James Michaels: an acerbic editor, teacher at Forbes

James Michaels: an acerbic editor, teacher at Forbes

Irascible, exacting, fearless and determinedly pro-investor, James W. Michaels, the editor of Forbes magazine for almost 40 years, died Tuesday of pneumonia at 86. Because he sharpened and refined what had passed for business and financial reporting in the US, he earned a place in journalistic history.

But because he stayed behind the scenes at Forbes, even as less talented editors assumed celebrity status at other publications, Michaels never became a household name.

“He was certainly the best business editor that I've ever seen," said Warren E. Buffett. “He knew the subject, he knew the writing, and you knew that every story had been edited by Jim. He made them short, and he made them sing."

And his reporters? He made them nervous.

Under Michaels, a tough taskmaster, Forbes became a boot camp for business reporters. When I worked for him in the late 1980s and then again in the mid-1990s, he routinely spiked articles that played it safe (“pity the reader" was his refrain as he rejected an article that drew no conclusion).

He refused to play the access journalism game (better to have your nose pressed firmly against the glass than to be a guest of the people you report about).?He believed in congratulating true business achievers and slamming crooks and flops. What better way to celebrate capitalism, he argued, and keep it safe from the me-firsters who could wreck it?

He cared only about the Forbes reader. Writers’ egos, famously large, concerned him not one bit. When editing, he would hammer his views directly into reporters’ copy, often in capital letters. Flaccid writing and weak thinking brought out his bark and bite.

Here are some examples, culled from an aging file known internally at Forbes as the Abuse File. I’ve kept them because I treasure them:

“This is badly written and badly edited. It would be an insult to foist it on the reader."

“This is a real snoozer, lacking in specifics. Why not just send them a nice lacy valentine and forget the prose."

“I'm sending this one back because the character is deader than a dodo." Can’t the writer “inject a little life without adding 10,000 words?"

“A good story turned into oatmeal by bad organization."

“This is the kind of sentence that drives readers to stop reading."

“This is a paid advertisement. Did you forget to say he walks on water?"

As you can see, the comments were blistering. But they were also instructive. Any writer who heeded them became the better for it. Here are some more: “If I can’t stay awake editing this, how can a reader stay awake reading it? What’s the point? If it has a point, maybe we can make a story of it."

“I can’t make head nor tail of this. There’s a story buried in all this confusion, but I can’t find it. Fix it or kill it."

“This is a remarkable job of interviewing an interesting and colourful man and getting precisely one quote."

Writers were not the only ones to feel the Michaels lash. “Your initials are on this so I suppose you understand it," he wrote to one of his editors. “I don’t." Atop another article, he wrote: “Replace or run white space."

He regularly banned words and phrases he considered overused. “Fast track", “game plan", “bottom line" and “superstar" were some examples. “Upscale" was another: “If I see this word again I’ll upthrow," he wrote.

More than 40 years after George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, his 1946 essay on the decline of the language, Michaels made his writers read it. Michaels knew, of course, that there was plenty of wind in financial writing, and he worked mightily to expel it. The sharper the words, the better the article.

Michaels began his career as a wire service reporter. At 26, working for United Press, he broke the news of Gandhi’s assassination, scooping all competitors. “Mohandas K. Gandhi was assassinated today by a Hindu extremist whose act plunged India into sorrow and fear," he wrote. “Rioting broke out immediately in Bombay."

In 1961, Michaels became editor of Forbes. By the time he retired in 1999, he had edited 1,000 issues of the magazine and improved the work of hundreds of reporters.

Scary smart, with a scowl to stop a freight train—that was Jim Michaels. Tough guy. Great teacher. Now gone.