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Carol J. Loomis reflects on 60 years at Fortune

"It's pretty amazing I've worked this long!"
September 2, 2014

(Credit: Fortune)

Carol J. Loomis 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.

Why now? I think it’s funny to have to defend retiring at age 85. I mean, really! It’s pretty amazing that I worked this long. 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 85, that sounds harder than it used to.

How did you become a writer at Fortune back when women didn’t get those jobs?  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!’

I think it’s funny that I have to defend retiring at age 85. I mean, really!

Did you have problems trying to interview executives in a male-dominated culture?  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.

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.”  I can’t imagine the world without longform journalism. 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.

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That’s the story I was thinking of. 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. You need room to handle the bigness of the subject.

What impressed me about those derivatives stories was how prescient they were 13, 14 years before the financial crisis. 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 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. 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.

How much of that was him being informed by you versus you being informed by him? To the extent there has been any informing, I’m afraid that I haven’t informed him very much. I wouldn’t be presumptuous.

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.