Marshall Loeb Q&A

A business journalist for more than five decades, Marshall Loeb writes a MarketWatch column about personal finance, the stock market and the economy. He previously was editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, managing editor of Fortune and Money magazines, and business & economy editor of Time.

His career began in Germany, where he was a reporter for the United Press. He also worked as a reporter for the St. Louis Globe Democrat in the mid-1950s before joining Time.

A former president of the American Society of Magazine Editors, Loeb was named one of the top business reporters of the 20th century by the TJFR Group. He won a Gerald Loeb Award in 1974, and then a Loeb Lifetime Achieve Award in 1996. Two years later, he received the Society of American Business Editors and Writers Distinguished Achievement Award.

A Chicago native, Loeb graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1950.

Loeb talked about business journalism and his career with University of North Carolina journalism professor Chris Roush on Feb. 3, 2009. What follows is an edited transcript. 

Q: How did you become interested in journalism?

A: I was raised on the west side of Chicago in the 1930s. That’s tantamount to the president’s South Side of Chicago, lower middle class. And I wanted to break out of my particular shell, which was heavily ethnic people getting jobs that they could support themselves on but not anything adventuresome. I wanted to get out and see the world. And the one way to see the world was through journalism. I though that people at the Chicago Daily News, The Chicago Sun, the Chicago Tribune were heroic figures. And I was pretty good at writing. Journalism in those years, it was very difficult to get a job, more so than now. There was difficult competition.

I went to the University of Missouri because it has a well-known school of journalism and still does. I began writing sports for throwaway papers while in high school. When I got out of college, I was very interested in what was going on in Germany and what those people had done to create the situation there. So I went there and got a job as the assistant to a director of an international student house. I spent a year and a half overseas in Germany and then started looking for a job in Germany, France, Austria, banging on doors throughout all of Europe. Finally, in Paris I got lucky and got hired as the United Press correspondent in Germany. I spent the next three years in Frankfurt. It was a good experience of learning how to write while under fire, going all over West Germany and other places. I got my training there.

Q: What turned you on to covering business?

A: At the end of 1954, I married a woman, half German and half French.  She was a Pan-Am stewardess. I moved back to the United States, and I had a desperate time finding a job. After a lengthy search, I was hired by the old St. Louis Globe Democrat covering general city news. What was important was that I did freelance work writing magazine length pieces for the Globe-Democrat that ran on Sundays.

I did some covering of business, but only in the normal course of events, while I was in St. Louis. But I wanted to be sure that what I wrote would be printed or broadcast beyond the place where I was sitting at that time. Virtually nothing that I wrote for the Globe-Democrat appeared more than 50 miles away from where I was sitting. I was determined to get that global reach.
That narrowed the field down to the New York Times, the Herald-Tribune, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS and NBC. I interviewed at Time, and they said they had no jobs at the present time. I said, “Please interview me anyway.”

I came very close at Newsweek. It was down to two people, and they chose the other guy who had much more experience. I went back after the first full year in St. Louis and got hired at Time. They asked me while I interviewed if I was interested in business. I told them yes. I had covered different business stories in Europe. I was sure I would do well in it.

My salary had zoomed up to $5,000 a year to $8,000 a year. Otto Fuerbringer was the editor who hired me. I said, “Can we talk about that salary?” He said, “We can talk all about it, but it’s not going to change.”

Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in business journalism since you started covering business and the economy?

A: The biggest change would have to do with the digitalization of journalism. When you see the stuff coming on to the screen, minute after minute after minute, the great volume of coverage, the incredible speed, just the timing of so many stories. That overall change has been spectacular. It has also led to all of the layoffs and squeezes in the present moment.

Obviously, the quality of the journalism has also improved, and there are more people who are interested in business journalism. In the mid 1950s and 1960s, they were financial professionals. Over the years, there has been this evolution that we’re all interested in it because of jobs, unemployment 401(k)s, IRAs, etc.

Q: When I think of quality business journalism, Time magazine is not the first publication that leaps to mind. How important was business coverage to the publication during your tenure?

It was one of the big three subjects, the top three being national affairs, the world or foreign affairs, or business. When I was in business, we started a world business section and an economy section. We ran a section labeled Business, a section labeled World Business. There was a great readership for business stories, notably cover stories.

We once ran a cover story on John Paul Getty. He was the first billionaire. It was written by Ed Jamison. This was a story of 8,000 words. He had all sorts of resources, and he worked on it for several weeks. There wasn’t that much back then in terms of long-form business journalism. There were a lot more covers of business.

(Editor’s Note: A 1960 Time magazine cover of personal finance journalist Sylvia Porter remains the only business journalist to appear on the cover of a mainstream general interest magazine. Loeb remembers serving Porter coffee once at his house.)

Q: When you moved over to Money magazine in 1980, what did that publication need to do to gain more readers?

A: I concentrated on five subjects – how to make more money, how to invest it more profitably, how to save it more wisely, how to spend it more prudently and how to advance my career. We gave less space to things like travel and how a movie star did their finances. I wanted to know about people like me. I brought a lot of ideas from Time magazine, focusing the story and holding down the length. I think it was good-old fashioned journalism, just expanding the idea of coverage for the individual reader who is a worker, a manager, a thinker, whatever, and make the story relevant to his or her life and livelihood.

Money magazine flourished. We had been not so profitable a venture. We were breaking even, but not much more than that. Within a year or two, it became known as the fastest growing consumer magazine in the country.

Q: Was personal finance a big deal yet in the 1980s?

A: Not much attention paid to it. Mainly stuff like Sylvia Porter. Money tips. There’s so much beyond that. The sophistication of the coverage of the recent scandals and crashes and scams, nobody in business journalism had the intellectual capacity to cover something like that back then. We can thank Carol Loomis for changing that. Carol is so knowledgeable in all of these things. She’s also another University of Missouri journalism grad.

Q: You were also the managing editor of Fortune, which is its top spot. What was it like to be Carol Loomis’ boss?

A: You had to learn to let Carol get her own way. She doesn’t need this job. We needed Carol more. Soon after I became the managing editor of Fortune, I was visited by Carol who told me she wasn’t sure she was interested in continuing to write. I made getting her to stay my No. 1 priority. Her two daughters were grown by then, and she had worked out a system by one of my predecessors where she would work eight months of the year and have off four months of the year. This was sort of a visionary policy for working women, but I approved her petition, and she continued and wrote some brilliant pieces.

She wrote one piece where she called for the resignation of the chairman of IBM, and soon thereafter he was out. That was courageous stuff. IBM was a very substantial advertiser.

Q: When you ran Columbia Journalism Review, did you try to give it more emphasis on evaluating the quality of business journalism in the country?

A: Sure, but CJR covers all forms of journalism. It emphasizes newspapers in particular. Yes, I gave more attention to business journalism, but not so you would call it one of its primary areas. Whatever you’re covering, you have to be able to cover a really complex business journalism piece. If you’re in the Bonn bureau or Tokyo bureau, you have to know how to handle this type of journalism.

Q: Why do you keep writing and reporting?

A: Because it’s there. It sure beats the hell out of sitting around suburban New York and reading section three of the New York Times. Some people I know of my generation are really delighted to stay at home and read a lot of books, go to the theater and movies. I would like to be able, as long as I can, do something in journalism to stretch my mind and to make a contribution, perhaps, share some ideas with younger colleagues. I chose to challenge myself in the world of journalism.

Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in getting into business journalism?

A: Take a course in accounting. I am serious about that. When you look back on your college years and you wonder what courses were most valuable, a lot of people say public speaking or things they haven’t taken. But I would want a course in accounting. Carol Loomis is marvelous. She once said that she reads the annual reports of a company cover to cover, including the footnotes, going back five years before she interviews a CEO. I think you need that support and background to write knowledgeably about personal finance.

Also, learn about the world around you. So many parts of journalism today can be called business journalism or business related. Don’t think that the story you’re writing is necessarily business journalism. Look at all of the wonderful bylines blossoming in the New York Times like Lou Uchitelle, who are so brilliant in their tastes. They’re not writing just earnings stories. They’re writing stories with sociology and biology and other topics in them.