The interview with Carol Loomis is awesome, according to the internet. Loomis worked at Fortune for 60 years and is Warren Buffett’s best friend (probably after Charlie Munger?).
This transcript doesn’t do the podcast justice, but it’s the next best thing if you have to be pretend-working. Or, just put on headphones and act like you’re concentrating really hard on some code for the next hour.
Longform Podcast #152: Carol Loomis –Longform
Got a very exciting podcast for you today. I interviewed Carol Loomis Carol Loomis retired last year after more than sixty years at Fortune magazine. To put it in perspective the career she had she won a lifetime achievement award in 1993 and then just kept working for another twenty years she’s she’s amazing she’s amazing she also just happens to be Warren Buffett’s best friend. They talk on the phone every day she’s edited every one of his annual reports for forty years. She’s just amazing and she came to us she sat in the chair you’re sitting in right now and she talked about all of it and it was great.
hey Carol Loomis.
thank you for coming to Brooklyn.
Thank you it’s nice to be here.
I I feel like we should tell our listeners what you told me when I just met you know on stairs sign which was what was the last time that you were in Brooklyn for an interview. As far as I can remember it was either sometime in the late fifty’s early sixty’s and I interviewed Wake Forest Branch Rickey Branch Rickey owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers
Do you know what you talked about we did I was then energy in your spot where I was the number two person on a story and the writer had gotten interested in the subject and I believe the headline went something like this. What baseball can teach business and so he tried to apply and he later told me he didn’t think that he had pulled it off very well but I thought he did a decent job. He tried to apply the economics of baseball for instance the trading of players. Yeah. To business. Why shouldn’t business make an attempt to trade its executives he’s hoping to fill holes are. Or send someone with wonderful skills to a company that obviously needed it it was it was very interesting and there were more facets to that’s the one I remember feeling that would make a business coverage of maybe like a little bit more exciting. I think probably that’s what he had in mind. So it is an honor to give you another reason to come back to Brooklyn for an interview.
Great glad to be here.
I’d like to start at the start. OK You were born in a small town in Missouri.
you went to school at the University of Missouri.
You spent two years working on a magazine for Maytag. And in Iowa Lee and I were. And here’s what I’d like to start our conversation which is through like what sounds like basically. Air force of will. You got yourself a job at Fortune magazine in 1954.
That’s exactly right.
To tell me about what Fortune magazine was like when you walk through those doors January 25 1954. Well with a magazine like first of all the people there did not go to work as early as I came for that interview. I think I got there at nine o’clock nobody had told me when to come and there was absolutely nobody on the floor. It turned out that starting time was officially 9:30 and that many people stretched that and so I sat in the dark for myself for half hour til the woman who had hired me came and there I was in the reception room. I can totally identify with that feeling when you like you don’t know the score or the rules at all it is like you just like get that pit in your stomach that I don’t want to screw up. No that’s exactly right and screwing up may include sitting in a darkened reception room so anyway if it’s used in farming you know that it’s OK So eventually some people showed up to work.
Yes and walk me through that to tell me what what the place felt like what was the culture of a magazine like an identity for.
Well it was basically composed of a small number of editors all very good. A significant number of writers all men. This is one distinguishing feature of the place. No that isn’t right there was one one woman writer at that time and a kind of bullpen operation of what we then called researchers this was the opening an entry level job. If you wanted to work for Fortune and you were a woman it was your only access to getting a job or fortune and nobody thought twice about that that was just the way things were. When the Henry Luce empire
And researcher basically meant REPORTER
That’s right and eventually we changed her name and started calling them a reporter but it was for a long time it was researcher. So the idea was researchers would go out report a story deliver all their new house. We have seen was that two people would be assigned to a story a writer and a researcher and the two of them would embark on this story which might take a month or six weeks to months. And the researcher had certain responsibilities. He made most the travel arrangements but that that was just kind of basic. He sat in on the interviews was usually given a chance to ask questions and he had some he wanted to add to what the writer was saying. She then came back and typed up all the notes from the interviews and doing it in one way or another or whatever style she thought was best for that and then became the checker on for accuracy on the piece. So she was she did nothing else nor did the writer usually did nothing else during that period of the work on that story. Work on that one story how long would you get to work on a story. Well it would be anywhere from the average time would be six weeks I’d say from a month to two months would be normal.
You took a job when you were 24.
So when you were 24 you started going out and being the researcher on these stories. Did you know what you’re doing.
Course not. No I must say there was a period of a sort of break in period in which you worked on columns. One was called products and processes another was called Short Stories enterprise and they were just they were usually about tiny private companies that had made him our their mark one of them was Headski (?) that I worked on. So I did a period there where I was it was. Break in period and I think indeed most sick people who came in Certainly if they were twenty four years old and no experience doing what fortune did. They were given these as the entry point into work and then maybe a year six years and six months afterward I began to be put on what we call the middle of the book stories and mill the book stores were slightly longer very very much longer the columns were shorter items about a new product a new process and at this point fortune was monthly monthly and sort of known for doing these big yes exactly.
And is that what you wanted to be doing writing those stories.
Well you know I did not have any ambitions of wanting to write those stories. My ambition was confined to wanting to work for Fortune. I had originally started out thinking I wanted to work for Time or lLife in my I’d had my degree at the University of Missouri with magazine journalism and then I had a boyfriend at Maytag who read Fortune so naturally I started to read Fortune also and I thought wow this is a great magazine and then I had I was interviewed by time life and fortune and the only one that liked me was fortune and of course that was just so lucky because I turned out to be suited for that work. I had no idea. Maybe you know if I’d gone to work for Time I would think that was suited for that work.
But why do you think you are suited for the the work
unit of my business came easily to me. Although I knew very little about it when I started I didn’t know that profits were more important than revenues and knew nothing but But then I but I picked it up very quickly and eventually I picked up accounting very easily and we have many writers at Fortune who hate the arithmetic part a story or an accounting. They want no part of it. Whereas I thought it was interesting from the very beginning.
How did you pick it up? I mean was it just something that came naturally was it like doing real homework when you walk into an office you’re 24 you don’t know the difference between profits and revenue right. How do you teach yourself a business.
Well I got very lucky and I did well enough at my first two years of being with a magazine that I was promoted to an administrative job I became assistant chief of research there was a woman named Mary Johnson who was rather famous for hiring people and she needed an assistant. And I was made it at the age of probably twenty eight maybe something like that and was given responsibility for administering because she’s one of the people who really didn’t like mathematics or accounting of the brand new Fortune 500. So I liked the accounting that was a part of running the Fortune five hundred and I just I taught myself accounting while I was doing that. There was an editor assigned to it too. But as far as the actual collection of the data I was in charge of that and and accounting just came very naturally. I don’t I don’t know why
to sort of start to figure out accounting.
What about interviewing interviewing did that come naturally to you
it did not probably come naturally but the fortune system there of having two people who were sent out on a story was made to order for teaching people how to do interviews or you were sitting here with the senior man.
Oh man and they were asking the questions and you were listening and you were saying yourself how did he think of that and oh why didn’t I think of that. And by the time you finish just process several years of this process you’d had all the experience you need. Good to do interviews Well right now we don’t have that today at forty and I still speak of it as we don’t have this combination we had to give it up because it was it was an economic eventual Descent two people out on a story and it’s a shame. Golden Age of magazines and you could send two people out what is really one of us I really was but a great time to sort of learn how to do this.
You you you work with very very smart writers and enjoyed it and picked up all the accumulated wisdom that they had picked up over the years it was a great experience to as a working environment.
I’m sure. OK So as you’re sort of figuring out how to be a reporter you’re figuring out how to navigate New York City if you know how to get the magazine. You mentioned a couple times already that it was sort of all men in positions of leadership that prominence at the magazine at one point. Did it occur to you or did it occur to you that you could be do those jobs.
I don’t think it really exactly occurred to me I had no feeling that I wasn’t offended and didn’t feel any disrespect it was just the way the Henry Luce Empire ran and so I was not wishing I had to get that I should be that out of here get out of here and or anything I said I was having to took at a time really to because time I was going overseas occasionally because of the story was overseas you went overseas I went to the Panama Canal when we did a story about Panama Canal after the Suez Canal fell into trouble I was going out to interview people like Desi Arnaz. And in Hollywood every story was new and exciting because I was learning something on every story so I was not restless not restless at all. All when Taishan come became and it did for me to be a writer I was pretty surprised he didn’t think was going to happen I just didn’t think about it and I’m not and I know you must think that’s crazy. But it was not something that I was getting paid pretty well and I was enjoying the work so much that I just I didn’t spend any time thinking about it as a fair answer I mean you know if you sit back and read and you publish this sort of incredible memoir in fortune and if you sit back and read that it’s it’s it’s kind of the same thing that Branch Rickey things like for me it’s hard to imagine that you weren’t thinking about it you know I think it’s a big difference between the young people of today and the young people than we were much more content to go along for literally years doing work when maybe we could have done a higher work and I don’t think young people today ever assume that that should be the case.
Nobody wants to wait.
No that’s exactly right.
We might also think too much or at least maybe I think I think too much about it I was doing the work which is basically what I’m hearing you say.
Yeah right and don’t forget I came out when we said this little town one thousand people. The fact that I was in New York working at a job there was pretty important. It was pretty unusual so I think that there’s no reason to think that I should have been discontent. It was just too much fun
OK back with Carol.
There are the stories of experiences you did have in a sort of male dominated universe that I think our listeners many of whom are younger who are sort of interested in or working in media today might feel like I don’t know actually how they’d feel about it. One of them was when your you were a researcher there are some writer who would make passes at everyone. Yes he was he was well known around the office for making passes and I later found out he was well known among the men also for that so I don’t I don’t mean make making passes as a man I mean well known that he was sorry
and it was a response when he made his inevitable past of you when I slapped him. I don’t hear sounds very old fashioned I don’t doubt it all doesn’t sound like somebody who was if you didn’t tell you you know someone to whom the idea that this could change hadn’t occurred I don’t know I didn’t I guess associate those two things I mean this was a this was a a built in problem suppose it I imagine about the writer researcher at all and all the writers with one exception were man our researchers were young women. It’s amazing probably that there weren’t some scandals that came out of this as far as I know. There weren’t there were some marriages that actually came out of it
but I know I never thought of that incident of slapping that guy is connected to the gender thing.
I thought the gender thing but that is an occupational hazard. I don’t it didn’t occur to me and I don’t think it was happened that he would have gone in to the boss and said get rid of this woman I don’t like her for you to get a researcher the boss what is said and why is it you don’t like or tell me the story.
You tell me the story of the Economic Club.
OK the Economic Club is the one example where I did meet some gender problems you know an economic club black tie event had well known businessmen come to speak and the speaker on this particular occasion was Bob Pack from the New York Stock Exchange and I’ve been working on a story about the newest New York Stock Exchange and the economic club called fortune do ask us to send somebody to the dinner and associate call of mine a sister of mine called back and said I would be the person coming and the man Dwight Ekenberg. I remember his name so well said. No she won’t become a No we do not allow women at the dinner and I called him up myself and I said well I’m the logical person I’m working on this story. I’m really the logical person to come and he said well our problem is we do not want any frivolous little Smith girls looking for a free dinner and the chance to spend an evening with one thousand men in black tie. So my joke became well I didn’t go to Smith and I just let the other part of it hang out there. So. I went and they did allow me to come. They wouldn’t allow me to sit at the Merrill Lynch table and I later sued them but I lost the suit I sue there was a New York law that seemed to apply to discrimination in this case gender discrimination but it was a private club and they had the right to do it and I lost the suit.
But eventually they gave in and I I later on I got invited to join the Economic Club which I turned down.
I’m surprised that that’s sort of your one story of gender discrimination. Why do you think that is
I think that other things besides the gender of the person interviewing them gets to be on a CEO’s mind when the questions get tough or interesting or and becomes apparent that the interviewer whether it’s male or female has done some homework and is there on a serious expedition and so I think gender ceases to matter very quickly in an interview now. Oriana ??? thought gender a woman’s general was helpful toward interviews I never felt that particular either but that may be more true then than not. Maybe men are being gentlemanly. Who knows. Because I certainly wasn’t interviewing many
What I just heard you say was the stakes were so high for the CEO’S when you call them and want to do a story that they forget you’re a woman
can really register that a lot of other things to worry about was extraneous to what they were thinking about. I do think that’s true and it also even though when you got to forge and it was such a kind of male dominated place that didn’t end up really being a problem for you either.
It didn’t. I think you can legitimately say why wasn’t it more of a problem but it just Wasn’t a problem. I was getting and I was I was I was getting to be more and more experienced researcher I was sharing interesting times on so I was learning I was so interested in learning. To this day I’m still interested in learning. I just didn’t have any reason to sit around and think about how how terrible it was to be so low on the on the board.
Do you remember that the first long story you wrote.
I do actually I remember the first two very well. One one was called “You may be missing a bet in bonds” which I was greatly helped out on by my husband who was a bond salesman at that time so that I learned a lot about bonds from him I come home and say I do have this question. My second story after I’d been promoted full time to a middle of the book writer which was a major step was called “Should a company promote its own stock”. And the piece I wrote was not very good I’m sorry to say and what I hadn’t done was do enough reporting. I just hadn’t gotten the message about how much reporting how broad the reporting needed to be for any subject that we took up in a middle of the book story. But I certainly did get the message from my editor that I had my from my favorite editor that I had then a little disappointing when I turned in. It was just then it was sin. It was very thin and I’m it’s a perfect word for it that story made me realize that I had to expand my reporting in directions that were probably more extensive than most other Fortune writers were using because I had to get so well versed in a subject I had just know so much more than I could actually put down on paper. Or that it was extraordinarily important to what kind of story I could turn in. And I never stopped that. And as a result I have boxes of my files sitting around that I have to do something with.
Well how do you know that now when you’ve done enough reporting.
Well I’m a writer one writer the same one actually that I slapped back there. Tell me that you quit reporting when you start hearing the same thing over and over again. That can take a long time.
There’s a kind of consistent thing in your stories which I really loved. There’s a tremendous pride not just in the work but in the impact the work has. Like you referenced a lot in your own pieces like an article I wrote in X. year shortly thereafter that person lost their job or whatever. You know what it’s like you take some pride in the impact these stories have. And I wonder as you were you were sort of getting your legs under you as a reporter and as a writer once you got that writing job whether you wrote stories hoping they would have an impact or whether you were just telling stories.
I think I probably always at least almost always from the start wished that they once they were on paper they were also sending a message out there that somebody might pay some attention to.
Was there an overarching kind of theme was there something that you kept coming back to that felt really important that wasn’t going reported.
I don’t think it was originally. Eventually I got very exercised about earnings management and accounting chicanery and I used every opportunity that I could to talk about that. Even though some of the sources I had almost to write it the idea that I should be criticizing stuff that they sort of took for granted but I never I never was satisfied with what they were arguing. And so I have a little bit of a pulpit at Fortune eventually and I use every opportunity I could to say hey straighten up and fly right for it.
I want to get into the stories I want to get into your investigations into chicanery. But there’s one step I think in the Carol Loomis story that we have skipped which is need to roll back the table little bit. OK 1966. Yes it is when you met Warren Buffett.
I actually think it was 67. It took me a long time to actually pin down the date when it was and I finally came to a conclusion that it was early 67 and what was the context that first made. Well the first reference to Buffett had taken place in 1966 when I wrote a story about A.W. Jones who is sometimes given credit for forming the first hedge fund. I really don’t think he did two things about the Jones I want one of his a fortune guy whole board written for fortune I what it was before I came there and so I never knew him there and your story about him.
You coined the term hedge fund.
Well it’s questionable whether I really did and every time somebody says that and here is my latest opportunity I say I’m not sure I did. But people give me credit for it and it may be true I just don’t know.
I think for the for the purposes of the longform podcast you coined it too and OK I’m telling you you run along with the long form podcast. I’m going to have to let you make their decision.
All right so the first Buffett references in the Jones story and the story I spelled his name wrong.
One to my husband who was in Wall Street than in a job and as an effect has spent his entire career in Wall Street went out to try to talk to Warren he was a salesman my husband John Lewis was a salesman and he went out to Omaha to talk to Warren hoping that he might get some business for me. He was with John was with the firm called Faulkner Docklands and Sullivan which is one of the many that Sandy Weill brought up brought up over the years. And so John Moore and had lunch and John got in to see Warren which was amazing. And they had lunch they like each other and I’m sure that John mentioned time that I worked for fortune and that interested Warren So when he and his late first wife Susie came to New York a couple months later they asked us to have lunch. So that was really the beginning of a friendship that extended instilled. It’s almost like like an identity said he was immediately impressive. My husband had come home saying I think I just met the smartest investor in the country and I think I probably rolled my eyes like wives do it at the overstatements of their husbands. But then I met Warren and I could see from like in the first five minutes that this guy probably was the smartest investor in the country and so that’s that’s the biggest thing he was very nice and a great sense of humor which he maintains. And his wife was wonderful too and and he was he was interested he said. He said to me What are you working on right now and I said well I had Fortune 500 time and I spent the day working on working on an oil company that has some revenues that it mentions in the in the footnotes to the financial statements but doesn’t claim as revenues in the official statements.
And I said we have to decide if fortune– and he said immediately Coastal States Gas– also staged. Yes you’re talking about and I said yes and so I was immediately interested that he knew this rather arcane little problem that I had been working with that morning and it was just amazing. Now I just knew that he knew everything that I would like to know. I don’t really you know his mind was took for granted all these business facts that I wish were in mine.
I’m so I’ve been so excited to talk about this the more I read about you and Buffett the more it felt like one of the most kind of unique relationships in between a journalist and a subject it isn’t and I doubt that I’d ever heard.
Yes I’m going to list some things to so our listeners get the full context here. One is that you and your husband bought a bunch of shares of Berkshire Hathaway when you guys met.
Yes very soon afterwards yes.
For like I think I think it was like twenty two bucks a share.
Well actually it was eighteen to begin with the first that we bought. John sold it next year because Warren was still accumulating shares at that time and he didn’t want any of his friends to be buying shares because he was buying shares and he you know he didn’t want other people in there and he told John about that after we had bought it and and so John just sold it at those eighteen dollars a share and we didn’t get back and for a couple years thereafter when it was OK.
So one part of this relationship with Buffett is that you own shares in Berkshire.
Yes and still do.
So they never never have sold a share.
One of the great investments you could possibly make. Well you know only need to make one great investment in your life and this is it right. Another one is you’ve edited his letters for more than forty years.
Well I think it’s 37 but nevertheless OK
it’s something like that. I’ll run for the 37 years completely outside your role in fortune.
And then the third is that you’ve written about him quite a few times in fortune.
well I guess I have two questions one is how do you navigate the crazy ethical minefield I just laid out there, and then the second one is How helpful was he to you as a business reporter. So when you were just saying that when you first met him he said how could I post facts in my own mind or how you guys talk every day. You play bridge all the time. How did how did that relationship help you as a journalist.
Well let’s come back to the you know the crazy ethical part of it.
it’s an very unusual very crazy on ethical part of it has been dealt with in one of two ways. I have never taken a cent of money from Warren a cent and it’s done out of friendship that editing of his annual report.
Second when I first wrote about him in 1988 I insisted that high up in the story either the first or second paragraph that it say that I was a friend of his, a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder, an editor of his annual report and that has continued all the way through.
So the reader always knows that this is the case and you have to balance if you if you don’t think it should be that way.
You have to balance with with what you’ve got if you have a writer who knows a subject so well and has the opportunity to explain this extraordinary guy to the reader or do you say well this writer shouldn’t do it if we can do it ethically which we thought we did. And the decision of that first managing editor and of everyone senses then that that is a big big counterweight and should be it should take precedence over the other things which can be dealt with by disclosure.
That sounds right to me like it’s also such an extraordinary relationship and his career has also been so extraordinary so completely out of sort of the realm of possible that. It’s kind of what are the situations like the rules don’t really apply. It’s sort of too crazy right.
It is too crazy and and I should mention one other fact. One effect I backed the right horse and that’s important and I hope that if I hadn’t backed the right horse it would have been clear to me and I hadn’t and that none of these this close connection would have would have would have continued but the fact was Warren’s career has been so extraordinary and exemplary in so many ways ending with this vast amount of philanthropy that he has going on that he comes back to pick the right horse. You know how to picking the right horse help in journalism.
I did learn about a lot from Warren over the years about insurance accounting. Very definitely which is one of the most exotic arcane branches of accounting. But just in general about how to think about investments. I still when I make my own of this month’s which I do I still think about things and I feel that Warren has taught me about how to think about investments like you should buy the entire you should think of yourself as buying the entire company not to share his look at what the this an entire company is worth and think well as the profit that it’s throwing off. Does it make it work that work that I still bring that into my thinking every time I’m thinking about an investment. And I learned from Warren and still do it every time I talk to him or something like that to be something that I learn from him when I had a story that I was doing that I thought he might know something about I could call him up and say if you got any opinions about this subject. Yes that was a great thing to be able to do that.
There’s just no question I imagine especially on the stories were like you. This series of pieces in the mid 90’s on derivatives that was a big one possible to understand almost impossible that instead ended up nearly seeing the economy. But those articles are written in this like fantastically clear English. And I wondered whether Buffett was there somewhere sort of like helping you think about those things clearly.
Well I’m sure he did I certainly talked to him on the derivatives stories and one of them I think maybe the second one I quote I quoted him in there. I would say for clarity and thank you very much for your remarks about that. I would say the clarity is a lot of hard work by the writer, that clarity about derivatives is not easy and I I remember thinking that those the first one particularly was one of the hardest stories I had ever worked on.
Why was writing about derivatives clearly so hard.
Well just to begin with I didn’t want to do this story but I got talked into doing it by an editor and bless her heart for making me do it or at least it courage in me to do it. And secondly I didn’t understand derivatives at all when I started. I really started from ground zero. And so I had to learn everything that eventually turned up in that first article in1994 and then I had to go interview several different people and get their stories about derivatives. And it was hard work and I still think of that as a story that really called out every bit of effort that I can I could bring to it.
You know this thing you do this thing in your stories all the time where when do you do it you’ll foreshadow early on and say here’s some problem we’re going to get to that a little bit. But then you start sections of stories all the time with sort of sentences that are so direct to the room. Either that it feels like I’m kind of hidden over a drink with you when you’re explaining it to me. You sort of like sit down and kind of very plainly talk to people as though you’re sort of telling them a story which is a really powerful thing to do when you’re trying to explain a derivatives something that like every both those stories. They were great. I don’t know that I could totally explain all that stuff to you right now. Was that was that just how you naturally wrote or was that a conscious decision a way of trying to make these kind of complex topics a little bit more accessible?
I think it was a combination of those two things I remember somebody the head of the coffee room early in my career remarking that that I had a style that nobody else seemed to have and I said I do I said I you know that they apparently she was saying she was seeing something I actually didn’t see. I had the help of great editors fortune has been a repository of great editors over the years and a lot of what you see in a fortune story is a great editor working with a writer who likes it and wants to be wants to be seen. It’s their material his or her material improved.
You weren’t precious about your writing?
No. and then I definitely wasn’t not to this day I am always thinking my editors. I think as I went along I became aware that people liked clarity in a story and that if I could do a really good job of explaining something that was extremely complicated in so many things that I wrote about were that I would be a big help to the reader on the story. That in fairness I feel that fairness is something appreciated by the reader and comes through to them with a way that manifests.
You mean when you say fairness I think it’s choice of words. It’s choice of the argument against same the argument against that is is this. But when you really look at it the point is still there. This company should not have done what it did. That’s a very simplistic you know but that’s that that I mean like you know a thing about the H.P. story and this is on on on Carly a couple of times in the stories you would say this is the argument Carly would make. That’s how you would start that counter section.
And then you would say and this is why that’s wrong.
But I remember that. No no less to me. Editor in chief of Time Incorporated was a little bit worried about the fact that there were parts of the story that seemed to negate there were favorable parts of the story the team doing him to negate the argument that she wasn’t doing a good job and I remember I remember saying to him Well it’s just the facts. This is this is true and there is this good to say about her and there is this bad to say about her and sometimes I think that you you haven’t a story.
most stories aren’t cut and dried one side or the other there are usually some counterargument although your stories often ended with pretty strong conclusions.
How did you have the confidence to sort of say this is how it is. You mean sometimes they would end with barring incredible incredible turnaround or very unlikely turn of events. This company is going to fail which is slightly outside the like World of objective journalism and certainly it’s been this writing I mean a lot of what you wrote was in the heat of the moment kind of in the heat of the moment of a deal. Let’s take a real look at what this is and maybe the odds are not as good as investors.
Well I think that fortune had to bring this kind of thing to its stories. Most of it’s the issues that it writes about have been discussed many times in the newspapers. And if we don’t have a point of view what I said there were bringing to the party. So I think I knew from the very first of the time that I was at Fortune that a point of view was something we wanted to have we didn’t want to end up with a story a story with those eight that stay tuned because we wanted to say Well what we thought well we didn’t think the Time Warner merger was going to work and we want to say that I turn in a story about General Motors. My editor said I want you to do the General Motors story. He didn’t say the defended his story about General Motors but that’s what he meant he did not say that. But I turned in a first draft that equivocated in the lead and he said you can’t do that. He said You’ve spent two months on this. You ought to be able to tell the reader what you think is this company going to make it or not. I knew immediately that if I had to come down on one side or the other flatly that I would have to come down on the side that General Motors was going bankrupt. So my second draft that’s what I said.
Did you ever have a point of view that was stronger in the piece than you really felt.
I don’t believe so. And then Charlie I got the status of a writer who could quit. And my husband had a good job on Wall Street. I had no economic reason to work.
Got those Berkshire shares.
I had those shares. I think my managing editors knew that if I couldn’t agree with what they want to put under my name you know that’s very important. I just sort of said well you better find some other way around the Story because I don’t want my name on it.
In any of those cases including maybe I mean you wrote this quite quite rough piece and prescient piece when A.O.L. and Time Warner merged that that ended what was the line something about rolling a boulder up and now it will be like pushing a boulder up an out that last one of the trees.
And everything he said basically came to pass right. But I wonder you know you talk a lot about the amount of research you would do and I read that alignment said you’ve never met a document you don’t love right. Still have most of those and some of these pieces where you did take uncomfortable positions. How much of that came before you started reporting the story like did you have an idea of that A.O.L. Time Warner Time Warner merger before you started doing the story. Do you have your opinion formed now hording backed it up.
No I did not have my opinion formed. I did put some mass into the story that showed how difficult it was going to be for this company merger to work and I did not have my opinion I formed during the two weeks and it was two weeks I had to do that one quick turn around.
What was it like writing about your own the fate of your own company.
I don’t think it was that hard. I think it would have been hard for a young writer just starting out. I was by that time someone who is the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal been able to write a headline that said Fortune fires writer who disagreed with the merger. Now would have been very embarrassing for for fortune and for Time Incorporated so I don’t think it was that hard to do that was never hard to write.
Those pieces sort of the kind of Emperor Has No Clothes pieces about C.E.O.’s people do Don and talk to him and to write. They don’t really understand their business or I think their time is past. Whatever the conclusion may be one marriage you noted or said that you have to build up a sufficient lack of humility to do this and
I didn’t find it that hard. I’ve been wrong I would have been wrong.
So knowing you’re right made it
well I didn’t know I didn’t know I was right but I didn’t know I had evidence that it convinced me that I was right.
Might not have turned out that way and I go back to something you were saying earlier about curiosity and loving to learn and never losing that. I wonder if they’re connected to the thing which I feel like I said I did it I just want to know like your secret is about longevity. I mean you started at Fortune January 25 1954 and you retired last summer.
Yes it’s a good run that’s a good run long run series.
Had explained in this job for sixty years. First of all I thought I had one of the best jobs in the world journalistically. I still still think that people who have great jobs who go to work with people they like in a magazine that they think is doing serious important stuff that’s a pretty good gig. When you get right down to it and I was lucky lucky to have good genes to keep on doing that for a long time and I must say my my editors gave me some breaks about taking time off. They were very important to me when I had my second child and we moved to the country to the country to the suburbs. I just felt that I didn’t want to work twelve months a year and I asked to take three months off in the summer and so I began doing. That in 1967 and later I expanded to five months off talk time work out over time elapsed is a little bit less than it looks like.
and some people thought I’d never retire so after sixty years.
OK so part of the answer is that you’ve got a tremendous deal from your editors which is to get time off. I understand why they did it.
Well they keep or keep your best people happy. But how did you stay curious and engaged and interested and and have the energy to keep going.
One of these facts just blew my mind about you when they like a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. Oh yes. And then kept working for 25 right.
And I asked in my speech whether you could win it twice. and that’s something my fortune was quite unique in that we didn’t have beats. I did do a lot of stories about banks and about Wall Street and so forth but we really didn’t have the. And so every time we would get an assignment it was likely to be about a subject we knew very little about and we’re going to have to learn from Ground Zero and that made it very very interesting and it was a very distinctive kind of work in which you move from subject to subject all of which became interesting to me. Once I got into a subject I found that I had kind of acquired a lifelong interest in that subject so I still read everything there.
If I see a story about the New York Stock Exchange which I wrote two stories about I want to know what’s happening now and so the variety of coverage and the variety of work was extremely unusual and I think that that was what made it so. No it’s so great for me anyway.
Did you just feel like you kind of had it figured out.
I never felt like I had it figured out. My very last story on Black Rock was a huge problem for me and just simply because I hadn’t started off with a very clear idea about why we were doing this story. My managing editor had a slightly different feeling about why we were doing this story than I did and I thought I was probably didn’t agree with him on. And that last story an editor was so important that story it turned out fine in the end but it was it was very hard I never got anything and if I had been assigned something the next time a different subject I would have had it figured out either.
How do you know when to call it quits 60 years seemed like a long time to work
the travelling gets harder and I just said to myself you’ve got to quit sometime. This sounds like a good time to do it. Sixty years and five months. I’d even thinking about it for a while. Well I’ve been thinking about it but obviously I hadn’t pulled the strings on that because I could’ve retired any time and I didn’t.
So the relationship with Buffett is this kind of extraordinary outlier it almost doesn’t even play in like the realm of journalistic ethics because it’s such a crazy once in a lifetime relationship. But I’m interested in you said that you’re an investor. I know that you had a brief but torturous romance with commodities and I’m interested in just what you see as the role of the business writer in their own personal financial lives like should business reporters be investing. Should there be rules around that. How do you draw that one
fortune never had any rules about the reporters not being able to invest in this. Which is different from what some other publications have. When I went to fortune the one rule where was it you could not buy stock in anything we wrote about it until thirty days after we had written about it because it was the general idea where there wasn’t a reader could have digested everything we said and gone out and done whatever they wanted to do about buying or selling the stock. That was the situation for all sixty of the years that I was there. we had no rules about buying stock as long as we stuck to that rule which eventually became unwritten and even new members I don’t think even knew about it in many many cases.
The subject has come up more recently that we should have rules and I have argued in writing against that because I said that I learned so much investing in stocks and you will learn more actually doing investments. Then you could ever imagine by reading about investments that I thought it was a way for Fortune writers to get smarter in that I thought in the rules that we put in that said we could not buy stock would be wrong. I don’t know to what extent my argument with some other people I think also had prevailed but at least there have been no rules put in that I know of. It sounds like you have throughout the years had really strong opinions about some kind of foundational aspects of the magazine. The transition from going monthly to bi weekly was a traumatic one for us.
Go into sort of shorter stories was it was a traumatic one for you like at some point when you have been in a place for as long as you were a fortune like. Do you feel like you’ve become like the like the kind of soul and like to defend it against itself on some level
I think you do begin to Feel that. there are certain standards that it needs to live by and you will argue for those and there are some rules that I have kept for myself that no longer exist at Fortune. For instance I take it back. I believe that they do now exist that there was a long period when writers could take money for speeches from companies and I would never do it because a rule had existed when I went to fortune that you couldn’t take money from the companies for speeches so therefore I said Well Admiral seem to strike me as best and I did think of myself as arguing for standards that I felt were very important and shouldn’t be broken. and I know there are a couple of my editors called me mother and would say What does mother what would mother think about that because everything about what it’s about the balance between optimism and cynicism.
Do you think of yourself as an optimist.
I do think that that played a role in being able to work at the level you did for as long as you did
I’ve never been asked that question. Oh now that you mention it it seems to me it could have helped. I wouldn’t have wanted to take on these things. As a cynic because I don’t go in to us to subjects brand new subjects that you don’t know that much about as a cynical way who I would be and would be very hard and that wouldn’t produce very good work I don’t think that sounds right to me. But then there’s this other part of your job in particular which was going in talking to very smart very powerful people running very large businesses who were telling you a lot a lot of the time who weren’t being truthful who were Telling themselves a lot and they were telling themselves a story that wasn’t really true and so sort of as an optimist.
How does it interact with having like a good bullshit detector.
Staying positive in this is something I’ve heard a lot about Buffett too that he was relentlessly positive lesson.
How does that interact with having a really sort of savvy analytical business mind especially when you were going interviewing these people who are already being less than truthful with you I think that writing itself makes you realize where there are holes in things.
I know I have said to people I’m never sure what I think until I see what I write and so I believe you even though you are an optimist. The analysis part of you kicks in when you sit down to construct a story or a paragraph or sentence and he’s take all that can’t be right and then you have to go back and you have to sort of rethink it all. I don’t know the answer and I do think that I haven’t stopped being an optimistic person despite the fact that I did a lot of work over the years it was that turned out to poke some holes in some of the lines that I was dealt.
I wonder if you could keep doing that work if you were not present. Probably not.
Never thought of it but you’re probably right.
So you know what do you do now? You’ve been retired a year.
Well I haven’t been the least bit bored and I was really a little bit worried that I would have given some speeches here I’m doing this very interesting thing today. I had lunch today with a student from the University of Missouri where I went to whose Professor It asked me if I would have lunch with her when she was working as a Bloomberg inturn this summer. What you want to know what you want to know what she had a couple of story assignments and she wondered if I had any thought about I mean
I think you get inquiries from young reporters a lot you have like standard advice for you for your journal.
And then my standard advice is also what I told my two kids. Find out what time your boss gets in and get in early or assist in a dark room reception room and thought of it that way.
So you having lunch occasionally when you’re dragging yourself to Brooklyn for an interview
my husband and I are bridge players we played a lot of bridge. I’m still doing the editing on Warren Buffett’s annual reports or any pads and he writes the work this year was particularly hard because it was not particularly long because it was his fiftieth year running Berkshire and the annual report was sort of a double sized version with editing Warren Buffett like a well and I said that he missed a class on active verbs. You sometimes need suggestions that he changed the order of thoughts or maybe you’ll say to him these three sentences I really believe they belong a paragraph down. And so they’re all suggestions I don’t have any really true authority about this. But he’s he takes most of them. He claims it’s 98% I don’t think that’s at a high.
So that’s always interesting work I must say it really is. Remained interesting work remains interesting. Carol thank you so much for coming in. Really appreciate
I really enjoyed it.
Thank you Carol.