By Dave Beal
Dave Beal worked at the Milwaukee Journal and then spent 25 years with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he was a reporter, columnist and executive business editor. He retired in 2006. He joined SABEW in 1970, and was president in 1983-’84 when members voted to set up their first headquarters, at the University of Missouri in Columbia. In 2008-’09, he served as the society’s interim executive director when SABEW decided to move to Arizona State University.
The Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) is the nation’s leading organization of business journalists with 3,893 members, runs the largest awards competition and puts on two major conferences annually. It recognizes and highlights the work of the country’s leading business journalists, led the way in establishing business journalism chairs at universities and has launched many training and education ventures on its own or with partners.
But it wasn’t that way half a century ago. As the 1960s began, business coverage was an orphan of journalism. For the most part, business journalists had to sing for their supper, save largely for those at The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek. In fact, the society might never have risen beyond its nascent stage had its earliest backers heeded the advice of one of that day’s most legendary journalists, Journal editor Vermont Royster.
In 1961, a group of journalists, most of them editors and business writers from the nation’s largest daily newspapers, gathered in Norfolk, Va., to discuss the sorry state of business coverage. Royster advised them not to set up separate business sections, employ business columnists or run the stock market tables. Instead, he suggested that they strengthen their local news coverage. McGraw-Hill executive Gene Miller and others countered that the only way to make things right would be to ramp up resources explicitly for business journalism.
Ultimately, Royster’s view did not prevail. “He was going one way,” says Miller. “I was going the other.” So were many others at the meeting.
Forces – technological change, the state of the economy and sometimes wild swings in the securities markets – beyond SABEW have played a huge role in shaping the society. Strong leadership has also enabled the society to evolve and grow immensely since 1963, often amid considerable turbulence.
Less than a decade ago, SABEW was dominated by daily newspapers. Many of their business desks had been adding staffers and space for years. More recently, in the wake of sharp cutbacks at these papers, the society has diversified to reflect new ways of delivering the news and new types of media outlets. The makeup of the society’s board of governors is a telling measure of this shift. In 2006, 17 of its 21 officers and board members were from daily newspapers or news/features organizations serving the dailies; in 2013, just 9 of 22.
How did all of this happen? One way to understand SABEW is to break its evolution into five fairly distinct eras:
1. The startup phase and getting established (1963-’70);
2. A period of modest growth sustained almost entirely by the dailies, followed by a membership decline (1970-’84);
3. Stabilization and sharp growth in the early years of its first office, at the University of Missouri (1984-’91);
4. A decade-long expansion with a flowering of new initiatives as SABEW benefited from aggressive leadership, a growing economy and a surging stock market (1991-2001);
5. A volatile and uncertain transition, still unfolding, into the digital age (2001-’13).
This is the story of how SABEW came to be what it is today, pieced together from a patchwork of more than 30 interviews, the society’s widely scattered records from before the mid-1980s, more recent archives kept largely by Becky Bisbee of the Seattle Times, and personal experiences.
Larson wouldn’t let go of his concern. In 1961, he got the Richmond and Norfolk members of Sigma Delta Chi (now the Society of Professional Journalists) and the School of Business Administration at Norfolk College of William and Mary to co-sponsor a meeting Oct. 1-3 at Golden Triangle Motor Hotel in Norfolk. The Ford Motor Co., the Norfolk & Western Railway, the City of Norfolk, the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce and Larson’s newspapers helped with arrangements. Royster spoke. So did syndicated business columnist J.A. Livingston, who talked about business ethics. Pollster George Gallup also spoke, as did Rear Admiral John S. McCain Jr. His son, John S. McCain III, would win the Republican nomination for president 47 years later.
In a 1996 letter to then-SABEW President Mike Kandel, Kit Larson’s son, Chiles, described how the meeting came together. “My dad told me he put the arm on many of his managing editor friends from the larger dailies to send their top-flight business writers to Norfolk for this program and that many of those instructed to attend did so kicking and screaming. However, after the sessions got rolling and they realized they were having a good time, it occurred to many that they should keep it going in the future.”
In 1963, at another meeting in Norfolk, business journalists decided to establish a permanent organization. Gene Miller led the effort. He had won his spurs as a journalistic entrepreneur in Greensboro, N.C. By day, he was a reporter for the Greensboro Daily News. By night, he was bringing in more money moonlighting as a stringer for a slew of trade publications than he was making at the paper.
In 1952, Miller moved to BusinessWeek. There, he gained eight years of front-line experience, first by opening up a bureau for the magazine in booming Houston. Two years later, at age 29, he was elevated to the magazine’s No. 3 position, associate managing editor. In 1960, he moved to the corporate staff of BusinessWeek parent McGraw-Hill as director of public affairs and communications. There, Miller offered an ideal support package for the new organization: a mimeograph machine, a telephone, clerical help, multiple contacts across the country, and his intense desire to get things moving.
“I said the way we could get started was to have a meeting, in 1964,” [Gene ] Miller recalled. “Nobody had the time, the money or the energy to do very much. I had a staff and money, and I was in New York City, the center of business news. I needed to put on a program with CEOs who, in two or three days, would create a lot of news.”
Miller and others figured a program that promised to generate a lot of news would give business editors at dailies across the country an argument for getting their managing editors to approve the expenses they needed to get to the meeting. He called contacts at a number of the country’s largest corporations, seeking to land their top executives as speakers. “They said, ‘If you get the editors, we’ll get the CEO.’ They asked who we had coming. I lied a lot.” Then Miller called the business editors to ask who in the newsroom had to approve their expenses. Typically, it was the managing editors. “Then I called the managing editors. They said they’d send the business editors if you get the CEOs. I lied again.”
By working the phones hard, he eventually landed both the top executives and business journalists from many of the largest dailies. In May 1964, at their first annual meeting at the Drake Hotel in Manhattan, they organized as the Society of American Business Writers — SABW. Among the speakers were the presidents, chairmen or top partners from seven goliaths of the private sector: AT&T, Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey, the Pennsylvania Railroad, Trans World Airlines, Eli Lilly, Price Waterhouse and Salomon Brothers & Hutzler.
Members of the society paid $15 in annual dues to join. About 40 business editors came, from the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Bulletin, the Herald Tribune and the World Telegram & Sun in New York, Detroit Free Press, Cleveland Press, Milwaukee Journal, Kansas City Star, Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere.
“Most of them had never met one another,” Miller said. “They got a lot of stories.” Miller ran against Livingston for president, but lost after members decided they wanted the top job to go to a full-time journalist who wasn’t also handling public relations duties. (Miller was both a practicing journalist, writing a column for Newsday, and a PR executive at McGraw-Hill). George Arris, financial editor at the Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin, was elected vice president, and Ben Schifman, financial editor at the Kansas City Star, became treasurer. Miller was elected secretary.
The organization met at the Drake again in 1965. Livingston, who won a Pulitzer Prize that year for his coverage of the economies of Eastern Europe, was elected to a second term as president. His home paper, the Philadelphia Bulletin, did some of the early work for the society. Joseph Newman, the paper’s financial editor, was an active member, as was Bulletin staffer Herb Drill, who handled communications for the society.
It wasn’t easy to draw members to meetings beyond New York and Washington. In 1968, a month before the society’s annual meeting in Los Angeles, Miller sent a worrisome message out to members saying “barely over 20” members had registered to come. Nonetheless, the organization began a four-year rotation cycle for its annual meetings that would last until the end of the century: New York City; a regional business center; Washington, D.C., and another regional center in the fourth year of the cycle. In 1966, it held its first meeting outside of New York, in Minneapolis. Then the society settled in with the dailies and the men who ran their business desks at the core of its membership.
Time slots at the conferences were filled with many speakers and some workshops, but the meetings were not all business. Lasting friendships were formed. Host cities rolled out their best in the way of events and entertainment — a Boston Pops concert one year, a Circle Line boat tour around Manhattan a few years later. The agendas offered spouses’ programs for members’ wives. (In 1970, only four of the society’s 102 members were women; by 1984, just 24 of 138.) Typically, the meetings started with a Sunday evening reception and went through Wednesday. In the early years of this era, the society’s logo featured two integral parts of business journalists’ lives then: a typewriter and newspaper stock tables. Today, both have gone the way of blotters and buggy whips.
At the 1973 meeting, members discussed the idea of adopting a code of ethics for business journalists. That year, Hobart Rowen, deputy managing editor for financial news at The Washington Post, became SABEW’s president. Concern about journalistic standards was rising – one of the society’s officers on the ladder to become president resigned over an ethics controversy. A committee came up with standards, adopted in 1974, making the society the first specialized journalism organization to have a stringent code of ethics. That year, members elected Rowen to a second consecutive term. As these developments were unfolding, the Post‘s coverage of the Watergate scandal was attracting international attention, consequently the newspaper’s support of SABEW lent prestige to the society.
Rowen had overseen one of the most striking of the early business desk build-outs as his paper poured resources into covering the federal agencies that regulated business. Under him, the Post‘s business staff rose to 30 in 1975 from four in 1966; over the same years, its space for business news climbed to more than 20 columns a day from three. In 1975, Rowen pulled out all the stops to line up high-octane speakers for the society’s 1975 convention at the Sheraton Carlton in Washington. Appearing on the program were the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Secretary of the Treasury, the head of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, the chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission, the head of the AFL-CIO, the chairman of Citicorp and Ralph Nader. Attendance, stunningly low given the rock star status of the speakers, was high for SABEW: 58 members.
Rowen’s successor as president, Mike Kandel, brought a new perspective to SABEW. Kandel had started his career in 1951 as a copy boy at The New York Times. He was the business editor at the Washington Star and a European correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune before returning to the U.S. to serve as the latter paper’s financial editor. In 1965, Ben Weberman, the Herald Tribune‘s previous financial editor, got him to join the society. After the Herald Tribune folded in 1966, Kandel became editor of the New York Law Journal and then founding editor and publisher of several newsletters. In 1980, he joined CNN upon its startup, and became one of cable television’s first financial commentators. In 1996, members would elect him president again, making him the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.
In 1976, SABW became SABEW when the society added “Economic” to its name. In 1978, the annual meeting went south, to Atlanta, for the first time. In 1980, Margaret Daly, money management editor at Better Homes & Gardens, became the society’s first woman to be elected president.
But as the vagabond years wore on, the issues facing the society began piling up. Business journalism had become a more happening place, but too often SABEW was not at the table.
Universities had begun to help journalists sift through the growing complexities of reporting about business, finance and the economy. The society partnered with one of these schools, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, to put on a short course for business journalists. Other schools — Northwestern, American and Columbia Universities — started up business journalism centers. At Columbia, the Bagehot business journalism fellowships, launched in 1974, were attracting some of the best and brightest journalists. In 1977, the Ford Foundation summoned more than 75 of the country’s top editors and corporate executives to Princeton University for a Socratic forum designed to ease the tensions that had intensified between business and the media in the 1970s; SABEW was not involved.
That decade saw much growth in traditional business journalism, and in coverage that sought to help consumers and investors. In 1972, Time Inc. launched Money magazine. In 1978, The New York Times began publishing a stand-alone business section and Crain’s Chicago Business, one of the first and best of many weekly business journals, came on the scene. In 1980, Larry Birger, SABEW president in 1977-’78, started a Monday business section at The Miami Herald. The section was an instant hit, leading many large dailies to follow suit. But some of the society’s members grew uneasy, concerned that the organization was not signing up many of the business journalists working at the new or expanded operations.
The society’s tepid membership rolls validated their concerns. The rosters showed modest growth, to 146 members in 1977 from 110 in 1968, but by 1983 the count had fallen to 138. Attendance at the annual meetings had slipped to 34 in 1980 in Dallas and 37 in 1982 in Kansas City. Everyone had to show up to hear every speaker “so the speakers wouldn’t know how small we were,” quipped Cheryl Hall of the Dallas Morning News. “We would always sell ourselves as small but important.”
Some of the decline could have been due to the languishing stock market. It acted as a counter-weight to the factors leading to larger business desks, because so much of the business sections’ audiences were tied to interest in the market. In August 1979, BusinessWeek gave voice to the hand-wringing about the market with a famous cover story titled “The Death of Equities.” After the long bull market arrived in 1982, that cover would come to be regarded as one of the greatest “buy signals” of all time, but many took it seriously when it appeared.
Jerry Heaster, business editor at The Kansas City Star, worried that SABEW had not been tending to its membership roster closely enough. On May 20, 1981, two weeks after Heaster took over as president, he told the board in a memo that he had scrutinized the roster and found the society had “exactly 100 known, active paid-up members” — 67 fewer than on Oct. 1, 1979. “Obviously, the trend cannot continue,” Heaster wrote. “If it does, we soon won’t have an organization worth its name.” He began a campaign to recruit more members. That effort arrested the decline, but soon it became clear that the society’s nomadic practice of running its affairs out of a suitcase had run its course.
Members had flirted with the idea of establishing an administrative base in the late 1970s, when they contracted for administrative services with the New York Society of Securities Analysts. That plan flopped, so in 1983, the society surveyed nearly a dozen journalism organizations and found that most of them anchored their administrative work somewhere. Then SABEW decided to ask universities supportive of business journalism for proposals to provide a home for SABEW.
Susan Bischoff, the business editor at the Houston Chronicle, led a committee that received proposals from four schools — the University of Missouri in Columbia, Northwestern University, American University and the University of South Carolina. At their 1984 meeting in Tampa, members voted overwhelmingly to lay anchor at Missouri. The vagabond era was over.
Professor Jake Hubbard had raised the program’s profile in the 1960s, by tracking the size and growth of newspaper business desks for Journalism Quarterly and by tying the Missouri program into a growing network of business journalists. In 1976, the school began offering Davenport Fellowships that brought business journalists to Columbia for four weeks of study. These journalists included many SABEW members who came to know, like and respect Gentry, and thus ended up supporting his bid. Later, journalists who became Davenport Fellows after SABEW located at Missouri got a break on first-year dues to the society.
Missouri patterned its bid on the arrangement it had with the Investigative Reporters and Editors group, which was based there. The school promised to maintain membership records, conduct membership drives, publish and send out quarterly newsletters, keep all financial records and make regular financial reports to members. The base cost to SABEW: $3,000 annually for the director (Gentry) and a graduate assistant. The school also promised to boost the frequency and size of the society’s newsletter — its primary means of communicating with members — and to print and mail it. Gentry was highly organized, easy-going and well informed about business journalism. He worked well with SABEW’s leadership. His efficient administrative assistant, Doris Barnhart, became a familiar face at the annual meetings from 1985 until 1999. She diligently tended to SABEW’s record-keeping chores, and proved to be popular with the members.
After its first year at Missouri, the society was rebounding. In a letter to members dated May 2, 1985, Gentry reported that assets had risen to $18,548 from $15,670 on June 29 of the prior year. SABEW then had 124 paid-up members, 80 applicants and 44 delinquent accounts. The society’s newsletter, typically thin and infrequently published before 1983, got a makeover. In his 1985 report, Gentry described the newsletter (called The Business Journalist or simply TBJ) as the society’s main promotional tool and reported that it had reached a circulation of nearly 2,000 for one of its quarterly issues — a number unimaginable in the years prior to the move to Missouri. “Our goal has been to make TBJ relevant and interesting to business journalists,” he wrote. “To make it relevant, we have published pieces telling journalists how to do their jobs better. To make it interesting . . . we have published news of society activities and of issues relevant to business journalism.”
Cheryl Hall, who was elected president in 1987, remembers contentious battles on the board over whether applicants met the definition of a business journalist. Another of her indelible memories was convincing corporate raider Carl Icahn to speak at the 1985 annual meeting in New York City. Mike Millican, then the business editor at the Associated Press, had called Icahn to invite him to speak at the meeting. Icahn, who was in the middle of a deal, thought his assistant had told him Mike Milken, the junk bond king, was calling. Instead, Hall said, “he gets on the phone and finds out that he’s talking to the business editor of the AP.” Icahn, uncomfortable with the media, accepted to get Millican off the phone. Icahn began his talk to the society by saying, “You know, this is the last place I want to be today.”
Meeting attendance picked up in the late 1980s, finally edging over 100 in 1989 in New York City. By then, membership had climbed to nearly 400. “It was the high water mark for me,” said the Baltimore Sun‘s business editor, Phil Moeller, who was the society’s president in 1988-’89. “It was a terrific time to be in business journalism.” In 1988, TBJ announced that it “will be coming out six times before our 1989 annual meeting, the most ambitious publishing schedule in the society’s history.” In 1991, the tabloid-sized newsletter, buoyed by the sale of three pages of ads, went up to 12 pages for the first time.
In addition to being SABEW’s executive director, Gentry had been serving as the untenured chair of the Missouri journalism school’s editorial department in 1987-’89 and working on his doctorate. “Not a pleasant situation,” he recalled. “Life was pretty crazy then.” In 1989, he received tenure and in 1993, he got his Ph.D.
Not all of Gentry’s ideas clicked. Half seriously, he once suggested renaming the organization as the Society of International Business Editors and Writers — SIBEW — or if that didn’t fly, ISBEW, with the word “international” and “society” trading places. Those suggestions didn’t resonate, though members did tweak the society’s title in 1990 by changing the word “Economic” to “Editors.”
Two of Gentry’s most significant ideas, to allow vendors at the annual meetings and to create a new category of members, won approval that year under the presidency of Larry Werner. At the time, the Associated Press and Tribune Media Services were battling fiercely to sell stock market data to the dailies. Both took booths, instantly providing SABEW with a new moneymaker that would boost its income to this day. His second idea, which he and board member Randy Smith labored on for some time, was to create a new category of “institutional membership” for large media outlets.
That move quickly proved to be a master stroke for the society. Using this new provision, a large daily or a news service with many staffers could enroll all of its business journalists for a reduced per-member rate tiered to the size of its membership. For example, under current rates, a newsroom with 20 business journalists can enroll them for $15 each, or $300; paying for each of them at the individual dues rate, $60, would cost the organization $1,200. The result: SABEW membership more than doubled in 1990, to 901.
Gentry’s last full year with SABEW, 1991, was a special time for the society. On March 15, 1991, he sent members registration information and a tentative program for their annual meeting April 27-May 1 in Washington, along with an apology for getting the material to them so late. “We’ve been hoping to hear if President Bush would be part of the program,” he wrote. “No word so far.” Jim Kennedy, the business editor of the Associated Press, had been calling contacts at the White House virtually every day in an attempt to land the president as a speaker. Finally, a few weeks before the meeting, Kennedy was awakened at his hotel room in Boston by a late-night call from an aide to Bush. The president had accepted the invitation. He wanted to talk about the importance of international trade.
The convention hotel, a Marriott property 10 blocks from the White House, had never hosted a president. The society and the hotel scrambled to meet the White House’s security needs and other requirements. At the banquet where Bush would be speaking, a Bush aide told Sandy Duerr, the society’s incoming president, that the organization had to hang a SABEW banner behind the podium where Bush would be speaking. Nobody had a banner. Duerr turned to board member Gary Klott for help. Klott raced out of the hotel, found a sign maker and returned in good time to put it up.
The occasion still marks the only SABEW annual meeting among the nine held in Washington before 2013 that got the president as a speaker. It was also a prelude to a memorable “SABEW marriage.” Klott and Duerr had struck up a friendship as they both rose in the society, but they had not yet been dating. In July, Klott flew to Louisville, where Duerr was business editor of The Courier-Journal. She took him on a whirlwind tour of Kentucky tourist attractions. Before he left, he asked her to marry him. A week later, she said yes. In November, they were married.
In 1992, when Gentry left Columbia to become dean of the School of Journalism of the University of Nevada at Reno, the member count had shot up again, to 1,100.
One of the first of these efforts came during the presidency of Randy Smith, who proposed a fund drive to establish a business journalism chair at the Missouri journalism school. SABEW members approved the campaign at their 1993 annual meeting. It was the first effort to create such a chair, according to Smith, and even today differs from other such chairs in that its financial support came from a broad array of sources instead of a single benefactor.
The Capital Cities/ABC Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation each gave $250,000. Many other media companies and foundations also chipped in. The campaign was finally wrapped up in the summer of 2000. SABEW and the journalism school raised $1.1 million. The State of Missouri matched that amount, forming an endowment of $2.2 million. In 2002, veteran newspaper editor Marty Steffens was named to the chair.
While the SABEW chair was a pioneering initiative. the nature of its funding — half of the money came from a state government — led to complicated challenges for the society’s leaders as they sought to define the role of the chair.
In 1993, the society established its distinguished achievement award, naming Bart Rowen as the first to be honored. By April of that year, membership had risen to 1,292. Later that year, the surge in journalists joining under institutional status would boost the roster to 1,786 members. The membership directory grew so fast that its binding had to be changed. Assets had tripled from a year earlier, to $36,036, fueled partly by the board’s decision to allow outsiders to attend the banquet at the 1992 annual meeting in Chicago. Executive director Janine Latus-Musick reported that TBJ was flourishing under new editor Bill Barnhart. Dick Papiernik had taken over the newsletter’s chatty “Business Newspeople” column and had “successfully pried all kinds of information from recalcitrant editors,” she told the board.
By 1998, TBJ had bulked up even more. The October-November issue that year, under editor Lisa Holton, was 20 pages. Ads took up a fifth of the space. Stories included “The Envy of the Net” (a look at The Wall Street Journal‘s online edition, which by then had 250,000 subscribers), “Bloomberg Unplugged” (how the company was starting to charge newspapers for its terminals) and “All Biz, All the Time” (about the battle that had erupted between CNBC and CNNfn to win over viewers of televised financial news). Years later, Chris Roush would take over the popular “Biz Buzz” column for TBJ, eventually migrating it online onto SABEW’s site.
Discussions about ethics, long a topic at many SABEW meetings, grew more intense in the 1990s. “We had long, long discussions, eight- and nine-hour affairs,” said Kathy Kristof, who was a SABEW governor for many years.” They were like an endurance contest. I so wish I was kidding.” Generally, perceived or real conflicts of interest had been drawing more attention ever since 1984, when Wall Street Journal columnist R. Foster Winans got caught leaking information in advance of publication about stocks he was planning to write about. Within SABEW, Gary Klott emerged as an outspoken champion of best ethical practices — “the conscience of SABEW,” one member said — as he rose through the ranks to become president in 1994.
Six months after Klott took over, at the board’s mid-year weekend meeting Nov. 11-12 in Orlando, SABEW’s governors discovered how intense emotions can get in debates about ethics, qualifications for membership and other potentially divisive issues. Vice president Jodi Schneider was in the process of changing jobs, moving from the Orlando Sentinel to The Washington Post, but she couldn’t leave Orlando because she had to care for her six-week-old son, Charlie. The board decided to meet there, at the Buena Vista Palace Hotel. Schneider brought Charlie to the meeting, thinking it might not run long. But on Friday, she found herself shuttling back and forth from Charlie to the board meeting and smaller committee sessions that ran until midnight. The next day, the sessions went from 9 a.m. until the dinner hour. “We barely slept,” she said. “Everyone eased the tension by walking around with Charlie.”
In his agenda for the Orlando meeting, Klott noted that life insurance goliath John Hancock, citing “the potential for at least perceived conflicts of interest,” had decided to terminate its 27-year-old competition for business journalists. “Some business journalists have long been concerned about this perception problem among readers when they see business journalists entering contests sponsored by companies they cover,” Klott told the board. “This concern was raised a few years ago at our SABEW board meeting when we approved the long-range goal of establishing a business journalism contest. Now that John Hancock itself has raised the issue as a problem, all of the other corporate-sponsored business journalism contests have been tainted. We should consider having SABEW fill the gap.”
A committee headed by Chuck Jaffe had recommended going ahead with a contest. At first, two influential board members, Kandel and Barnhart, opposed the contest. Kandel worried that it would be too big to manage; Barnhart felt the society’s limited resources would be better spent on training and networking. But both eventually backed Jaffe. SABEW launched a “best-sections” contest in 1995. Many other expansions of categories and platforms have followed, to the point where the competition, titled “Best in Business” (BIB), drew a record 1,120 entries in 2013. More than 200 judges chose the winners. Recent changes added categories in personal finance, real estate, small business, technology and international, plus a new division for digital entries.
The entry fees became a major source of revenue for SABEW, and the contest boosted membership by requiring that entrants join SABEW. BIB became one of the first major journalism contests to develop an entirely online judging process. Managing the contest, and constantly tweaking or expanding it, became running challenges. So did staying abreast of shifts in the way business journalism gets done, while at the same time maintaining high standards. By 2013, the biggest debate had become “whether having divisions according to platform — print, digital and so on — even makes sense anymore today, given the blurred lines of what the modern newsroom does,” said Lisa Gibbs, co-chair of the contest.
Another pivotal moment during the boom years came when Barney Calame, deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, joined SABEW. The society had members from the Journal from time to time, but nobody from the paper had been deeply involved with the organization. Calame, a graduate of the University of Missouri’s journalism school, had gotten active in the fund-raising campaign for the chair in 1993. In the process, he became familiar with the society.
Two years later, the Journal became embroiled in a controversy over a column Jim Cramer had written for Smart Money magazine, which the Journal and Hearst published jointly. Critics, including Klott, criticized the Journal for allowing Cramer to write about a company in which he held stock. Calame found out that SABEW members were gathering in Washington for their annual meeting. He went, and explained the Journal‘s position. Klott and others invited him to join the organization. Soon, Calame went onto the board, then onto the officer ladder. In 2000, he was elected president.
During his presidency, SABEW enacted important changes in governance, including the introduction of competitive elections for board seats and an executive committee to strengthen its leadership (since then, the committee has made many important decisions at SABEW). Calame brought fellow Journal staffer Dave Kansas into the society’s leadership when he called him at home with a special request. Kansas had only recently returned to the Journal, after five years of head-to-head competition with the paper at TheStreet.com. On one occasion, he and Calame had exchanged angry words over a story The Street had posted. When Calame called, Kansas said, “I thought I was in trouble.” But he was calling to ask Kansas to run for the board. Four years later, Kansas became the society’s president.
The Times, too, had little direct involvement with SABEW. That situation changed when Charley Blaine, SABEW’s president in 1999-2000, recruited Times staffer Floyd Norris, who joined the society in 2001 and was elected to the board that year. When Norris left for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, he suggested to Times staffer and long-time friend Diana Henriques that she run for the board. She won, later went onto the executive committee, wrote the definitive book on Bernie Madoff (“Wizard of Lies“) and today is one of the society’s best-known and most respected members.
In 1997, the presidency of Henry Dubroff reflected another important milestone for SABEW. Dubroff, then editor of the Denver Business Journal, became the first journalist from a weekly business journal to serve as president. Today, a sixth of the society’s members work at the business journals vs. none in 1980.
Regional conferences were another initiative that flourished in the 1990s. The society’s meeting planners had tried to draw members to them over the years, but for the most part success eluded them. Chuck Jaffe took up the challenge in 1995, when he led the planning for a personal finance conference in Boston. The conference, which drew more than 50 attendees, quickly became an annual affair. Jaffe and Kathy Kristof, who both later became presidents of the society, were personal finance columnists. They helped arrange six more of such meetings, almost all of them money-makers well-attended by members and exhibitors: Chicago (1996), San Francisco (1997), Fort Lauderdale (1998), Las Vegas (1999), Tampa (2000) and Southern California (2001).
“It was an area of financial journalism that was growing by leaps and bounds,” said Kristof. The 1996 meeting featured Vanguard founder Jack Bogle. Top-performing fund manager Bob Stansky, who seldom talked to the media, spoke in 1998. The society also reeled off a string of five straight tech conferences: San Francisco (1997), Austin (1998), Seattle (1999), Southern California (2000) and Raleigh (2001). TBJ counted up the meeting binge — 28 conferences from 1989 through 2001 including annual meetings and a small business session — and gave it a name: “SABEW’s trek across America.”
Many newspapers launched personal finance or technology sections in the late 1990s. The soaring stock market was fueling a feeling, widely reflected in business journalism and beyond, that dot.com companies had somehow led the country into a new age of enduring affluence — “The New Economy.” In 1999, membership topped 3,000. At a journalism conference that year in Seattle, a SABEW panel was titled “Business News: The Sexiest Desk to Work On.” In 2000, Rex Seline, business editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, took four reporters with him to the annual meeting in Atlanta. “We wanted to rethink our business section,” he explained.
Many other business editors had been rethinking as well. Late that year, a Columbia Journalism Review special report, “News in the Age of Money,” summarized the explosive growth in business journalism that had occurred since the early 1980s. From then to 2000, business staffs had risen to 81 from 18 at The Washington Post; to 90 from 20-25 at The Los Angeles Times; to 54 from 8 at The Dallas Morning News; to 14 from 2 at The Tampa Tribune; to 17 from 3.5 at The Hartford Courant; to 14 from 6 at the Rocky Mountain News. Over the same period, space devoted to such coverage had soared at many of these dailies. The number of business magazines had nearly doubled, to 694 in 1999 from 358 in 1988. CNBC’s audience had risen to 339,000 households from 88,000 in 1992.
But at the Seattle technology conference in September of 1999, the market sent out a signal of what could lie ahead. Speaking at the conference, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer warned that the stocks of many technology companies, including Microsoft’s shares, were overvalued. “There is such an overvaluation of technology stocks that it is absurd,” he declared. “It is bad for the long-term worth of the economy.” The market cascaded, with the tech-laden NASDAQ index falling 3.7 percent to 2,750 and the Dow Jones Industrials off 2 percent to 10,319.
Stocks quickly rebounded and resumed their rise, but less than a year remained before the tech stock bubble would finally pop. A year after that, the terrorist attacks brought down the World Trade Center’s twin towers, and with them the Marriott World Trade Center hotel. Just four months earlier, and in 1989 as well, society members had gathered at the hotel for their annual meetings. “We worked with people there who lost their lives,” said Bill Barnhart.
Five weeks after Sept. 11, Boston Globe editor Marty Baron told a SABEW reporting and writing conference in Chicago that the forces that had led to the boom in business reporting had begun to slip away in 2000. “Conditions that gave you additional staff, that gave you so much additional space. Conditions that provided your special sections and that fostered some related conferences in personal finance and technology.” Baron went on to describe the forces that had led to the rise of business journalism. “The flowering of business journalism did not occur because the scales suddenly fell from the eyes of top editors, because the coverage they had once ignored suddenly became interesting,” he said.
Rather, he attributed much of the growth to strong economic conditions, more interest in personal finance and technology and a “breathtaking stock market ascent.” All of this had generated a surge in advertising for media outlets. “If the boom is over, then is business journalism headed for a decline? No.” Instead, he said the answer should be more focus on quality than on quantity.
“Now as the boom time ends for business journalism, it is time for business journalists to be more ambitious, to set their sights higher, to routinely produce the finest journalism in America.” -Marty Baron
At SABEW, Henriques saw 2006 as an “inflection point” when the significance of the digital age began to sink in. The troubles at the dailies had been building well before then. In particular, Henriques pointed to the growing impact of craigslist in draining off classified advertising from newspapers. The classifieds had been a central cog in the dailies’ successful business model for as far back as anyone could remember. But craigslist, founded in 1995 by Craig Newmark to post and distribute by e-mail lists of events in the San Francisco Bay area, soon began selling online classifieds at rates far below those of the dailies. By 2000, Newmark’s bright idea had expanded into a dozen large U.S. markets beyond San Francisco. By 2003, it was in 22 more.
Meanwhile, SABEW was busy with more new initiatives. Late in 2001, the Reynolds Foundation awarded a $595,000 grant to the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation to fund training for business reporters at small- and medium-sized newspapers in southern states. Barnhart, then the society’s president, and Marty Steffens, the SABEW chair, worked closely with the SNPA and Reynolds to develop the training and provide speakers.
During 2002 and 2003, the grants paid for all of the expenses for nearly 800 journalists to attend two-and-a-half-day seminars in 20 cities on topics such as how business news affects newspaper readership, ethics, sources and the challenges of covering both private and public companies. Many of the attendees joined the society. Today, Barnhart looks back on the project as the highest moment of his presidency and Edward VanHorn, executive vice president of the SNPA, calls it “spectacular . . . just a wonderful experience.” Writers Robert Reed and Glenn Lewin drew much material for their book, “Covering Business: A Guide to Aggressively Reporting on Commerce and Developing a Powerful Business Beat,” from the seminars.
In August 2002, Klott died, at age 52. In constant back and forth with the society’s members, moves to strengthen its ethics code and TBJ commentaries, Klott had been an unflagging advocate of higher standards for business journalism. “He raised a lot of yellow flags for SABEW,” said Dubroff, now editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times. Soon after his death, the society’s members created a fund in his honor. The Tribune, in San Luis Obispo, where Sandy Duerr was then and is now executive editor, made the largest contribution, $10,000. Today, $18,000 remains in the fund. SABEW has used the money to put on an ethics symposium in Klott’s name every year at its spring meeting and to pay ethicists to write for TBJ.
Despite the gathering storm about to hammer away at many newspaper business desks, the three annual meetings in 2003-’05 were well-attended, upbeat affairs. In 2003, the society celebrated its 40th anniversary in Boston. Jaffe, who had just left the Boston Globe for MarketWatch.com and was then president, helped bring in a big-draw speaker, Abigail Johnson of Fidelity Investments, who was viewed by many as the most powerful woman in finance.
The following year, Rex Seline, who had moved up to a top editing post at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was about to be elected president, hosted the meeting. As members arrived at the city’s splashy new Modern Art Museum for the BIB awards reception, they found the Star-Telegram‘s longhorn, “Rusty, the Stock-Picking Steer,” waiting for them in front of the museum. When the market was booming, the newspaper would feed Rusty a hearty serving of oats, then truck him to a temporary corral with 100 squares on the ground, each one representing a North Texas stock.
Then Rusty would, as Seline carefully put it, “let the chips fall where they may.” The paper would identify 10 winners from the “Rusty portfolio,” and track its performance against those of investing pros. Sometimes Rusty did better, upholding the argument that a random saunter around the corral could, like a random walk down Wall Street, beat the pros. Members were invited to pose for a photo shoot with Rusty. Scores did (though many spurned the invitation).
In Seattle in 2005, Seattle Times business editor Becky Bisbee co-led an effort that landed Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as the featured speaker. Another speaker, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, took the occasion to unveil new policies his office had crafted to deal with securities analysts’ conflicts of interest. When members crowded into the elevator to follow up with Spitzer after his talk, one asked him why he came all the way to Seattle for his talk. He explained that SABEW provided him with his best audience. “That’s why I said it where I did.” Pam Luecke, who holds the Reynolds chair at Washington and Lee University, remembers going to the annual meetings of the society and the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005. “The ASNE meeting was like a funeral dirge,” she said, but the SABEW meeting “was energetic. People were optimistic.”
More sober times had set in by 2006 at the annual meeting in Minneapolis, where the theme was “Rivers of Change.” The sun was about to set on Knight-Ridder, whose dailies had provided the society with many officers and governors over the years. Increasingly, other papers were tightening their belts. One measure of the change the Internet had wrought: the dailies were beginning to drop their stock tables, a staple of business sections for decades. Now readers could simply click online for the quotes they wanted. For decades, SABEW had routinely convened panels to discuss the intricacies of what market data, known as “the agate,” to publish and how to display it. This time, the panel was different. It was titled: “Group Therapy Session: The Last Great Agate Debate.” As the oceans of space gobbled up by the stock tables disappeared, many business editors lost their section fronts.
In January 2007, with the cutbacks still coming, Dave Kansas summoned the board to a special meeting in Chicago, then in the grips of one of its worst cold waves in years. “I thought I was in Fairbanks,” quipped one board member. There, board members adopted the society’s first-ever strategic plan. The new road map called for building an endowment; bringing more fiscal discipline to operations; growing and diversifying the membership; broadening contest categories; providing more education, training and news about business journalism to the members; and aligning the organization’s governance structure more closely with the shifts in how news was being delivered.
Kansas was “platform agnostic.” It didn’t matter so much whether a journalist worked for a daily newspaper, weekly business journal, TV station, online site, other type of media outlet or as a free-lancer. What mattered most is that he or she was a business journalist, regardless of the platform used.
At the 2008 meeting at the Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel in Baltimore, members suddenly found themselves locked inside a ballroom, unable even to get to a restroom. David Rubenstein, managing director of the Carlyle Group, was the luncheon speaker. Union protestors, unhappy about the private equity firm’s practices, stormed into the hotel chanting slogans deriding Carlyle. “They were coming up the stairs,” said president-elect Bernie Kohn. “They wanted in the ballroom. We had to keep the room locked for about half an hour.” Rubenstein had already arrived. By the time he took the podium, police had chased off the protestors.
Later that year, a disagreement that had flared up between the society and the administration at the University of Missouri, about whether the SABEW staffers there were employees of the society or of the university, finally came to a head. Some SABEW leaders wanted their home office to be in a large metropolitan area, close to a major airport and hence more accessible than Columbia. Some also liked the idea of relocating to Arizona State University (ASU) because another significant advocate for business journalism, the Reynolds Center, was based there. The dispute with Missouri was resolved, but the society’s board felt it was time for a change and explored other locations.
At their annual meeting in Denver in 2009, members passed on an offer to stay in Columbia. Kansas, who had led a search for a new home, had received bids from Missouri, Arizona State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Members opted for ASU in a 33 to 29 vote.
The final year at Missouri and the eventual departure went relatively smoothly, thanks largely to the dedication, amid much uncertainty, of Vicki Edwards, SABEW’s fiscal agent at the Columbia office, and the society’s other staffers there. In August 2009, SABEW named Warren Watson as its first executive director at ASU. In the final year at Missouri, the staff there also assisted the society with a year-long fund drive, finally wrapped up in the summer of 2009, to finance an overhaul of its technology.
The Challenge Fund for Journalism — an alliance of the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the McCormick Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation — had decided to help SABEW and 14 other journalism organizations keep up with seismic structural shifts in the news business. The alliance gave SABEW a $50,000 grant, provided it could match it dollar for dollar. The society raised $78,000. A similar campaign in 2006, launched with a $25,000 matching grant from the alliance, raised about $30,000.
The shifts that were shaking up the journalism landscape were painfully apparent at the Denver meeting, held just six months after the financial meltdown sent the U.S. economy cascading into a deep recession. Weeks before the meeting, the Rocky Mountain News ceased publication. Rob Reuteman, the Rocky‘s business editor, was leading the program committee and would be elected vice president at the meeting. Kevin Noblet, also on the ladder to become president, left his job as AP business editor. And Bernie Kohn, who was the outgoing president, lost his job at the Baltimore Sun soon after the meeting.
Despite such tumult, SABEW was in survivor mode at the Denver meeting. The ASNE, much more “newspaper centric” than SABEW, cancelled its convention that year and changed the word “newspaper” in its title to “news.” The dailies’ travel and training budgets were being slashed, but the society remained less affected by the nation’s economic tremors than other journalism organizations, largely because of its more diversified membership.
In particular, new institutional members had more than offset the losses of newspaper members. In early 2013, they accounted for roughly seven of every eight SABEW members. Today, the five largest institutional members — Thomson Reuters, Bloomberg, American City Business Journals, Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal — hold a 40 percent share, 1,537 members — of all members.
Noblet, SABEW president in 2011-’12, felt that the mood at the annual meetings reached its lowest point in 2007 in Anaheim. Since then, the meetings have become more upbeat as the society has stressed new tools and experiments designed to help them survive and succeed as structural changes continue to work their way through the news business. By 2012, while many newspapers were still in a cost-cutting mode and a handful had reduced the frequency of their hard-copy editions to go online only, a few dailies had restored some of the resources for business coverage that they had slashed during the past decade. In a contrarian move that stressed long-term investment over the cost-cutting strategy that prevailed at the dailies during the past decade, the new owners of the Orange County Register brought back a standalone daily business section and doubled the staffing level of their business desk.
The society skipped its fall meeting in 2009, then resumed it in 2010 in New York City and met there again in each of the next two years. The 2012 meeting drew 200 attendees, up from about 120 in 2010. Under a new model designed to lower costs and lessen the financial risk to SABEW, the organization has turned to universities from hotels for its meeting space.
In recent years, SABEW has looked more to joint ventures to increase its effectiveness. In 2009, it formed a partnership with the National Endowment for Financial Education to raise the level of economic education. It has stepped up training through free tele-training on its site, and strengthened its relationship with the Reynolds Center, which offers a wide variety of training programs for business journalists.
Training opportunities and workshops have helped the society draw journalists to its meetings and add members. In August 2007, SABEW launched tele-training sessions to reach out to reporters who couldn’t make its meetings. Gail DeGeorge, then president, recalled that the first of these calls turned out to be particularly well-timed. The topic was the shaky debt market, which had begun seizing up that month in an ominous preview of what was to come. More than 150 journalists checked in for that call. Henriques recalled that when she began coming to the society’s meetings, she was “blown away with the quality of the workshops.”
This part of SABEW has taken on more importance in recent years, as news stories have become more complicated and new ways to deliver the news have emerged.
James Madore, who has spent 23 years at Newsday, says making the turn into the digital age would have been more problematic for him without SABEW at his side. Becoming a business journalist was largely a matter of learning the basics and settling into a routine when he took up the task in 1989. Once he finished his reporting, he plopped down in front of his computer screen and began tapping out his story. “When I started, new technology was the fax machine,” he said. In January 2013, Madore tweeted an economic forecaster’s prognostications, filmed them with his digital recorder, described them on his twice-weekly television report, summarized them for his newspaper’s Web site and wrote a story about them for Newsday‘s hard-copy editions.
As a Newsday reporter, Madore went to 15 of the society’s 16 annual meetings from 1991 to 2006 plus a few regional meetings. His paper didn’t pay his expenses, but treated his time at the meetings as work. One of Madore’s SABEW friends, David Milstead, calls him “the king of cheap sleep” because he has judiciously cut his expenses by staying at budget hotels or bed and breakfasts rather than the more pricey convention hotels. “The reason I come is that SABEW is my business journalism school,” Madore said.
Managing his time well became more important as the years wore on because there was so much more to his job. By attending the workshops, he assembled a toolkit of tips and practices that helped him keep up with the rapid technological change and increasing complexity of business news. In 2011, after a four-year stint heading Newsday‘s Albany bureau, Madore returned to business reporting. Now he’s showing up at the society’s meetings once again.
Both DeGeorge and Jill Spitz, who became president in 2012, said they joined SABEW because they felt they had to learn more about how to handle their jobs when they were named business editors of their papers (the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale and the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, respectively). “I didn’t know what I was doing,” Spitz said. Allan Sloan joined in 1989 because it was good for his business. “I wanted to sell my column to business editors. I liked the organization, so I stayed.” They also come to the meetings because that’s now the place to be.
Today, journalism’s low-stature role in traditional newsrooms has been flipped on its head. Instead of being a career stopper, going into business journalism can be like stepping on the path to progress. Jill Abramson, who spent a decade at The Wall Street Journal, is executive editor of The New York Times; David Leonhardt, once the chief economics correspondent for the Times’ Washington Bureau, is the bureau chief there. Larry Kramer, former founder, chairman and CEO at MarketWatch.com, is the publisher of USA Today; David Callaway, the paper’s new editor-in-chief, worked for him at MarketWatch.com. Marty Baron, at one time the business editor at The Los Angeles Times, is the new executive editor at The Washington Post. He succeeded Marcus Brauchli, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal.
The society’s preliminary financial report for the year ended Dec. 31, 2012 — still subject to adjustment — reflects its enormous growth since the mid-1980s and shows that its condition is sound: Assets of $388,767; no debt; income of $423,401 and expenses of $414,705, leaving a surplus of $8,695 for the year.
SABEW has much to celebrate as it salutes its 50th anniversary, but in an uncertain time, it can also take heed of the words of John F. Kennedy, who was president when SABEW was being formed. “History is a relentless master,” he said. “It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”