Paul Steiger Q&A


Paul Steiger is the editor-in-chief, president and chief executive of ProPublica, a non-profit organization dedicated to investigative journalism.

Steiger is also the chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based non-profit organization founded in 1981 to promote press freedom by working for the rights of journalists world-wide. He is a trustee of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, based in Miami, which supports transformative programs in areas including journalism and community development.

Steiger began his journalism career in 1966 as a reporter in the San Francisco bureau of The Wall Street Journal. In 1968, he moved to the Los Angeles Times as a staff writer and, in 1971, he transferred to that paper's Washington, D.C., bureau as an economics correspondent. He returned to Los Angeles in 1978 to serve as the Times' business editor. In 1983, Steiger rejoined the Journal as an assistant managing editor in New York and became deputy managing editor in 1985. He was appointed managing editor in 1991 and served in that role until May 2007. Under his leadership, The Wall Street Journal's reporters and editors won 16 Pulitzer Prizes. He served as editor-at-large of the Journal through year end 2007, when he assumed his present position.

In 2008, Steiger received the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism from Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. In 2007, he won the National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award. In 2005, Steiger was honored with the "Decade of Excellence" award from the World Leadership Forum in London. Also in 2005, the University of Missouri School of Journalism awarded him a Missouri Honor Medal for distinguished service in journalism. In 2002, Steiger was selected as the first recipient of the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Leadership Award. The John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA honored him with the 2002 Gerald Loeb Award for lifetime achievement.

Also in 2002, he was awarded the Columbia Journalism Award, given to honor a "singular journalistic performance in the public interest," and the highest honor awarded by the Columbia University School of Journalism. He was named a 2001-2002 Poynter Fellow by Yale University. The National Press Foundation awarded him the 2001 George Beveridge Editor of the Year Award. He was a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board from 1998 to 2007, serving as chairman in his final year. Mr. Steiger personally won three Gerald Loeb Awards and two John Hancock awards for his economics and business coverage. He is co-author of the book, "The '70s Crash and How to Survive It," published in 1970.

Steiger talked about business journalism and his career via e-mail with University of North Carolina journalism professor Chris Roush on Feb. 16, 2009. What follows is an edited transcript. 

Q: Were you interested in business and economics reporting when you were in college? If not, when did you become interested?
A: I majored in economics, but had no interest in reporting on the subject. I went to work for the Wall Street Journal because it was willing to hire me in San Francisco, which is where i wanted to live, and because it was a national newspaper with a great page one platform for stories about politics and social trends, which is what I was more interested in at the time. Only after I got into reporting on business did I find how fascinating it could be.
Q: What do you wish you knew then in your first job that you know now?
A: The importance of thinking first and last about the reader.
Q: Tell me about interviewing a Mafia hitman in 1968. What was that for?
A: My colleague Barney Calame and I were doing a page one story about efforts by government agencies to combat efforts by organized crime at penetrating legitimate business. An alleged Mafia hitman named Jimmy "The Weasel" Fratianno agreed to an interview in his lawyer's office. We wanted his views of the government's tactics.
Q: What was covering business and the economy like in the 1970s during inflation, wage and price controls and deregulation?
The LA Times sent me to Washington in August of 1971, just after President Nixon froze wages and prices, embargoed soybean exports and cut the dollar's link to gold. What followed was a decade of economic turmoil in the United States and in much of the world. Nixon's goal was to stimulate the economy in advance of his re-election campaign in 1972, but to do so without entailing an otherwise inevitable inflation. The result was a disaster. Budget deficits and low interest rates stimulated economic expansion, but rising world demand for all kinds of products unleashed huge price increases that Nixon's price czar Donald Rumsfeld (yes, the same) couldn't contain.
The price surges were exacerbated by two gasoline crises, one in 1973-74 and one at the end of the decade, when oil supplies from the Middle East were cut off. By the early 1980s, the country was suffering from a recession even worse (at least so far) than the present one, with both unemployment and inflation in double digits.
Q: A lot of newspapers began to expand their business and economics coverage in the late 1970s when you were business editor of the Los Angeles Times. Why had it not played a more important role in the newsroom before that?
The economy was so worrisome, that people wanted to read more about it. Also, cocktail party chatter among ordinary folk turned to interest rates and investing in real estate.
Q: Why did you decide to go back East to the Journal in 1983?
A: I loved my 15 years at the LAT, the last five of them as business editor. But the Journal offered me the chance to run two of my favorite coverage areas, of economics and markets, for the publication that set the agenda for coverage of business and financial matters. I couldn't resist.
Q:  What was the Journal like during the 1980s in terms of covering the greed and excesses of Wall Street?
A: There was much more to cover than greed and excess, of course. Beginning in mid-1982, the economy and the markets took off on one of the longest sustained expansions in history, even as there was massive industrial restructuring. Traditional bastions like autos, steel and rubber shrank, while technology, aircraft, media and financial services boomed. As you suggest, there was greed and excess -- junk bonds, insider trading, the S&L debacle, the beginning of the enormous expansion in CEO compensation -- and the Journal led the way in coverage of all of them.
Q: Has anything changed in terms of that coverage in the past 25 years?
A: The coverage has become much more sophisticated in many ways, but not enough. Reporters and editors understand much better the importance of the credit markets and of trade and global finance than we did a generation ago, but the crucial role of credit default swaps in setting up the recent disaster wasn't picked up soon enough. Usually when people ask this question, they are asking whether we are sufficiently skeptical, but the level of skepticism tends to be cyclical, peaking after an economic or market collapse.
Q:  In 1991, you became the top editor at the Journal. What were your goals for the paper?
A: To hand over to my successors a reporting team and coverage culture at least as good as my predecessors handed to me.
Q: How much did you look back at what previous managing editors had done during their tenures for guidance?
A: I learned from all of my predecessors. The one I studied the hardest was Bernard Kilgore, who beginning in the 1940s transformed the Journal from a narrow financial publication to one of the most influential in the world.
Q:  Who were your role models and mentors in business journalism?
A: The late John F. Lawrence, my first boss at both the Journal and the LA Times, who taught me to be skeptical but not cynical and to always think of the reader; Norman Pearlstine, who recruited me back to the Journal and showed me how even the greatest institutions can be led to change when it is needed; and Peter R. Kann, the CEO during most of my time at the Journal, who taught me that leadership is not about the ego of the leader.
Q:  You oversaw the paper during one of the greatest economic booms in this country. But many have criticized business journalism for being too positive in the 1990s. Do you think that's a valid complaint for the Journal, or for business journalism in general?
A: As I noted above, skepticism tends to be cyclical. That's why it is always important for journalists to ask themselves whether the vogue of the moment is overdone, and vogues can lean downward as well as upward. When an economic expansion lasts as long as from 1982 to 2006, it is seductive to see market declines as buying opportunities rather than intimations of mortality. Indeed, for most of that period a reader was better served by optimistic coverage than by the opposite. Taking career risks and being deeply invested paid off, for the most part, far better than hunkering down and staying in cash. At the same time, when everyone buys into the same upside story, particularly when it is hard to explain in words of one syllable, that is a great opportunity for journalistic skepticism.
Q: Have business journalists become more critical and questioning in the wake of the tech bubble bursting and the Enron and WorldCom scandals?
A: Business journalists are extremely critical and questioning now, but that doesn't take much courage; just look around you.
Q: What's the most important skillset for a business journalist to have today?
A: As always, the skillset includes willingness to ask seemingly naive questions, intensity and persistence in pursuit of truth, and a passion for telling stories with all the tools at hand.
Q: You've been gone from the Journal now for 18 months. What do you think of it under Murdoch's ownership?
Much more is positive than negative. I’m particularly impressed by Rupert’s willingness to invest large sums in a difficult market to improve both the print and online versions.
Q: What does your phrase "Can't we reconnect the dots?" mean to a journalist you're talking to?
A: It means simply to consider alternative explanations for different things that we observe. The first conclusions we draw are often wrong.