A farewell to a brilliant business editor
Longtime Forbes editor James W. Michaels was the best of the best, recalls Fortune's Allan Sloan, who worked with him for decades.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- I've finally gotten the last word in my 28-year joust with my former boss, James Walker Michaels, but not the way I wanted to.
Unless you're a business writer or a media junkie, you've probably never heard of Jim Michaels, who died Tuesday at the age of 86. But trust me on this. Michaels, the long-time editor of Forbes Magazine - a primary competitor of my current employer Fortune - was an absolutely brilliant editor who transformed business magazine journalism.
He did that by hiring people like me - I was a business reporter at the Detroit Free Press with a chip on my shoulder - who couldn't even get job interviews from other prestigious, New York-based business journalism outfits back in the 1970s. Then, once we were on board, Michaels forced us to find things that competitors such as BusinessWeek and Fortune and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal hadn't found, and forced us to write business articles that were like the man himself: short, feisty and opinionated. And smart.
When Michaels was on his game, which was almost always the case when I dealt with him during my tours of duty - 1979-81 and 1984-89 - he was an astoundingly deft editor. I used to make photocopies of his edits - we were still using paper when I first signed on - and take them home to deconstruct, trying to figure out what he'd done to make my copy read so much better. To this day, I write my columns using the structure I learned to write one-page Forbes stories for Jim.
When I was sued over an article entitled "Drilling for Suckers" - the subjects felt they needed several million of Malcolm Forbes' dollars to ease their pain - I testified under oath that I wasn't sure which parts of the piece was my original writing and which were Jim's.
No less an eminence than Norman Pearlstine, the former editor in chief of Time Inc. who worked briefly at Forbes and who introduced me to Michaels, calls him "the smartest editor I ever worked with."
Michaels, who edited the magazine from 1961 to 1998, worked hand-in-glove with the late Malcolm Forbes, a legendary showman, entrepreneur and gatherer of advertising dollars and personal publicity. Forbes, who died in 1990, brought in the money and the advertisers. Michaels brought in the readers by making articles - at least most of them - pointed, opinionated and oriented to the individual investors' point of view. "He and Malcolm were a brilliant team," said Pearlstine.
Unlike many of his competitors, Michaels didn't particularly lionize corporate chieftains. His focus was on representing small investors' interests, throwing rocks and being irreverent. He knew that despite being journalists, we were in show business, and needed to produce stories that people would actually read and talk about, rather than writing stories designed to impress other journalists.
Even though I last worked for him almost 20 years ago and we fought like cats and dogs - a clichť he'd edit out of this piece if he had a chance - both during and after my Forbes days, we stayed in touch. In our final lunch, last year, he was physically frail, but mentally robust, urging me to write how some 401(k) investors are getting ripped off because of investment choices foisted off on them by employers. I should have done it.
Working for Jim was more than occasionally maddening, but he was the greatest editor I've ever seen or ever expect to see. He used to say he could cut at least 15% out of any story, no matter how tightly written. In his memory, I'm making this 15% shorter than my normal space. So maybe he's gotten the last word after all.