Long before the field was cool, Martha “Marty” Steffens was a business journalist. In fact, I’d argue that she blazed the proverbial trail for biz journalists today.
For more than two decades, Marty has taught business journalism, economics for journalists and entrepreneurial journalism at the University of Missouri, an institution known for training distinguished reporters and editors. She’s the chair in business journalism at SABEW (the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing), so if you’ve been to a SABEW conference or workshop, chances are that Marty was, too. She helps her students secure internships and jobs at top publications, but she also mentors many others. In fact, I’ve relied on her invaluable guidance and advice over the years.
Her credibility comes from working at publications that include the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She’s also led coverage of all types of disasters — from fires to flash floods — and has trained journalists in more than 18 countries. If that isn’t enough, projects she edited helped change federal laws on military air crashes involving civilians. What’s more, court challenges she spearheaded helped open family court records in New York. She has also written and co-written books, with more to come.
Countless working and retired business journalists will tell you that Marty is authentic as they come, and the field is lucky to have her. I chatted with her about why she went into academia, how we can champion a free press and where writing an action thriller fits into her plans.
Dawn Wotapka: Tell me about why you got into journalism.
Marty Steffens: I loved to be in “the know” and the news business is certainly the center of the universe. Plus, Watergate showed that journalists have real power to change things for the better. I was editor of my high school newspaper and was teen editor of the local paper. I made money right from the start, so it was an easy choice.
Dawn: How has the field’s treatment of women changed over the years?
Marty: At first, women were the minority and had to prove that journalism wasn’t just some hobby that you would quit when you started a family. When I first started, women weren’t given the late-night shift. Now, of course, that’s all changed. And I owe my success to a lot of smart women, like Narda Zacchino of the Los Angeles Times and the late Deborah Howell. Both mentored me and that’s encouraged me to mentor others. I’m always telling my grads, “I’ll be here for you whenever you need me.” I talk to an alum at least once a week with career advice or job leads.
Dawn: Why did you leave journalism for academia?
Marty: After 30 years in the news business, I’d done a lot – and when I left the VP post at the San Francisco Examiner, it was time. I had done training for years and my family members were almost all educators, so it was a natural fit.
Dawn: What changes have you seen with students during your time teaching?
Marty: Students are rightly cautious about entering the news profession and are hedging their bets. That’s been good for business journalism because that niche continues to grow. It also appeals to students who have wider interests, such as healthcare or climate change, as jobs in those business-crossover news sites are blossoming.
Dawn: What professional skills do you emphasize that you wouldn’t have a decade ago?
Marty: Revenue and audience awareness – knowing how to pivot your own content creation skills to align with the revenue goals of your company. That means I teach a lot of innovation and entrepreneurship skills. It’s not just enough to tell great stories or get scoops … [you have to] be able to reach your audience.
Dawn: You’re also active with the International Press Institute. What can we do to ensure that a free press not only survives but also thrives,in our country?
Marty: Speak up. When your governor shuts down data access, or when your FOIA request (Freedom of Information Act) is being put on the back burner, make noise. Or if you are harassed because of what you do, report it to the IPI (International Press Institute) or the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists).
Dawn: What can we do to help foreign journalists?
Marty: Recognize and republish their work. At the Missouri School of Journalism, we have an Afghan journalist on a fellowship working on his own stories as well as helping students.
Dawn: You have been extremely active with SABEW. Why do you stick with it?
Marty: I hold the SABEW endowed chair at Missouri, but don’t have to be as active as I am with the profession. I have seen real change with the couple hundred workshops — that’s right! — I’ve conducted over 21 years. Most recently, I’ve seen success with the Goldschmidt data workshops. (Note from Dawn: I was in the first class of these amazing workshops.)
I’m happy to say that many investigative stories wouldn’t have happened if journalists lacked that rare exposure to government data. It’s been a real eye-opener to take journalists to data sources in Washington or to FRED at the St. Louis Federal Reserve. Journalists connect with data in ways they hadn’t anticipated, and they tell me it makes stories sharper.
Dawn: Several professional organizations are struggling to attract and keep members. Why is that?
Marty: News organizations and journalists will only pay for training and information that’s relevant to their current situation. When design was a big thing, we all flocked to Society of News Design conferences. When digital journalism emerged, attendance at the Online News Association burgeoned. Clearly, organizations that represented newspaper editors have vanished or merged, in line with the demise of that legacy industry. For business journalists, jobs in that sector continue to be there, so SABEW membership is steady. And of course, the watchdog role never ends, so that bodes well for Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).
Dawn: If you could write a book right now, what would it be about?
Marty: I just finished a text on basic Economics that I used in my Economics for Journalists class. I stopped teaching it this year, after a 14-year run. I’m working on a book for Cognella on how media revenue models are changing. I also have the desire to write an action thriller – that might wait for my retirement.
Dawn: Finally, what do you do for fun?
Marty: I love to travel and have been to some 50 countries. When I’m home, I play tennis, cook and recently figured out how to get orchids to re-bloom. I go to Mizzou football and basketball games and root for my alma mater, the Indiana Hoosiers. And now that I’m a grandma, I love playing with Eleanor, my 3-year-old granddaughter.
Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who 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.