Brunswick’s Kevin Helliker profiles Paul Steiger, the most influential editor in modern America
Among the journalists that Paul E. Steiger oversaw as Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal are the current Editors-in-Chief of CNBC, USA Today and Reuters. Other former protégés of Steiger now hold top positions at Time Inc., The New York Times, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal.
“Steiger’s greatest legacy may be the people he developed,” says Kyle Pope, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. Pope, of course, used to work for Steiger (as did the author of this article).
The subsequent success of his protégés owes a lot to the body of work they compiled under Steiger, who left the Journal 10 years ago. During Steiger’s 16-year reign as managing editor, his journalists won 16 Pulitzer Prizes. They also extended the paper’s dominant coverage beyond finance and politics to technology, healthcare, the arts and more. Under his guidance, the company also launched WSJ.com, now the industry’s premier subscription-based online news site.
The qualities that made Steiger so effective an editor are relevant for leaders in every industry, because who in the executive suite doesn’t want to get the most and best out of his workforce? That challenge is particularly critical in the newspaper industry, whose product is created anew day after day, its quality utterly reliant on the performances of its reporters and editors.
“Now that I’m running a newsroom, I think a lot about how Paul did it,” says Nik Deogun, Editor-in-Chief of CNBC and a former WSJ deputy managing editor under Steiger.
Insight into how Steiger inspired such excellence from his newsroom is offered here, from his former protégés, and from the editor himself. But first, a program note. The tradition of heaping honors on a retired mentor is noble, and potentially hyperbolic. It’s easy to praise a player who’s no longer in the game, no longer a source of power or competition. Even after you’ve surpassed a retired mentor, it’s easy to hail him as your superior.
But let’s be clear: no former protégé of Steiger’s would profess, even privately, to have surpassed him. It’s not just that next to Barney Kilgore, the long-ago creator of the Journal’s distinctive voice and style, Steiger ranks as the most influential managing editor in the 128-year history of the paper.
It’s that Steiger, upon leaving the Journal at age 65, didn’t retire. Rather, he turned entrepreneur and launched ProPublica, an investigative news outfit that he decided wouldn’t rely on advertising and subscription revenue. A nonprofit, it would subsist on charitable donations.
Good luck with that, right?
Ten years after its start, ProPublica boasts a list of donors that exceeds 26,000, up from a handful in 2007. This year, it will raise more than $23 million, more than twice what it raised annually in its early years. Calming fears about the decline of investigative journalism in America, ProPublica has exposed innumerable cases of corruption, injustice and mismanagement in government and business, in the process winning four Pulitzer Prizes.
Although retired from an active role at ProPublica, Steiger at age 75 remains a powerful role model for protégés now deep into their fifties and sixties. “If you look at the top editors of our time, Steiger is alone at the top in terms of his ability to develop talent and his dedication to the principles of journalism,” says Marcus Brauchli, who succeeded Steiger as the Journal’s managing editor before joining the Washington Post as executive editor.
Several virtues won mention in every interview about Steiger. He listened more than he talked. He invited dissent, and was willing to change his mind. He adhered to a management policy of public praise, private criticism. No matter how many others lost their cool during debates about important stories close to deadline, Steiger remained calm, never raising his voice. He somehow knew the strengths, weaknesses and biographies of the hundreds of journalistswho worked for him – even if he sometimes struggled to remember names. (“I’m likelier to remember your alma mater than your first name,” concedes Steiger.)
Steiger had an extraordinary depth and breadth of knowledge about economic, corporate, political and scientific topics. And he used it to ensure that Journal stories provided the context necessary to clarity and fairness. “He always demanded that we tell readers not only what we knew but what we didn’t know,” says Deogun, the CNBC Editor.
Steiger liked impact. He cared less about incremental developments in ongoing stories than about scoops and investigative masterpieces. All editors will say that they want big stories from their reporters, but few will provide the necessary time and resources. When Jeff Bailey, a reporter on the waste-disposal beat in Chicago, proposed an exposé on corruption in that industry, Steiger ordered him to drop all his other duties until he’d completed that investigation. “He said he didn’t want to see my name in the paper until I’d finished it,” recalls Bailey, now Editor-in-Chief of UCLA Anderson Review.