft Powerhouse Could Shake Industry —November 16, 1995
Week in, week out, Lipin seemed to get just about every industry-transforming blockbuster: Chase Manhattan/ Chemical (1995), $10 billion; WorldCom/mci (1997), $30 billion; BankAmerica/NationsBank, a $60-billion deal in 1998 to form Bank of America, and in the same story BancOne/First Chicago nbd Corporation, $30 billion (the combined bank is now part of J. P. Morgan Chase, formed in 2000 with the $36-billion combination of J. P. Morgan & Company and Chase Manhattan Incorporated—another Lipin scoop.)
A handful of major scoops over the course of a career is considered a job well done for an M&A reporter. Lipin had, by my count, at least seventy, with a total value of more than half a trillion dollars. He was on prominent pages of the WSJ (A1, A3, C1, and B1), more than five hundred times in five years, which could be a record. Those who traded on Lipin’s information early enough stood to make serious money. The WorldCom bid alone added $8 billion to mci’s value in a single day.
Most of the time, the names of the companies in Lipin’s scoops had never been linked, let alone reported as combining. The stories often announced talks in progress, amplifying a sense of immediacy: this was news that hadn’t even happened yet. They often said the deals “could be announced as early as today.” (Full disclosure: Lipin was a colleague of mine at the Journal, and in 2009 and 2010 he was a funder of cjr’s business desk, The Audit, which I run.)
Inside newsrooms and in the markets, major M&A scoops have an electrifying effect. Mergers represent big capital-allocation decisions affecting thousands of jobs and billions of investor dollars. And while M&A is routine on Wall Street, for most companies it is a one-time roll of the dice. An acquisition taken is a dozen alternatives foregone. Big deals are also benchmarks—important pricing moments that help determine values and, in fact, create realities. What was unthinkable one day—AOL/Time Warner, for instance—is reality the next. For a news organization, deal scoops create an aura of omniscience, a sense that it is plugged into Wall Street.
But Lipin’s never-to-be-equaled run was part of a much larger wave, a transformation in business news itself. Business news was expanding greatly as the financial world itself ballooned and as millions of Americans began to invest in stocks in various forms in record numbers. The number of business-news stories, according to ProQuest’s business-news data, jumped from about 168,000 in 1989 to 322,000 a decade later, a rise of 92 percent. It kept rising, to 538,000, last year. (One category of business publication tracked by ProQuest doubled over the last decade, to more than 3,700.)