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Who was Jim Michaels?

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Scott Jagow: One of the greats of business journalism died last week. Jim Michaels was 86. You’ve probably never heard of him. He was behind the scenes. But you might recognize what Michaels did for business news.

Fortune Magazine’s Allan Sloan had the fortune of working with Jim Michaels.
Allan, who was this guy?

Allan Sloan: Michaels was this amazing guy. He was the editor of Forbes for 37 years — for years on end, edited the entire magazine himself. And unlike many people in the business-writing business, he was into short stories, vicious stories, pointed stories, funny stories. And the pressure from the stories he produced changed business journalism — I think mostly for the better.

Jagow: In what way?

Sloan: If you go back and look at business magazines of the 60’s — and make sure to take some stimulants when you do — you’ll see that they were very staid, very worshipful, very into lionizing people, and talk about great companies. And what Michaels did was he brought a sense of outrage, a sense of, a lot of these people were cheating the customers — the customers being in this case the shareholders. It’s an entirely different story than used to be there, and during the heyday of Forbes, editorially, in the 70’s and 80’s and early 90’s, the pressure from Forbes really forced other publications — including my current employer, Fortune — to change.

Jagow: And how did Michaels impact your career personally?

Sloan: I still have a chip on my shoulder, but I used to be a reporter at the Detroit Free Press with a chip on my shoulder, and nobody in New York of the major publications would even talk to me. And through a strange series of events, I was introduced to Michaels, who I think within about five minutes decided to hire me and just make me an offer. He’s the person who got me into national financial journalism by giving me this job at Forbes and doing what he did to all of us: throwing us out to sink or swim. And I was lucky enough to swim.

Jagow: You know, I thought it was interesting that Michaels told you he could cut 15 percent out of any story, no matter how tightly written it was. And in his memory, your Fortune column is 15 percent shorter.

Sloan: Right. Well, I was always did want to get the last word with Jim in. I guess I’ve now managed to do it, though not quite the way I had intended.

Jagow: All right. Allan Sloan from Fortune Magazine. Thank you.

Sloan: My pleasure, Scott.

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