In “Confidence Game” I asserted that, as journalists from Tarbell to the people in this room have demonstrated, the long-form narrative is journalism at its most subversive. I think most of the people in this room know what I mean when I say that. But as a reminder, I’ll read the five opening paragraphs from one of my favorite newspaper stories:
OAKLAND, Calif. — On the eve of the 1986 leveraged buy-out of Safeway Stores Inc., the board of directors sat down to a last supper. Peter Magowan, the boyish-looking chairman and chief executive of the world’s largest supermarket chain, rose to offer a toast to the deal that had fended off a hostile takeover by the corporate raiders Herbert and Robert Haft.
“Through your efforts, a true disaster was averted,” the 44-year-old Mr. Magowan told the other directors. By selling the publicly held company to a group headed by buy-out specialists Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and members of Safeway management, “you have saved literally thousands of jobs in our work force,” Mr. Magowan said. “All of us-employees, customers, shareholders-have a great deal to be thankful for.”
Nearly four years later, Mr. Magowan and the KKR group can indeed count their blessings. While they borrowed heavily to buy Safeway from the shareholders, last month they sold 10% of the company (but none of their own shares) back to the public-at a price that values their own collective stake at more than $800 million, more than four times their cash investment.
Employees, on the other hand, have considerably less reason to celebrate. Mr. Magowan’s toast notwithstanding, 63,000 managers and workers were cut loose from Safeway, through store sales or layoffs. While the majority were re-employed by their new store owners, this was largely at lower wages, and many thousands of Safeway people wound up either unemployed or forced into the part-time work force. A survey of former Safeway employees in Dallas found that nearly 60% still hadn’t found full-time employment more than a year after the layoff.
James White, a Safeway trucker for nearly 30 years in Dallas, was among the 60%. In 1988, he marked the one-year anniversary of his last shift at Safeway this way: First he told his wife he loved her, then he locked the bathroom door, loaded his .22-caliber hunting rifle and blew his brains out.
The date was May 16, 1990. The publication was the WSJ. The reporter on the story, it may surprise you to learn, was Susan Faludi.
This is an example of explaining a complex subject—the leveraged buyout—to a mass audience. And that story only gained power as you read its 7,700 words.
Similarly, if you wanted to learn about the true nature of Citigroup in 2003, the fact that it was built on a subprime-foundation, you could read Mike Hudson’s 10,000-word epic “Banking on Misery,” which ran in tiny Southern Exposure magazine and won a Polk Award in 2004. Unfortunately, only a small number of readers saw that piece.
Everyone here could name their own stories, and then multiply them by 1,000.
In his description of this conference, Mark Kramer wrote that its purpose is to “recognize the civic, ethical, political and literary achievements of the finest storytelling journalism
This conference is about our new genre, still in progress, about understanding its heritage, integrity, power, and the craft skills that make it work.”
My purpose, as I said at the beginning, is to report back from the future, the future of news, or the debate about it anyway, and to tell that it will be okay. And maybe better than okay.
The first phase of the debate—the triumphalist phase—I sense is coming to a close. People aren’t running around the field so much anymore. On the other side, panic time is over.
We still have a few issues to work out.