Audit Interview: Carol J. Loomis

The Fortune legend talks about 60 years in business journalism

Carol J. Loomis, who retired in July after 60 years at Fortune, where she became, indisputably, a giant of business journalism. Along the way, she blazed a trail for women journalists, felled CEOs, and became close friends with a little-known Omaha investor named Buffett. Put it this way: She won a Loeb award for Lifetime Achievement in 1993 and continued working at the highest level for another 21 years. CJR’s Ryan Chittum talked to her about her remarkable career. (This is an extended version of a Q&A in the current print issue of CJR).

The Audit: The obvious first question is: Why now?

Carol Loomis: I really think it’s funny to have to defend retiring at age 85. I mean, really! When you get right down to it, it’s pretty amazing that I worked this long and so, you would think it had to be sometime. And so I think the closest to “why now?” is when you get this age, you realize that traveling has gotten more difficult. And the fact is, a Fortune writer should have the ability to be assigned to a story this afternoon, wherever in the world it is, and get on a plane tomorrow and go there and do sometimes-exhausting work. When you’re age 85 that sounds harder than it used to. So I do think that the “why now?” has a lot to do with realizing that my ability to be a full-fledged, dedicated, capable Fortune writer is probably held back a little by the fact that I’ve gotten this old. So that’s really what it is.

TA: Do you plan to write at all for Fortune or do you plan to write your memoirs or anything like that?

CL: Well, I’m definitely not writing my memoirs. I’ve done that. It was 16 pages in the magazine. I feel like that was pretty much “A” copy. I feel that if I went on and tried to do a book it would be moving into “B”, “C”, and “D” copy, and I’m just not interested in that. The fact is, I have no economic reason to write. And many people who do write books, do have an economic reason to write one. Andy Serwer and I sort of left it up in the air as to whether I would maybe do another something for Fortune. It seems to me that if I got my fingers on a really great story that would be good for Fortune.com, it would take me about five minutes to sit down and report it and write it. A longer story, like a 6,000 word piece, would have to be something that I could do without pressure, setting my own timeframe. And that may be a hard recipe to come up with. So I just don’t know how it’s going to work out, and now there’s a new managing editor. I know Alan Murray only slightly but everything I know about him is very good.

TA: I know you’ve been opposed to Time being part of a media conlogmerate. And now with the spinoff, will that affect the culture at all? They have editors reporting to the business side now—things that hadn’t been done before. Are you worried about that?

CL: Well, I think “worry” would be too strong a word. I certainly recognize that it’s a different reporting structure, and I think the old one, where the managing editor reported to an editor-in-chief is to be preferred over this one. But times are very different today, as far as print’s concerned and so I can’t say just absolutely that it shouldn’t be this way. I don’t know. It’s just—everything’s very different.

TA: How about how they spun the company off? Rupert Murdoch when he spun off News Corp., he gave it a big pile of cash and no debt, and they didn’t do that here.

CL: Well, first of all. I think it’s good, as you say. I’ve expressed my feelings about print organizations being owned by conglomerates, so I think it’s better that we’re off on our own. First of all, I just haven’t studied as much as I probably should have the financial characteristics here, so I don’t have a strong opinion as to whether the amount of debt we got was burdensome. You know we’ve been sending an awful lot of money up to Time Warner, and we’re keeping our own cashflow now. That’s certainly to the good. But I don’t have a strong feeling as to whether the company is financially set up the way it should be or not.

TA: What do you think about the news industry these days? A big part of my job is writing about the business of news, and it’s a gruesome scene, a lot of it. Do you have any thoughts on where the business is now and what it could be doing?

CL: I don’t have views that I could support with a lot of knowledge. I think it’s a tough spot, and I’m glad to see the improvisation that’s out there as people attempt to solve their problems. I’m a huge admirer of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. I read them both religiously every day and am very thankful that I can still get the print copy delivered to my front door at about 5:15 in the morning. I think it’s tough for everybody going through these years, and we don’t know how it will shake out and I just hope it’s in a way that supports the newsgathering forces, which we need so much.

TA: What else do you read to keep on top of the news?

CL: Of course you have to recognize that there’s a difference in what I was doing a month ago and what I’m doing now, because I’m retired. I don’t need to worry about keeping up with everything as much as I did.

TA: How about what did you read, I should say?

CL: I didn’t see the Financial Times every day, but every day that I saw it, I was sorry that I didn’t see it everyday. And other than that, I read things like The New Yorker, which I still read. I go to Marketwatch.com to read what’s going on there and to look at a stock portfolio. And I sometimes saw the Washington Post, and I was always glad when I saw the Washington Post. It was the Times and the Journal that I considered indispensable every day, including on the weekends.

TA: Your whole career has been about doing longform journalism. These days, we often hear that to emphasize the 5,000-word piece is just “journalists writing for journalists.”

CL: First of all, I think the old Fortune, one of its quirks was that just about every story was the same length: long. The editors would talk from time to time… every managing editor would say we ought to have variance in the length of the stories. They all don’t deserve a full 6,000 words. Some of them should be 3,000 words, and everybody would give lip service to this but then it wouldn’t happen. So when we went to biweekly, I think that that was one of the things that we began to do better was that we did recognize that some stories deserved very long treatment and that others didn’t deserve as much. And so I think that was all to the good, and I believe that managing editors have gotten better and better at that, as they’ve gone along, in recognizing the number of words that a subject deserves. I can’t imagine the world without longform journalism. I simply don’t think it’s simply just journalists writing for journalists. There are some subjects that just can’t be covered without a lot of words. I think back on some of my stories where I just could not have done the subject the justice it deserves. Something like derivatives, for example.

TA: That’s the one I was thinking of.

CL: There were actually two of them. One in 1994 and one in 1995, both of them cover stories, and there’s no way of writing in a short fashion about derivatives. Particularly not when they’re brand new and people are trying to understand them for the first time, and you must have a generous supply of words to deal with that. You need room to handle the bigness of the subject.

TA: What impressed me about those stories was how prescient they were 13 or 14 years before the financial crisis. And that’s true for a lot of your stories going back as long as you’ve been writing.

CL: Some of it is luck. I remember on the first derivatives story, one of our editors Julie Connelly, said, “Carol, you ought to write about derivatives,” and I remember shrinking in horror. The Fortune way was that the great stories come out of a good subject and a writer who enthusiastically wants to cover that subject. And so, almost never, are you told you must do a story at Fortune. Almost never.

This editor and my managing editor at the time, who was Marshall Loeb, convinced me that (derivatives) was a subject that I should take on. And one of my failings is that I tend to get very interested in subjects if I go into them. That accounts for the messiness of my office, because I never forget my interest in those subjects. I got into derivatives and as I began to understand them I found them fascinating. I began to develop sort of a concept of how to write about them.

And I’ve always had the ability—and this is very important—to call up the smartest investor, definitely, and probably the smartest guy in the country, Warren Buffett, and say, “Guess what I’m going to do derivatives. You have any thoughts on this?” And I have benefited greatly from having Warren suggest a few things to me over the years.

TA: How much of that was him informed by you, and how much was you informed by him?

CL: As I said, I benefited from being able to ask his opinion about things. And so that’s been very important that I could check in on someone like Warren and get his views. And I could do that early and I could do it later, and in the meantime I could get informed myself totally about a subject. To the extent that there’s been any informing, I’m afraid that I haven’t informed him very much (laughs). He’s informed me more than the other thing. I wouldn’t be presumptuous.

TA: Being a woman who started in the Fifties at Fortune magazine to a lot of people it’s really surprising that that happened back then. At the same time, you have some of the greatest journalists have been women—Ida Tarbell, for instance…

CL: Of course. Good name to pull from the ancient times. Absolutely.

TA: Did you learn from them or did you sort of make your own way? How did you become a writer at Fortune back when women didn’t get those jobs?

CL: Well, I got invited to do it. First of all, it was not something that I was even the smallest amount of pushy about. I liked my job. I was a researcher, which was what they would call a reporter today, who worked with the writers, all of whom were men. And then we started this new investment column and my managing editor called me in and said that we need two writers on the column and one of them was going to be Tom Wise and the other one he hoped would be me. And I sort of did what women are not supposed to do. I said, “Are you sure? Women don’t write!” (laughs). And he said yes, he was sure. As I think the memoir said, I had two things I had to learn all at once. I had to learn about writing for Fortune and I had to learn about investments, which I didn’t know enough about. And the editor of the investment column was a guy named Dan Seligman and he more than any other person was responsible for teaching me how to write for Fortune. He probably didn’t know anything more about investment than I did, but both of us kind of learned together. So I owe a lot to Dan Seligman for teaching me, and the managing editors were always good about chiming in—maybe they didn’t even chime in often enough. I remember that there was, many years later, it was a story about utilities I did. And I turned in my first draft and my editor, who was Dan Seligman still then. Bob Lubar was the managing editor and Bob Lubar sent Dan Seligman a note and said—I can still remember it—“One of Carol’s virtues is that she leads the reader around so carefully. But she sometimes gets quite wordy in doing that.” Well, it was a revelation to me. Nobody—I’d been writing for 12 years or something like that—nobody had ever said that I sometimes got wordy. And the minute they did, I stopped it (laughs). Oh, if they’d only told me that five or six years ago, it would have been so much better. I think sometimes we didn’t get as much guidance as we should have, but eventually we did.

TA: Did you have problems when you were trying to talk to executives in a male-dominated culture—being taken seriously or getting interviews?

CL: After my first story, which wasn’t very good, I got absolutely rabid about collecting every fact I could before I ever interviewed anybody. I believed that if you’ve done your homework, then about one minute into the interview they don’t even notice whether you’re a man or a woman. They realize that they are talking to someone who paid them the compliment of studying up for the interview.

Sometimes I think that just doesn’t happen as much as it should, so that’s still one of the great things that I think journalists can do is try to just become as informed as they can before they ever make a telephone call.

TA: How has reporting changed over your career? Have the PR operations gotten savvier? Is it harder to get to the key people?

CL: I think that there are some companies that are pretty notorious for not welcoming journalists at all, and it’s hard to talk to Apple. We have a guy in California who can talk to Apple. But when I did a story last year on Apple, and I tried to talk to them, I couldn’t even get close to Tim Cook. Fortunately, it was the kind of story where I didn’t have to.

If you can’t get into these companies, you have to come to grips with the question of is this story worth a write-around, which is a term I never had heard for a long time. Sometimes you just have to prove to a company that you can do a good write-around to make them think that maybe they didn’t make the right decision originally. So I think that companies have gotten tighter to get into. It’s harder. I think that public relations men were sitting in on interviews very early in my reporting career, so I’ve always been used to that. A story I just did on BlackRock, they did not want me to do a story at the time I asked to do it. I just persisted and ended up writing Larry Fink a letter making the argument why I should do the story. And for whatever reason, he decided to say yes. So it just varies.

TA: It’s not like you have a beat where you’re covering these companies and know them, day in day out for ten years or something. When you get an assignment or story idea, how do you go about digging into the company?

CL: Well, it’s A) to do a lot of homework and study before I ever get a first interview, and then it’s to interview quite a few people. Talking to the CEO alone is not a good idea. You can certainly do a story if you talk only to the CEO but you’re so much better off if you can talk to the CFO and the head of marketing, head of engineering (I’m sort of making it up, because it would vary a lot with the company it was). Gradually, and I always asked to talk to the CEO when I was beginning and then at the end of the process, because by that time you’re so much smarter, you really know what the questions are. And of course all of this takes a lot of time and some publications aren’t willing to devote that much time to it, and Fortune has always been, so that’s one of the great things about working here.

TA: When you say homework, are you talking about reading clips and going into securities filings and court documents?

CL: I’m unusually fond of reading 10-Ks (laughs). I like to read 10-Ks. And now, one of the things you’ve got that you didn’t have, is you’ve got transcripts of earnings calls. So on the story I did about Apple where I said I could get no cooperation at all, I read seven years of earnings calls and took notes as I read them so that I could remind myself what was important in each one of them. And the earnings calls turned out to be—on the subject I was writing on, which was Apple’s cash—really, really important. Because I could find out what Steve Jobs said about cash. I could find out whether their story changed at all about cash over the years as it was building up. So thank heavens in that case for earnings calls.

TA: One of the things we’ve criticized at CJR is the speeding up of the reporting and writing process. That people have to churn out more content—more stories, videos, tweets, livechats and things like that. Do you notice that?

CL: I think an awful lot of what appears online is useless. It’s not well prepared, there are often important inaccuracies in something. And I think the form suffers because too little time goes into it and it’s very derivative. Everybody’s reading what everybody else has written about it, and I think a lot of it just doesn’t make the grade of good journalism.

TA: My boss, Dean Starkman, wrote a book about the financial crisis and how the press covered it in the runup to it, and he was critical about that. In 2004 to 2007, particularly the banks and mortgage lenders. While there was a lot of talk about a housing bubble, in his view, there was less of a direct take on the institutions that would lead to the financial crisis. What do you think about that and how the financial press…

CL: I haven’t read the book, but I have read some of what he said, and I thought there was a lot of merit in what he said. Our housing writer here was actually very good on the subject…

TA: Shawn Tully

CL: Shawn Tully, yeah you’re right. I was writing earlier about accounting scams, but I was not writing very much about that. Maybe I should have been during that period. Well, I take it back, I was writing a lot about Citigroup and toward the end under Chuck Prince, I was very critical of what was going on at the company. But I didn’t do anything on JP (Morgan) or Morgan Stanley. I did something earlier on Morgan Stanley.

TA: You’re one person, though, and I think you did plenty, but it’s the institutions. The Journal, where I was at at that point, or Fortune as a whole or Forbes or BusinessWeek. Any idea why we missed it or didn’t do a good enough job?

CL: I think it took a high degree of intelligence to see it. And we know how many businessmen—businesspeople, I should be saying—were completely fooled. Maybe we should have stepped out and realized how bad things had gotten. But I don’t think we were any smarter than the business populace that was largely fooled by the buildup and the bubble.

TA: Let’s see. I could ask you questions all day.

CL: Don’t do that (laughs). I can always call you back. I might be off playing bridge and might be unavailable for three hours or so, but do call because I’ve never done a story where I succeeded in asking every question that I wished I would have asked without having to call back.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,