Opinion: Four life lessons boiled down from a long career in financial journalism

In early 1984, I entered the Forbes building on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for the first time, and I was scared.

I had knocked around a bit after college and had no professional journalism experience but had landed a job as staff writer at the top business magazine of its day. Forbes broke landmark stories on securities fraud, the burgeoning takeover movement, Michael Milken’s junk bond empire, and a brash New York real estate developer who claimed to be richer than he actually was.

I was not on that all-star team. In a sink-or-swim culture, I was drowning and didn’t know it. The much-feared top editor was Jim Michaels, one of a generation of newsroom tyrants who were The Devil Wears Prada of their time, but in black brogues, not stiletto heels. He barely noticed me, which wasn’t good, and when he did — well, that wasn’t good, either.

One day, while on a cruise around Manhattan on Malcolm Forbes’s yacht (yes, it’s true — it was the 1980s) one of the editors, the late Jerry Flint, approached me. Jerry was a crusty, no-BS journalist who cut his teeth covering the auto industry in Detroit.

“Hey, Gold,” he said. “Listen to me. You’ve got to get into the magazine every time.”

I bristled. “But …”

He shook his head. “Every. Single. Time.”

I went home angry — how dare he talk to me as if I was a child? I thought. But then his message sank in, and my fear turned to terror.

So, I got to work. I filed story after story, most of them mediocre, which got buried in the back of the magazine. Sometimes I’d work until 11 at night and start again at eight the next morning. I was trying to learn in months what had taken my colleagues a decade or more. But I knew in my gut this was my last chance and I couldn’t blow it.

I didn’t — I survived 2 ½ years, even wrote a cover story, and then got a job at a small, unknown Miami legal and business newspaper that made my career.

I’m thinking back on those days as I bring this long career in business journalism to a close. After 38 years, the last 11 at MarketWatch, I’m resuming another journey by going back to finish a novel I began in my 20s.

So, I’d like to wrap up not with investing lessons (you can read my best and worst calls of the last decade, published last year) but some life and career lessons for young people, especially young journalists. I got a few things right but made many mistakes along the way. You will, too, and it’s OK — as long as you learn from them.

  1. Work hard and be productive, but get it right. No one ever got fired for filing too many stories. But also make sure you get the facts straight. This should be obvious to people who work in the 24/7 media world, but balancing those two things is challenging. You can do it.

  2. Your reputation is your most valuable possession. “Who steals my purse steals trash,” said Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” “but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.” We all must compromise — sometimes even our principles — to survive. But know what your red line is. Write it down, if you must. And never cross it. Ever.

  3. Go where the opportunity is. When I got that offer to join the obscure Miami Daily Business Review, one of my Forbes colleagues said, “No one will ever hear from you again.” But the paper’s newsroom was full of talented journalists hungry to make their mark. So, I moved to a strange city to cover banking and securities, including a savings & loan called CenTrust. That later became one of the biggest failures in the S&L crisis and its founder, David Paul, served nearly a decade in federal prison. Had I stayed put, I never would have gotten the chance to cover it.

  4. Follow your talent and interests, not necessarily your passion. My passion always was writing, but though I care a lot about economics, business and investing, it wasn’t my passion. I discovered, however, that I had a knack for analyzing data and financial statements and translating them into plain English, and I parlayed that into a rewarding career. Some people are driven enough to make careers out of their passions, no matter what; the rest of us have to find a middle way.

Which brings me to today. As I write this, I’m sad to leave this all behind. I’ll especially miss my editors Parris Kellermann, Angela Moore and Silvia Ascarelli, with whom I worked closely for the past decade. They’re fine editors and more importantly good people who have made my years at MarketWatch the happiest of my career.

But now it’s time to return to the passion life made me set aside so many years ago and finally see it through. I have no idea if this novel (about immigration and assimilation, based on family stories) will turn out to be as good as I want it to be. But it almost doesn’t matter, because the journey is everything.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” T.S. Eliot wrote, “and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Carpe diem, folks — seize the day.