Ernie Holsendolph Q&A

Ernie Holsendolph blazed a trail for other black business journalists. During the 1960s and 1970s, when there were few blacks on the business desk, Holsendolph worked the business beat for Fortune magazine and then the New York Times, covering major business stories.

Then, in 1983, Holsendolph became one of the first black business editors of a major metropolitan paper when he took over running the business desk at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, his hometown paper.

In 1989, Holsendolph left Cleveland and moved to Atlanta, where he worked for the Journal-Constitution, primarily as a business columnist, before retiring in June 2004. He now lives in suburban Atlanta.

Holsendolph’s career included winning a Gerald Loeb Award for his coverage of the break-up of AT&T, and a Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ Distinguished Achievement Award in 2000. He also received a special achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists for counseling and mentoring other journalists.

Holsendolph talked to UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor Chris Roush on Jan. 3, 2009 about his career. What follows is an edited transcript.

Q: What did you do for four years after you got out of Columbia?

A: I spent the post-Columbia years in the United States Army, assigned to the Army Security Agency, an intelligence unit. In those days, to get a draft deferment for college, you had to commit to military service after graduation. I was required to serve at least two years, but I decided on a three-year enlistment to give me more of a choice in what I did. Believe it or not, I wanted to train as a helicopter pilot but was rejected because I had less than 20-20 eyesight. I was disappointed, but what good fortune! As it happened, every single eligible helicopter pilot got called to active duty during he Viet Nam war. My service in the Army Security Service, from 1959 to 1961 was done mostly on a base on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, in a unit that intercepted communications of all kinds in Asia.

Q: Where did your interest in becoming a journalist come from?

A: I trace my interest in journalism to the seventh grade, when Frances Barjansky, my homeroom teacher, complimented me on my writing and my sense of humor. "You know, you could make a living as a writer," she said. "Really?" was my snappy retort. Coming from a family where neither of my parents graduated from high school, the possibilities of writing were not exactly dinner table conversation. Mrs. Barjansky allowed that one career possibility that would draw on my facility at writing was journalism. Moreover, she later said: "Ernest, I think you're smart enough to go to a good college, maybe a place like Columbia, a college my brother attends…" Five years later, when a counselor asked me what college I might want to attend, I said "Columbia, of course."

As it happened, I went to Columbia for liberal arts, not journalism. I majored in American history. My path was informed by advice I got from Norman Shaw, deputy editor of The Cleveland Press. I visited the paper one summer, when I was still in high school, and asked to talk to a senior editor for advice on getting into newspapers. Norman, an Oberlin graduate, said the practice of the Press was to hire youngsters out of liberal arts colleges, train them for a year in reporting and writing, and if the paper perceived sufficient talent, the youth would be promoted to the staff. Sounded like a good idea to me, and that was the path I chose.

Q: You started out working for black community newspapers. How hard was it to make the switch over to mainstream papers?

A: I started in newspapering at the weekly Call & Post because that was the only opening I could find when I got out of the military. I had cast about for quite a while, even looking into radio, but I took the job at the Call & Post, where I worked during high school days as an office clerk, mostly running the copying machine. But as a staff member post-military days I worked as a combination photographer and reporter. I reported mostly on community news, shooting my own pictures and even wrote a significant sports story. Ernie Davis, the Syracuse football player drafted by the Cleveland Browns, was stricken with leukemia before he could play. I wrote the story that broke that news in Cleveland. We had it first because the daily press suppressed the story at the request of the team --- an agreement to which we were not a party. So I wrote it.

Not long after that I was hired by the Press for the year-long internship program and was added to the staff. What a dream come true. I had always wondered what it would be like, just concentrating on reporting and writing, and not saddled with a camera AND pad. As a rookie reporter I was assigned to cover the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 --- specifically to accompany several busloads of Clevelanders to the event. Louis Clifford, the city editor, told me to "keep an eye on them and see what happens." He sent me, a greenhorn, because he did not want to "waste" an experienced reporter on a story he thought would amount to little. And so I was the eyes and ears of Cleveland on that fateful day, right there by the Reflecting Pool, for the "I Have a Dream" message. My story was the euphoric reactions among the Clevelanders who talked about it constantly on the six-hour bus ride back home.

Q: When you started working at Fortune in 1969, how much did you know about business? How did you learn?

A: As to the transition from newspaper reporting to Fortune, the wisdom of Norman Shaw was proven. Shaw advised me to seek liberal arts preparation rather than go to a journalism school. His pointed observation was: "We believe that journalism training can be done easily by the newspaper." What you need most, he said, is an education that teaches you thinking, writing, history and the preparation that helps you grasp things and put them in perspective.

And so when a Time Inc headhunter hooked me up with Fortune, I was un-intimidated by the job, sure that my basic intelligence, and confidence in my reporting and writing would see me through. I had not even taken an economics course, but I navigated my way by starting with briefs for the magazine, asking plenty of questions until I understood stories. Even though Fortune may be known for its insightful writing, it has always been an editor’s organ. We writers proposed stories. But story ideas were probed in depth by the editors, including the writing staff, before a major piece was assigned. Virtually all of the questions and points of inquiry were covered. Writing a Fortune story was a three-month commitment, including a month of reporting by the writer and the research assistant, a month of writing, and a month of editing. Consequently a Fortune piece is an in-depth collaboration that draws on tons of expertise, experience and many hours of work. I loved it. But I married in 1972, and I looked to leave the magazine, with its heavy travel commitments so I could begin family life.

It is often said that college benefits the student in many ways, not just through the classroom work. That certainly was proven by my Columbia experience. In 1972 I went to a party in New Jersey given by George and Carl Stern, twins who were classmates of mine at Columbia. At the party a Times editor asked if I was happy at Fortune, I said, not really, I'm looking around. "Come see me Monday," he said. I did and I was hired that day and assigned to the business news department. Tom Mullaney, the business editor, assigned me to cover the foods business, as assignment that had me talking to corn farmers in Iowa, supermarkets executives and securities analysts -- as well as food research in areas like artificial sweeteners. I even wound up covering the ill-fated attempt by Charles Bluhdorn, the impetuous boss of Gulf & Western, to take over The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the corporate name of A & P. I loved it. Parenthetically, I bet you would guess Atlantic and Pacific Tea company refers to the geographic reach of the company, right? Not. The company was founded in a store at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street in Brooklyn -- right down the street from my apartment in Brooklyn Heights. I never imagined that an area like food could be as interesting.

Q: What were the difficulties that you encountered as a black man in the late 1960s and early 1970s covering Wall Street?

A: I had no particular difficulties as a black person breaking into the coverage of business. It turns out that the reputations of Fortune and New York Times immediately certified the reporter to be taken seriously. Newsmakers loved to talk to Fortune and the Times because the stories reached their peers, their market and a national public they wanted to impress. CEO’s come to the phone when Fortune or the Times calls -- probably because of that combination of respect , and fear that a critical story could be highly damaging. Rather than barriers, the reporters for elite institutions face a problem more subtle.

The more serious concern is the sometimes clammy embrace of newsmakers, who court you in order to control you. When guys like Bluhdorn of G&W or Bill McGowan of MCI called on a Saturday afternoon to whisper sweet nothings about that great job you did in the Sunday paper (they would have read it in the early editions) or inviting you over on a Sunday afternoon to hear about their plans for the coming week, it becomes a challenge to maintain the proper distance and independence we journalists need.

Q: One of your most famous articles for Fortune was about HBCUs and whether they were still necessary. Did anyone in the black community criticize you for that? How did you handle that?

A: The response was mostly affirmative. And it may surprise you to know I still get calls about the piece. Most black educators respected our findings that black colleges with quality served a purpose, especially the strong liberal arts colleges like Morehouse, Spelman, Hampton and Xavier that have good pre-professional programs. Our finding was that the weakest black colleges obviously might have become outmoded in the new competition for black students, but it made the point that so long as the colleges worked strenuously to remain relevant, they deserved their market.

The points were made in a way to make even the terribly marginal schools like Barber Scotia imagine they had a chance at survival. There is an old saying in our community that it is virtually impossible to kill a black church or a black college. They may shrivel up and walk with a limp, but unfortunately they seldom close.

Q: You spent a lot of time in the 1970s covering the intersection between government and business for the New York Times. Was that a topic that was covered more as a government issue or a business issue?

A: In 1973 I was snatched away from my comfortable assignments covering business, and dispatched by the business desk to cover the Arab oil embargo story. It was a page one story, with high public interest because of the gas lines, and a challenging, complex reporting job. With my feet on the ground, New York next assigned me to cover what you call the intersection of business and government. In those days that intersection was the bubbling issue of regulation. Most of my time was spent covering economic regulation, or more specifically at that time -- deregulation. Only here and now, in the depths of today’s economic recession, is there serious question about something many of us took for granted 30 years ago, namely, the wisdom of loosening regulation and relying on the forces of the market.

Deregulation, to answer your specific question, was mostly a government issue. Thinkers like Alfred Kahn, the Cornell professor who came to head the Civil Aeronautics Board and other offices, believed it to be in the public interest to remove the "protection" some business enjoyed through regulations that fixed prices and services, but gave consumers few alternatives.

An amazing coalition of supporters of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 included Republicans and Democrats, and players as diverse as Sen. Edward Kennedy and Ralph Nader and conservative free market types. Opponents included United Airlines, the biggest carrier, as well Brock Adams, Jimmy Carter’s transportation secretary, who actually spoke for his hometown company Boeing Co. The big guys preferred the certainty of the regulatory environment, where they could lobby privately -- and powerfully -- for what they wanted, instead of swimming in the chilly, unknown waters of market competition.

Business frequently rails against government regulations. But what they resent are government restrictions, and in no way take issue regulations that protect them, or help them monopolize.

Q: In 1983, you left the Times to become one of the first black business editors at a major metro, going to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. How hard was that change?

A: Moving from the Times bureau, where I was a reporter, to business editor at the hometown Plain Dealer, sounded like a great idea. It was a mixed bag at best. I was always curious about management, and here was a chance to learn something new. The transition was not difficult. I was immediately the business authority among the Plain Dealer editors, and nearly all of them looked to me with respect. My recommendations for the front page were accepted with little argument My little staff of 10 or so was in awe of this guy from the Times. But for me there was a new culture to be understood and appreciated.

For instance, one of the first business leaders who called to "welcome" me to town was John G. "Jack" Breen, the gruff chairman of Sherwin-Williams, the paint company.

"And what do YOU plan to do for Cleveland business?" Jack asked. I said let’s talk about that, and we had lunch later in his office, over sandwiches in his office. I had to explain to him that what newspapers do is report, explain and interpret business news -- and that we all eagerly looked for what business was going to do for Cleveland their markets. He was far more interested in newspaper campaigns to promote businesses.

The worst thing to happen was that David Hopcraft, the editor of the paper, who had hired me, was fired from his job within six months of my arrival, and replaced by Bill Woestendiek, an out-of-towner I did not know. Bill and I got along famously, but both he and I were isolated from the powerful publisher of the paper, Alex Machaskee, who desired more worshipful coverage of business news. He tolerated me for a while, but in a couple of years he kicked me ‘upstairs’ to a new AME job in charge of newsroom personnel. In that role I had charge of hiring, and I rather enjoyed the talent scouting aspect of that. But all in all, my lesson learned in Cleveland was that management and I were not easy friends.

We, Bill and I, DID maintain the integrity of the business coverage, and I was fortunate to see several of my hires go on to do good things. Jonathan Hicks became a business writer with the Times, and then moved on the metro news. And Tom Huang, whom I hired from MIT, blossomed into an excellent writer and is now a features editor with the Dallas Morning News. Chris Jensen, my auto writer, was one of the best in the country. One of my best hires on the business desk 
at the Plain Dealer was Mark Russell,  a young African American writer I lured away from The Wall Street Journal bureau in 
Pittsburgh.  Mark wanted the greater freedom of a metro daily, and I  accommodated him.  Mark is now managing editor of the Orlando Sentinel.

I got a chance to test my theory that the best way to find business journalism talent is to search out the best writers. Excellent writing bespeaks good storytelling. Good story tellers ask great questions, enjoy explaining, and connect well with readers. If the young writers have those skills, and are curious, they are good business journalism prospects.

Q: How do you get mostly white business desks to cover issues related to black businesses?

A: You have to sell the idea of covering small business. You have to sell the idea that small business, the arena where most minority businesses do their thing, are often fresher and more interesting than the established old businesses, and are urgently important because they do the bulk of job creation.

Once white editors discover the minority entrepreneurs are smart (surprise!), interesting, and rewarding because their stories draw response, news management becomes more amenable diversity. It goes without saying, it helps to have aggressive minority reporters, or whites with open minds.

Another important aspect of black business is that black style and fashion often leads the way in various markets. There is a reason why 70 percent of hip hop music, for instance, is purchased by whites, mostly by young white males. I learned this morning on NPR, one of my favorite places to hang out, rappers almost singlehandedly have revived and bolstered the ancient French cognac industry.

A smart editor challenges reporters to figure out trends like that and see where they lead. Young people of all groups love hip hop and such stuff, and their parents are dragged along, if only to understand the whims of their children and grandchildren.

Q: Richard Prince recently wrote that black business journalists are not getting to cover the current economic turmoil. Why do you think that’s happening?

Well because they have not been brought along in such specialties as business -- or in general feature writing, where the best explainers are to be found. Also, too many editors are mystified by economic reporting and do not trust their instincts to let reporters go out and work unfamiliar territory. Chris, if you can just convince more decision makers that business writing is explanatory and can be done by anybody, you will have contributed immeasurably to progress.

Q: Minorities are still underrepresented on business desks. How can this issue be solved?

I think blacks and other minorities interested in communication need to be sold on business and economic reporting as a specialty. They need to be knocking on the doors, or listing business in their job reviews as a preference down the road. Both SABEW and NABJ need to encourage their members to talk up business as a specialty -- and right now is really the time to strike. Nearly everybody, from frazzled consumers to nervous workers, testify that they are more interested than ever in reading or hearing business news, and if people are reading it, those stories become stronger candidates for the glamour position on the front of the paper, or on section fronts in both business and features.

Q: What would you recommend today to a black journalist who was interested in covering business?

I would counsel young blacks who are interested in business or any other specialty, from arts criticism to science to politics, to seek out the stars on the paper who do those jobs. Talk to them about how they got there, what about the specialty that turns them on. The youngsters must solicit the aid of the senior writers. Not enough of our senior writers are inclined to mentor and actively serve as role models, but we ALL are flattered to be asked questions by someone who admires us from afar. That kind of inquiry can awaken the mentoring instincts in some cases. I say seek out the BEST in the specialty because among them you will find that kind of inspirational enthusiasm you seek.

Q: You spent the last 15 years at the Atlanta Constitution as a business columnist and editor. There were a number of minorities on the business desk at that time. What did they do that others haven't?

Several factors helped build black participation on the business desk here in Atlanta. We had African-Americans like Angela Tuck and James Mallory among the talent scouts for the newspaper, and each had some feeling for economic reporting. They kept an eye out for minority talent. Ron Martin, executive editor during the ’90s, was dogged about pushing editors to seek diversity, something he embraced at USA Today.

But the roots of diversity at the paper, including business area, date from the early 1980s. Chris Jennewein, a business editor in 1980, turned heads when he brought over Jennifer Hill, a black woman and feature writer, as a business writer covering banking, a major business in Atlanta. That signal, clear to one and all, declared that the paper was willing to disregard barriers. Other black reporters followed in the business department. And other leaders who emphasized the hiring of black reporters in business and economics included editors Jim Minter, and Bill Kovach, as well as Ron Martin.

A well known dynamic helped. As a leader in diversity in business coverage, the AJC became attractive to other talented black writers. Other blacks became especially interested in relocating to Atlanta where they sensed a supportive environment.

Q: Who are the next Ernie Holsendolphs of business journalism -- minorities who are counseling and mentoring younger journalists?

Other blacks who enjoy mentoring. Jennifer for sure. Also Shelia Poole and Peralte Paul both eagerly seek out black interns and spend time encouraging them. And as you know, Andre Jackson, an African-American, is AJC business editor now, a job he held also at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I am sure there are others, but I have been away for four years now..