Carol Loomis Q&A

Touted by the New York Post as a “legend in financial journalism,” Carol Junge Loomis has graced the pages of Fortune for more than 50 years.

In addition to reporting on a wide range of financial and corporate news, Loomis is known for profiles of business luminaries like Warren Buffett and Sandy Weill, and for cover stories such as “Everything In History Was Against Them” (April 13, 1998), an evocative tale of five Holocaust survivors who came to America and became successful businessmen. "Fortune has published thousands of success stories since its first issue nearly 70 years ago, but none has been as compelling as this week’s cover story on the business breakthroughs of five Holocaust survivors,” said the New York Post.

Loomis has won three lifetime achievement awards: the Gerald M. Loeb Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, the Women's Economic Round Table award in 2000 for print journalists, of which she was the first recipient, and Time Inc.'s Henry R. Luce Award in 2001, of which she was also the first recipient.

In 1976, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury appointed Loomis to the Advisory Committee on Federal Consolidated Financial Statements. In 1980, she served as one of six panelists questioning presidential candidates Ronald Reagan and John Anderson in a nationally televised debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

In 2000, Loomis won a “Front Page” award from the Newswomen's Club of New York for her story “Lies, Damned Lies, and Managed Earnings,” which anticipated the financial scandals that rocked the U.S. markets. More recently, in 2001, she returned to the same theme in an article called “The 15% Delusion.”

Loomis attended Drury College and the University of Missouri, from which she received a Bachelor of Journalism degree.

On Monday, Sept. 12, 2005, Loomis talked to University of North Carolina journalism professor Chris Roush about her career. What follows is an edited transcript:

Q: Why did you want to become a journalist?

A: I’m not absolutely sure, but I had a grandfather who wrote a book, a novel. That probably influenced me to a little bit. And I loved to read. And then I had the University of Missouri about 90 miles away from my hometown, which had a big journalism school. All of those were pushing me in that direction.

Q: Did you write for the student newspaper?

Everybody who takes reporting writes for the school paper. I don’t think I was any star at it. I was given the real estate beat, but I don’t think I was very creative in thinking about it. Today, I can say to myself there are all sorts of things that I should have done. But I remember a class at the business school on the history of economy and I wrote it on city bosses, and I remember that the professor read it while I was still in the room and said I wrote pretty well.

Q: What did your work at Maytag right after graduation teach you about business?

A: I wanted to go into magazines. I did not have any great interest in going to work for a newspaper. And the editor of the Maytag News had gone to Missouri, and he came down and took three of us who were graduating seniors. He flew us in the Maytag plane up to Newton to be interviewed. I was probably the only one who thought that working in Newton was exciting. They offered me the job, and it was a magazine. I thought this was a good thing to do. I was right there in the midst of a corporation, and Maytag was centralized enough that you saw it all. The plants were right next door, and the president was down the hallway. I saw it all, and thought it was interesting stuff. I went in not knowing much about business.

Q: Why did you want to go to New York?

A: I wanted to work for a national magazine, and there weren’t manner that weren’t in New York. I had this ambition of wanting to work at Time Inc. for either Time or Life. And after I became aware that I liked business, I expanded my ambitions to include Fortune. And I had some other interviews when I came to New York on vacation. Time had the biggest reputation and was the center of magazine journalism in those days. The whole Luce establishment had this great reputation.

Q: When you started at Fortune in 1954, what did you still need to learn about business?

A: I certainly didn’t know much at all. Despite having worked at Maytag for two years, I was quite untutored in business. I needed to know an awful lot about how it worked, and I remember an editor who came out after I turned in some research and said, “You have to realize that revenues aren’t as important as profits.” That was quite a revelation to me at the time. And I was thrown into the company of fine writers at the time that Fortune had and was soaking it up.

Q: How difficult was it for a woman to be in the field of business journalism at that time?

A: At that time, I was a researcher, which was a junior job. That wasn’t difficult at all, because all of the women were researchers. Women in the Luce establishment and concept of magazines didn’t write. So it wasn’t difficult at all to fit into the role that I was given.

Q: But didn’t you want to write?

A: I assumed I did. But the job of Fortune researcher was a great job. There was a lot of travel connected with it. It was good pay, and I was not in the least restless as a researcher. I wouldn’t say there was a larger amount of writing, but you did write up notes from interviews, and that kept you in the process of putting down words clearly.

Q: Sylvia Porter was a well-known, female business journalist at that time. Was she someone that you looked up to or went to for advice?

A: I met her, but no. I had nothing but respect with what she was doing, but she was not a role model. She was over there in newspapers, and I was determined to be a magazine person.

Q: Were there any others – males or females – who had a large influence on your career at the beginning?

A: The Fortune writers that I admired were a good influence. But they were all men. There weren’t any women in my frame of reference. I saw good writing all the time at Fortune and how good writers thought and how logical and penetrating they were in their questions as compared to what I thought I could do. So I had plenty of people to learn from.

Q: What about female writers such as Jessica Mitford and Rachel Carson, who wrote books in the early 1960s criticizing business?

A: I was aware of them, but I can’t say they influenced my thinking.

Q: In 1968, you were added to the Fortune board of editors. What did that mean at the time?

A: It was just a title. The board of editors had been invented some time before I came to fortune as a way of rewarding writers who really didn’t want to be editors, of giving them a title and making them feel as if they were something special and highly valued. So getting elevated to the board of editors was a big thing. But it didn’t have any bearing on what you did.

Q: What story or stories are you most proud of in your career at Fortune?

A: That’s a little bit like asking which one of your children is your favorite. A story I did back in 1974 on the two-tier market of Wall Street was an important story. I loved the piece I did on me and Hillary Clinton and our misadventures in the commodities market. I loved it because it was my story idea, it was my headline idea, and it was my photo idea. I liked that story. Then, I did two derivatives covers in the 1990s, one in 1994 and one in 1995, and I liked those stories. They were very hard to do. But they were primers on derivatives, which nobody understood at the time. After I wrote this article, I got a letter from the former head of the Financial Accounting Standards Board that he assigns one of those articles to his accounting students for required reading. And then I liked the one I did on 1999 called “Lies, Damn Lies and Managed Earnings” because I had a very clear picture that we were going to have accounting scandals, but I just didn’t know at what companies they were going to erupt.

Q: What story that you’ve gone back and read do you wish you could do over again, and why?

A: I don’t go back and read it because I know it wasn’t a good story. A story I did in the 1960s on companies promoting their own stocks was not a good story. I didn’t do enough reporting, and I wasn’t far enough along in my thinking on the subject. So I would be happy to do that one over. But I don’t have many.

Q: You wrote a lot about the stock market and investing in the 1960s. Was there a lot of interest in those stories at that time?

A: If you go back to around 1959, going back 10 years, there wasn’t any interest in investing. People graduating from Harvard Business School did not think of themselves as wanting to go to Wall Street. So it was in the 1960s that interest in the stock market began to build. In 1968, trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange was 12 million shares a day. Today, it’s 1.6 billion. So investing in the stock market and getting rich on stocks wasn’t far advanced in the 1960s. I think writing so much about it and the problems that the stock exchange was having was an indication that it was beginning to be a topic that people very much wanted to read about.

Q: I’ve heard some business journalists say that your friendship with Warren Buffett would constitute a conflict of interest in any other newsroom. What do you say about that?

A: I’m sure there are people who think it’s a conflict of interest. I have written about Warren only a few times, and I have said he’s a friend and that I own stock in Berkshire. We’ve handled it very up and above board, and I think in a commendable way. I think that people sometimes forget that it’s supposed to be a good thing for people to have a source. So I feel very good about the way that we’ve handled that.

Q: How have you seen business journalism evolve in the past 50 years – either good or bad?

A: I think it’s a lot more penetrating. Journalism is much more sophisticated these days. Woodward and Bernstein probably had some effect on encouraging business writers to do a better job of reporting. And it helps of course that there are so many good publications, including The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal, as far as I am concerned, is required reading for any business journalist. Obviously, online sources have helped us. And people learn, just like in every field, from the people before us. I think there are still failings, and what I see is that people start off with an idea of what the story is and sometimes refuse to look at what they’ve learned and revise their opinions of what the story is.

Q: You are known for your research before writing an article. Was that the biggest failure of business reporting in the 1990s?

A: I think it varies a lot among journalists. Some are very good at that, and some are not so good. The more research and reporting that you can do, then the better off you are in a big way. I look around and I see cases of where people haven’t done enough good reporting. But then I see stories where I am impressed by how much research has done.

Q: What advice would you give today for a person interested in a career in business journalism?

A: I probably advise them to go into some entry-level job at some organization and learn as much as I can. There were courses I took at Missouri, like a course in public relations, and all of the liberal arts classes that I possible could, in addition to the journalism classes. And I would read broadly and I would read all of the business magazines and The Wall Street Journal and Financial Word. And I would buy some stocks. I’m very sure that publications are looking for competence, and I think that journalism is about as close to a meritocracy as it can get. I really think that journalism is a good example of meritocracy because there is a written product and relatively little politics in how you are judged. All you have to do is work hard and be good.