Secrets of an Accidental Business Writer
By Lynn Langway
You could say the fear of God drove me to become a Newsweek business writer. In 1975, I got a call in Washington-- where I‘d been a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News-- from my friend and former college newspaper editor Dick Steele, who’d become a Newsweek Senior Editor.
“Hey Langway,” he said in his aristocratic drawl, “we lost an equal employment lawsuit and we’ve got to hire a few women writers in New York. You interested? There are openings in Business and Religion.”
As a homesick New Yorker, I was definitely interested, though I wasn’t exactly expert in either topic. But hey, I’d covered the Federal Trade Commission on my consumer protection beat, and my husband was a Business Week reporter. I figured I could bone up enough on biz to stay afloat---and at least it promised to be a safer subject than religion. It was one thing to write a story that offended Wall Street, I reckoned, but it might be downright dangerous to trifle with the Almighty.
Boning Up: So I slogged through the leading economics textbooks--Samuelson to the left, Friedman on the right--and managed to survive my interview and writing test with the avuncular Business Editor, Clem Morgello.
I was still terrified I’d be revealed as a poseur, though, when I turned up amid the mavens on the 12th floor of 444. But Tom “Nick” Nicholson, the kindly bear from Michigan, soon clued me in on how to survive. “You don’t really need to worry too much about macro-economics,” he said. “Rich Thomas in the Washington bureau knows everything there is to know about the subject---just ask him, and he’ll be happy to tell you ALL about it. At length.”
Backed Up: He was so right, and I spent the next four years learning a great deal about reporting and writing as well as business from a generous gang of correspondents, researchers, writers and editors that included, at various times, Mike Ruby, Mimi McLoughlin, Larry Martz, Harry Anderson, Vince Coppola, Jane Bryant Quinn, Mindy Beck, Annabel Bentley, Allan Mayer, Dave Pauly, Connie Wiley, the 3 Pamelas (Simons, Abramson and Abraham) Pete MacAlevey, Michael Reese, David Friendly and more. In those days, Biz was busy, a robust section of 3-6 pages (sometimes more) that ran every week with Nation and Foreign, and kept 6 writers, 6 researchers, a senior editor, various photo editors and correspondents hustling.
After work, we sometimes shared a cocktail or two at the Knickerbocker Bar, across Madison Ave., where the saving---and only-- grace was that it closed by 8 p.m. or so, before anyone could get into too much trouble. We also logged countless waiting-for-the-Wallendas Friday nights, gathered around the lumpy green couch in our well-named bullpen. Once the stories were reported, written, edited and checked, we found various ways to pass the hours: cerebral writer Harry re-read his way through Will and Ariel Durant’s “Story of Civilization”, Mimi and I devised elaborate, terrible musicals to celebrate promotions and transfers, and we all played cast-the-Newsweek movie (I was crushed when Nick suggested that Shelley Winters portray me, and not entirely convinced by his protestations that he meant the YOUNG, skinny Shelley of “An American Tragedy”, not the blob from “The Poseidon Adventure.”)
Bad Call: But our best Friday night pastime may have been doing “market research” for my first cover story, “Turned-On Toys,” about the early versions of electronic toys and video games.
My noble colleagues volunteered to test them---endlessly---with incessant beeps and pings that eventually lured a crowd from all parts of the magazine. I wound up being proud of the story ---which still surfaces occasionally at gamer websites---despite its embarrassing kicker. Displaying all the prescience of a Republican pollster in the 2012 election, I confidently predicted that video games would never overtake pinball as an American passion.
Many of the stories I wrote during my business years---on advertising, food, fashion, travel and wine—could just as well have run in the Lifestyle section, and when the wonderful Lynn Povich invited me to move over there in 1979, I was happy to make the change. But I’ve always appreciated the skills I learned in business---how to read a balance sheet, understand market forces and demographics---and found them useful in producing the stories I wrote and edited during 13 years at Newsweek and ever since. I made many close friends in back- of- the- book and at Newsweek on Campus; among other things, they introduced me to the Cowboy, an even funkier hangout than the Knickerbocker. But I’ll never forget the smart, funny folks of the biz bunch, my first Newsweek family.
Lynn Langway joined Newsweek as a business writer in 1975, later becoming LifeStyle Editor, Executive Editor of Newsweek on Campus, and a swing Senior Editor. She left in 1988 to become executive editor of Ladies’ Home Journal.