Allan Sloan Q&A

Allan Sloan, Newsweek’s Wall Street editor, has won numerous awards and honors in his 30-year business writing career. Sloan, who joined Newsweek in March 1995, is a six-time winner of the Gerald Loeb Award, business journalism’s highest honor. In 2001, he received the Loeb Lifetime Achievement Award for business and financial journalism, which gives him Loebs in four different categories in four different decades for four different employers. He also won the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in 2001, and he had previously won the John Hancock Award for excellence in business and financial journalism.

Sloan is a contributor to Public Radio International’s “Marketplace,” whose “Sloan Sessions” are broadcast on Monday mornings, and frequently appears as a commentator on the PBS television program, “Nightly Business Report.” His Newsweek columns also appear in the Washington Post.

In addition to his Loeb and Hancock awards, Sloan’s honors include being named regularly to lists of the nation’s most-influential and most-respected business journalists. He was named an alumnus of the year in 1999 by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Before joining Newsweek, Sloan was a columnist at Newsday, where his column was syndicated nationally to newspapers including the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Arizona Republic and the Denver Post. From 1984 to 1988 he was a senior editor for Forbes magazine. Prior to that, he was a staff writer for Money magazine (1982-84), an associate editor for Forbes (1979-81) and a business reporter for the Detroit Free Press (1972-78).

His business writing career began at the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer in 1969, where he also worked briefly as a sports writer. He has won Loeb awards at Newsweek, Forbes and the Free Press, and two at Newsday, where he also won the Hancock award.

Sloan, a native of Brooklyn, received an M.S. from the Columbia Journalism School in 1967 and a B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1966. He attended the Seminary College of the Jewish Theological Seminary for two years while he was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College.

He and his wife live in New Jersey. They have three grown children. On Monday, Oct. 3, 2005, Sloan talked with University of North Carolina journalism professor Chris Roush by phone about his career. What follows is an edited transcript.

Q: How did you first get interested in journalism?

A: It was by accident. When I was a freshman in college, which was the fall of 1962, my English professor was the advisor for the student paper, and I started to read about it and grumbled about. So he told me if I thought I could do better, I should go work at it. I ended up being the editor of the paper.

Q: When did you first think about writing about business and the economy?

A: I started thinking about in December 1969, when the people who were running the Charlotte Observer told me it was my new assignment. It was not what I wanted. I had gone there in the summer of 1968 to be a sports writer and had gotten married and wanted some regular hours. I wanted to become a feature writer or political writer, but they did not judge me good enough. I was thrown into it and become a real estate writer. I became a business writer because they made me. That’s where the openings were because nobody cared about the stuff.

Q: What was the perception of business reporting back then?

A: It was perceived to be the dregs of journalism. Nobody cared. It was stock tables, and you were supposed to fill the space between the stock tables and be nice to people.

Q: How easy was it for you to pick up on business jargon and find interesting stories?

A: People taught me. It wasn’t hard at all. If you had written sports and could pick up that jargon, you could pick up the business jargon. The only difference was that the numbers were bigger, although they aren’t that much bigger today.

Q: Who were important mentors to you at the beginning of your career?

A: There was a business editor there who had endless patience and probably salvaged my career. George Frye, the business editor at the Observer, showed endless patience. And there were a bunch of PR people at what is now Bank of America but what was then known as North Carolina National Bank who taught me a lot of stuff. When I went to the Free Press, there were a lot of people who helped me, including people who were running banks and one who ended up being a governor at the Federal Reserve Board. They would rebuke me if I screwed something up. They helped me because they thought I had potential.

Q: What story or stories were you most proud of back then?

A: In Charlotte, because I was the real estate reporter and nobody would talk to me, I ended up stumbling across a major scandal involving Duke Power where it turned out that Duke had done all sorts of land transactions and somehow the rate payers had ended up with the costs but the stock holders ended up with the profits. At that point, the person who was the largest homebuilder in the South had agreed to build all electric apartments. That was good for Duke, but not so good for the natural gas company in town. It happened to come out about the same time Duke Power was asking for a rate increase. It created a whole lot of uproar in Raleigh that ended up reducing their rates. I would have been even prouder if I had known what I was writing about, but the story made all the difference.

Q: What stories have you written that got the most reaction -- from either readers or the subject?

A: In Detroit, I came across a lot of stories that were the intersection between business and life. I was part of a series about utilities, and the utilities learned from my stories about what was going to happen to natural gas prices in suburban Detroit. It caused an uproar. I was very proud of what we did in Detroit. We exposed a lot of bad guys and ran a couple of guys out of business just by writing daily stories and keeping at it.

Q: How did you develop your writing style of explaining arcane business topics in every-day language?

A: I learned more than anything else from The Wall Street Journal. I would take apart their leader stories and learn the technique. I would say, “This is great. These are stories you could really read.” They were putting tons of opinions in there with funny expressions. I just swiped them all, and put some of my own in there. It admit it, whereas others haven’t. But the Journal had great influence on a lot of writers.

It started to develop in Detroit because I have no business background, and my family has no business background. I needed to understand it myself in simple terms because I had no other way to understand. When I went to Forbes in March of 1979, that’s where I really got to write this way. And Forbes was like that, so I took to it like a duck to water. The editor at Forbes, James Michael, was the best editor of style I had ever worked for. He was amazing. The better I got at this, the more he tried to improve them in the edits. And the more he tried to improve them in the edits, the more competitive I became. I also realized there was a real market in the world to take the Forbes approach and use it in a daily newspaper. So when I went to Newsday in late 1988, that was my goal from the beginning, to write a Forbes one-page story that a newspaper reader would understand.

Q: When do you think that business journalism began to be taken more seriously at newspapers and magazines that didn’t specialize in the area?

A: I would guess around the late ’80s, but I don’t really know because I was too busy doing it. I was just trying to survive at Forbes, which is no easy thing. And now, it’s a discipline.

Q: What was the biggest difference between writing about business for newspapers and writing about business for magazines such as Forbes and Money?

A: When you wrote about it Forbes, you took for granted that your readers understood certain things. You took it for granted that you didn’t have to explain return on equity, for example. You assumed that the readers would roll with you. And in a general interest newspaper, you can’t do that. And it’s very easy to say, but hard to do, to give sophisticated people something they can’t get anywhere else but not lose the general readers.

Q: What do you see happening in the future of business journalism?

A: The future of journalism is not bright. I suspect it will take a different form that it takes now. But business journalism is really important because its role is now understood and so many people have stakes in the stock market. There’s going to be permanent interest in it. I just hope in the end business journalism doesn’t turn into just an advertising vehicle and lose site of what it’s supposed to do. We’re supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Too many people are acting out there like junior stock pickers. If we were really good at picking stocks and making investments, we should be on Wall Street instead of selling our picks for 50 cents a paper.

The idea that they can tell people what stocks to buy and what investment strategies to take is ludicrous. It’s very, very dangerous, and we saw this during the stock bubble. I was out there saying no all the time, and a lot of people didn’t want to hear it. Publishing that stuff was not the right thing to do. Being the skunk at the garden party is not a lot of fun, but if the Federal Reserve won’t do it, then I will.

Q: What’s fun for you about being a business journalist?

A: When I hit it right, I get to tell several million people who read The Washington Post and Newsweek what is happening and influence what is happening. That’s sort of neat. Forty years ago, the best I could do was multiple two-digit numbers in my head and budget my checkbook. Now, look at who I work for and the influence I have. That’s what I like. I like influencing events and helping out the readers and training the new generation of people.

Q: What advice would you give today for someone who is interested in business journalism?

A: The advice would be to start out at some place where you can learn something, assuming there are some decent newspapers left. You really want to go out and practice where you can learn something and where a mistake is not devastating to your career. Find a good business section and a good business editor and learn the job. A lot of times you’ve got to let the story come to you. If you sit there and show enough patience and keep after it, and do your homework, and get deeper and deeper, sooner or later, the story will emerge and you’ll be able to get it.