At USA Today, One Makes a Trend

It's hard to say what journalism loves more -- a comeback story or a hot trend.

It’s hard to say what journalism loves more, a comeback story or a hot trend. Following the announcement last week that Michael Dell would return to the helm of his namesake computer company, USA Today responded with a piece that tried to encapsulate both.

“Are boomerang CEOs back?” a headline on the Money page of asked Friday, while a blurb noted that “Michael Dell’s return to his company is first of 2007.”

Clicking through to the story brought another headline, and the first crack in USA Today’s argument: “Dell joins ranks of once-hot trend: Boomerang CEOs” (emphasis added).

“Does Michael Dell signal a new era of the ‘comeback kid?’” the story began. “When he was rehired late Wednesday, Dell became the first so-called boomerang CEO to be brought back to rescue a Fortune 500 company since 2005. Dell, 41 and founder of the PC maker, replaced Kevin Rollins, 54, who was Dell’s hand-picked replacement two years ago” (actually, in 2004).

So Dell is the first such boomerang boss in two years. (Trend!) But USA Today goes on, noting that “Boomerangs used to be common,” with about 10 former CEOs “brought back each year at the largest 1,500 companies” between 1999 and 2003 — although, more recently, “there were no boomerang CEOs at Fortune 500 companies in 2006 and just two in 2005.”

So boomerang CEOs are hardly “back,” as the first headline sort of promised. But perhaps USA Today has found a hint, somewhere, that more are coming down the tracks?

Alas, in the next graph a “chief reputation strategist” tells the paper this: “The sea change in board oversight [since Enron] has created less need for boomerang CEOs” — d’oh! — although “Those who do return will be like Dell, because ‘founders are the ultimate guardians of corporate reputation.’”

Next, the piece asserts, “Michael Dell is a true comeback kid at one year younger than Steve Jobs when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 to begin his iPod curtain call and oversee a stock rise approaching 2,000 percent.” Sure, Jobs is “atypical” as boomerang CEOs go, and “It won’t be easy for Michael Dell to mimic Jobs,” but Dell is making a comeback, no question about it.

Finally, USA Today reveals that the average age of 65 CEOs rehired between 1993 and 2005 was 61 — a full two decades older than its prized comeback kid — weakening its case a little more.

And, as this very cold “trend” story fades into the ether, about the only sound audible is the dull thud of USA Today’s thesis boomeranging upon itself.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.