Is it OK to label Andy Serwer as American journalism royalty? After all, he spent decades at Fortune magazine writing about the likes of President Bill Clinton, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz and billionaire investor Warren Buffett. As a cub journalist, I watched amazed as he deftly maneuvered between print, digital and on-air formats, blazing a trail long before these skills were taught at J school.
He’s even been described as “perhaps the nation’s top multimedia talent, successfully juggling the roles of serious journalist, astute commentator and occasional court jester.”
In this case, court jester tells me that he maintains a sense of humor in a typically serious industry. Andy, who has degrees from Emory, Columbia and Bowdoin College, recently became editor-at-large of Barron’s, a must-read for anyone truly interested in business. (Barron’s reports that it tops more than 20 million unique visitors per month including Apple News.) Meanwhile, Andy isn’t wasting any time – check out his work here.
I chatted with Serwer about his new role, his favorite Fortune story and the very long workdays of yesteryear:
Dawn Wotapka: Congratulations on the new job. Tell me what you’ll be doing.
Andy Serwer: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be joining Barron’s. The most exciting thing about the job is that I’m really going to be doing what I love, and what Barron’s needs me to do — so it’s like a perfect fit. I’m going to be doing stories, sort of across a whole range of business topics — kind of big picture stuff — and drilling down into subjects that we think are really, really interesting and important for our readers. And I’m also going to be doing video interviews and long-form interviews with important business leaders and leaders in society and politics. We’re looking forward to getting that started almost immediately.
Dawn: How did this opportunity come about?
Andy: I’ve been a reader and a consumer of Barron’s content for decades — I’m talking about going back to the 1980s — so I have long been an admirer of this news organization. I’ve also known some people who worked here for many, many years. I was having conversations with people at Dow Jones and at Barron’s, and, as we talked more about what might work for me, it just became apparent that this was just a great opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I was just thrilled when we could figure it out and I could come on board.
Dawn: What got you interested in journalism?
Andy: Ok, wow. It is going back in time for someone like myself, because I’ve been doing this for a number of decades. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area during the Watergate era. Woodward and Bernstein were our heroes. I was surrounded by the people who were involved in Watergate, both from the side of the Nixon administration, but also the side of the journalists as well.
I worked at my high school newspaper but didn’t practice journalism so much in college. When I went to business school, I realized that the only thing I really liked about business was, frankly, reading The Wall Street Journal. In fact, I got this reputation for not studying so much. I was the guy who was always reading The Wall Street Journal while sitting on the steps of the school. I realized that instead of going into business, I should be a business journalist. So, I went from business school to journalism school at Columbia. After that, I was fortunate enough to get a job at Fortune magazine right out of school in 1985.
Dawn: You have an MBA. How does that help you in journalism?
Andy: It’s extremely important in business journalism to be able to read financial statements and understand a company’s P&L (profit and loss statement). I think it really gave me a leg up as I went from business school to journalism school and concentrated in business journalism. The people who didn’t have any business experience or who didn’t have a business degree were frankly a step or two behind. Now having said that, the majority of business journalists who don’t have MBAs do incredible work and I admire them. You can learn this yourself, but it’s great also to have an MBA.
Dawn: At one point you worked multiple jobs at once: Fortune, CNN and CNNMoney.com What was that like?
Andy: I was doing stories in Fortune, and I would get calls from TV outlets like CNBC and CNN. They would ask me to come and talk about my stories. They liked what I did on TV so they started asking me to come on more and more. I worked at CNN from 2001 to 2006 and worked with Fortune at the same time. When I became an editor of Fortune magazine in 2006, I didn’t really have the time to also work at CNN, so I stopped doing TV full time. But I went on to do regular appearances on MSNBC, for instance, while I was editor of Fortune,
I was actually sort of doing three jobs. I was writing features in the magazine and a column, and then I was also doing a digital column online called Street Life. That was really sort of the first business news blog. I was doing the digital side, I was doing print, and I was doing TV. It was an extremely long day. It started at 4:30 p.m. and went on to like 8 p.m. I did take a 20-minute nap during the day: I had to, it was intense.
They all sort of informed each other. I realized that some things worked on TV, some things didn’t work online, and some things worked in print. There were common denominators such as getting the facts right, checking sources to make sure that you’re being fair, not being swayed by what people were saying. All those things held true across all the different platforms. I feel really lucky and proud I was able to sort of be there, as digital came into the fore and influenced TV, and vice versa.
Dawn: Which one of your Fortune stories stands out to you the most and why?
Andy: The story that I am most proud of was a cover story I did on the Walton family, which owns and controls Walmart. No one knew who the Waltons were. People knew who Sam Walton was but he had died, and no one knew who his offspring were. They controlled the biggest and arguably most influential, most important company in America. It was also the biggest private employer. It took me more than a year to get the family to cooperate with me.
When I would ask people “Who is America’s richest family?” people would say the Rockefellers, Oprah. No one even knew who [the Waltons] were. They had four children. One of them was John Walton. He was reluctant to talk to me but he finally did. A year or so after the story, John died in a plane crash. The family told me later that they were so grateful that I was able to tell his story before he passed away.
Dawn: If you could do one thing differently in your career, what would that be?
Andy: Sometimes I go back and look at my stories and cringe. I always wish I was a better writer and had more wisdom when I was younger, but that’s kind of impossible.
When I was at Fortune, I had no management experience. I never really thought about interacting with people in the workplace the way I had to, including simple things like praise in public, criticize in private and be really, really respectful. I don’t think I was disrespectful to people, but I learned to really empathize and be even more respectful and thoughtful.
Dawn: What do you think makes a good journalist today?
Andy: Being technologically savvy. You have to be proficient in all manner of tools and apps. It used to be that older people in our business told younger people what to do. Now because young people are so much more proficient with technology, that has shifted significantly. We’re always asking younger people “Well, how do you do this on LinkedIn?” When I’m looking at WordPress or a CMS, we ask “How do you do this and that?” You need to be able to learn that stuff quickly and be able to use it.
Underneath that, the ethics and skills still remain the same. One thing that is very different, though, is that you must be able to multitask. You can’t say, “Oh, I only do text online.” Now you have to be able to do video, podcasts, appear on TV, and distribute your work on social media. You can’t pigeonhole yourself anymore.
Dawn: I’m sure you’ve had plenty of opportunities to go into communications and make more money. Why have you resisted this?
Andy: Sometimes people say, “Oh, they went to the dark side.” I think that’s kind of disrespectful. People choose to do what they do for a variety of reasons. For me, I’ve always just been someone who likes tracking things down, chasing things, investigating things, figuring things out and then telling stories. I just love that beginning-to-end process of storytelling, and I just couldn’t see myself leaving that. That’s why I’ve stuck in journalism and been really happy.
Dawn: Finally, my favorite question: What do you do for fun?
Andy: I do a million things. I love running and swimming. I love nature and the outdoors. I love hanging out with my family, my wife and three daughters (ages 29, 28 and 26). I love watching lacrosse games on TV or online. And I love just being in warm places at the beach, hanging out.
Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who simply loves to read and write. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn.