OLD Media Moves

What Forbes taught a biz journalist

September 30, 2011

Posted by Chris Roush

Leigh Gallagher, an assistant managing editor at Fortune, writes about her time at rival Forbes from 1998 to 2004 in the wake of the publication of former managing editor Stewart Pinkerton‘s book “The Fall of the House of Forbes.”

Gallagher writes, “Pinkerton, who left in 2009 under, well, not-so-happy circumstances, also delivers one of the best characters in all of journalism in Jim Michaels, the ferociously talented editor who ran the magazine from 1961 to 1999. While I was there, Michaels was a much-feared overlord who was seen and heard mainly through his scathing all-caps comments on stories, viewable for all to see in the company’s editing system. (Among them: ‘I DON’T CARE WHAT THE ANALYST THINKS. WHAT DO YOU THINK??;’ ‘I ASSUME YOU UNDERSTAND THIS BECAUSE YOUR INITIALS ARE ON IT. I DON’T. FIX IT. JWM;’ and ‘THIS ISN’T REPORTING. THIS IS STENOGRAPHY. WHY IS THIS PERSON STILL ON STAFF???’). As Pinkerton recounts, Michaels would rewrite stories at the eleventh hour or kill them entirely; he kicked writers who quit out of the building; tortured his lieutenants; and ran such stressful story pitch meetings that writers were known to throw up before them.

“But he was also a brilliant editor — it was said he could edit the Bible down to six words — who left his imprint on some of journalism’s biggest names. ‘My column today consists of techniques I learned from Michaels,’ Fortune columnist and seven-time Loeb Award winner Allan Sloan told me recently. ‘I cannot tell you the influence he had on my career.’ (Read Allan Sloan’s 2007 tribute to Michaels here.) Pinkerton delves deeply into Michaels’ biographical and family history, which will be new material even to most Forbes veterans.

“The book ticks through the various eras of modern-day Forbes, from the birth of the Forbes 400, the magazine’s annual ranking of the richest people in America, through battles over who would succeed Michaels. (When Bill Baldwin ushered in a gentler management style, Pinkerton writes, the ‘collective Zoloft … bill for the edit staff almost certainly plummeted to a postwar low.’) These sections are dotted with anecdotes of the Forbes culture I knew well: late nights and idiosyncratic personalities, boozy lunches at Gotham Bar and Grill (which Pinkerton admits to keeping in business), screaming matches between Dennis Kneale, the new managing editor who’d blown in from the Wall Street Journal, and a then-retired Michaels; early fumbles with ‘digital convergence,’ including the ill-fated CueCat experiment where subscribers were mailed a plastic barcode scanner to access advertiser content online.”

Read more here.

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