Q&A: Lublin talks about her WSJ career
Among the first female reporters at The Wall Street Journal, Joann S. Lublin faced a number of uphill battles in her career. She became deputy bureau chief of The Journal’s important London bureau, its first run by women.
Lublin retired last week as management news editor for The Journal, where she worked with reporters in the U.S. and abroad. She frequently appeared at conferences to discuss leadership, executive pay and corporate governance. She created The Journal’s first career advice column in 1993 and then wrote its Your Executive Career column. (The latest version appears in The Journal today.)
Lublin is also the author of “Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World.”
She shared its Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for stories about corporate scandals.
Lublin earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with honors from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in communications from Stanford University.
Lublin spoke Thursday morning by telephone with Talking Biz News about her career. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you get interested in becoming a journalist?
It’s very funny that you should ask that question. Since I retired, I had to clean out my desk, and I found all these things. As a very young child in elementary school, I had a poem published in the PTA newsletter, and it was about a cow. And I thought that was cool to see my name in print. In fourth grade, a bunch of us decided to start a newspaper. And we had a contest to name the newspaper, and I won. It was called the Walt Whitman News & Views.
I worked on my junior high newspaper, my high school newspaper, and my college newspaper. And then when I got to Stanford, they said they only let undergrads do that. But I persuaded them to let me write one article about the business school trying to diversify its student base.
How did you break into business journalism?
When I was in college and still today, a Wall Street Journal program promoted journalism internships. The Newspaper Fund was originally created to get men in liberal arts colleges interested in going into journalism. Men applied, and a whole bunch of newspapers agreed to take them.
The summer between my junior and senior year of college, the fund decided to open the competition to women and journalism majors. I met both criteria. The Wall Street Journal picked the cream of the crop to be their interns. I was offered the chance to become the first female intern in the Washington bureau, although it had one full-time female reporter.
By getting that internship, it gave me a leg up when I got out of grad school in Stanford. My interest at that time was to work for a general interest newspaper. I was offered a job at the Riverside Press-Enterprise in southern California, but when I went for the job interview, which was east of Los Angeles, most of the staff had bad coughs due to the smog. That was all I needed to hear. I would have loved to work there, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there. So I turned down the job.
My thesis advisor, who had worked at The Journal, heard about an opening in the San Francisco bureau of the Journal. I interviewed and was offered the job. I started at The Journal in July 1971.
What did you cover when you started?
My first official beat was the gold mining industry. There were some gold companies based in San Francisco. But the irony was that this was an era that the paper did a lot of roundups where some breaking news would occur and they would ask four or five bureaus to get reactions. I guess this was part of my hazing. The first day on my job in my inbox, I saw there were four or five of these roundups that I was supposed to report on in the first day. So I did the reporting and wrote these memos up and gave them to my editor, and he said, “What’s this?”
It turned out that he had given me one and the male reporters the others, and they all put them in my inbox as hazing.
Who were your biggest mentors at the Journal?
My biggest mentor was a guy who was my bureau chief in Chicago, Dick Martin, in the late 1970s. Around that time, I wanted to move to Washington. My husband was a reporter for BusinessWeek, and my parents lived in the DC area. And we wanted to have a child at the time and thought it would be good to be near my parents. I asked Dick to help arrange a transfer for me to the Washington bureau, and he worked very diligently on this.
I got pregnant several months later. That was like early 1979. At the end of March, he came back to me and asked me if I still wanted to go to DC and how soon could I get there? He made it happen. I guess he alerted the Washington bureau that I was pregnant. But when I showed up in late April, at the start of my third trimester, the bureau chief said, “Oh my God, I knew you were pregnant, but I didn’t know you were that pregnant.” I knew what he meant.
How did you break through into the editing ranks?
I eventually became the deputy bureau chief in London, but not through any concerted planning on my part. In the late ’80s, the Journal surveyed reporters about what languages they were fluent in. I was fluent in French and could converse in Spanish. And so I was invited to apply to be news editor in London. So that was my move into management. And a year or two later, I was promoted to deputy bureau chief with Kathryn Christensen as the bureau chief. London was the first WSJ bureau with women as the top two people.
What attracted you to covering management and executives?
Now, in London, I’m in an editing role for the first time. I missed reporting. I missed, most importantly of all, seeing my byline in The Wall Street Journal. A PR guy from New York had visited the London bureau and said, “I remember your byline and wondered why you had left the paper.”
The crash of ’87 had happened, and the bureau was shrinking. I figured out I could get back into reporting on a minor scale, and I looked for areas that the bureau was not covering. I had covered the pharmaceutical industry for a while, and so I started doing some reporting there. The advertising industry was doing a big M&A push, so I started writing about that and deals related to both of those industries. And I was writing about some of these takeovers, it was often clear that the American companies had not done a very good job of figuring how to be a strange company in a strange land. That just got me interested in the whole notion of how global companies manage on a global scale.
When I was getting ready to go back to the U.S. and get into a reporting role, I proposed that I come back and write about global management issues, which was not a beat that existed at The Journal at the time. They replied, that is interesting, but we want you to write more about general management topics.
And then when I returned, Joanne Lipman, who was writing a five-day-a-week column in advertising, was about to go on maternity leave and they asked me to take over that. So my first column on the advertising beat, which I did for seven months, ran the day that Joanne went into labor and gave birth. Because our names were so similar, I got all these messages that said, “Congratulations on writing your column while in labor.” So the following spring, when she came back, I got to start writing about management issues.
How did you use your reporting to advance women in the corner office?
I don’t think I used my reporting as a bully pulpit for any issue. But you do write about the issues on the beat that everyone is struggling with, and certainly the presence of women in the management suite and corporate boards is an issue that I have written about for a long time, and one that corporate America cares about. And writing “Earning It” has sharpened my take on those issues. But I was just trying to be a good journalist. And I plan to continue to being a good journalist because I’m going to do freelance pieces.
What are some of the stories that you’re most proud of?
I think a lot of my reputation in covering management has been built on my ability to break stories, particularly about CEOs coming and CEOs going. That came from developing a cadre of good sources that you could rely on when you were working with other reporters. I’ve also enjoyed writing the career advice column for the last 25 years.
Probably my most memorable management feature is one I did on the life of the global CEO. It was about Mike Bonsignore, the CEO of Honeywell, who allowed me to travel around the world with him on the corporate jet. I traveled with him all the way to China and came back nine days later and wrote what I think was a pretty good piece about the trials of being a global CEO.
I also got to visit deposed Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski in prison a couple of years ago. When I got there, they searched everything in my possession. The guard pulled out an Imodium from my briefcase and said, “What is this?” In his view, it was contraband.
The real irony is that when I got to the visiting room and Kozlowski was talking to me, and he said, “You see that out there? The barbed wire?” He said, “That is Tyco-made barbed wire.” Of course, I had to check that Tyco had sold barbed wire to prisons in New York. And I did get my Imodium back.
Do you think the Journal newsroom is now a good place for women to work?
Absolutely. A lot better than when I first got there. In my archeological dig of going through my papers, I found a letter sent to me by the women reporters in the New York office the year that I got there, and they were bragging that they now had 13 women reporters at the paper and that we could be a force for good and should stick together. They suggested that our union do a study of whether female employees perceived sex discrimination. The union subsequently did a pay disparity study and followed up on that decades later to show that while it has gotten better there is still a wide disparity.
The Journal recently implemented a plan to identify women for management positions and promoting high-potential women. It’s the best time in my working memory for women to be working at The Wall Street Journal.
What are your plans now? Are you going to write every week?
I’m not going to write every week. Exactly what issues I write about is still to be determined. And I do want to write another book. I have gotten the green light from my publisher, but I’m not going to disclose the topic. And I’m going to be speaking about the book that I have already written.