Steven Pearlstein signs off of weekly column

Steven Pearlstein
Columnist December 22, 2012

At a party recently, somebody I know came up to tell me he was enjoying my columns more than ever. I thanked this fellow and, hoping to bask a few moments longer in his praise, I asked why.

“They’re more opinionated,” he explained.

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics. View Archive

He was right, but it was not what I wanted to hear. What I knew was that my sharper pen was hardly the result of a conscious decision to throw off any pretense of objectivity and balance, but more a reflection of a lack of time to do more of the reporting that allows a columnist to add more shades of gray to the black and white of the opinion trade. A good newspaper columnist certainly has to be able to deliver a good zinger every once and a while. Doing it too often not only cheapens the experience but can easily turn into a substitute for fresh insight and reporting.

Last fall, I became a full-time professor at George Mason University. Teaching undergraduates has been fun and rewarding, but it’s proven to be a challenge to do it while also turning out an original, well-reported weekly column. There might have been a time when a columnist wasn’t required to constantly follow the breaking news and nonstop commentary, but in the era of the blog and the 24/7 news cycle, that time has passed.

When this column was launched in 2003, I told myself and my editors that I thought I could sustain it for a decade — that after that, I might succumb to the temptation of writing only about the topics I already know, relying on sources I’ve already come to trust and saying things I’ve already said. My greatest fear was becoming the journalistic equivalent of one of those ballplayers who, as he walks off the field after hitting into a double play, prompts one fan to turn to the other and say, “He was once a fabulous hitter.”


(istock)

My decade has now come to an end. This will be my last regular column in the Business section. When I get the irresistible urge to comment or let loose a zinger, I’ll be sending it in real time to the Post’s WonkBlog, where Ezra Klein and his crew have put together the best source anywhere for smart, timely analysis of economic policy.

Most of my journalistic focus, however, will be on longer, more magazine-like pieces — profiles, narratives, trend stories and analyses — that will appear about once a month in Sunday Business, Outlook, Style or anywhere else that makes sense in the printed paper and online. Less frequent and more flexible deadlines will make it possible to snoop around for new and less obvious topics — local, national and international — and take the time to report them out and polish the prose. And while they are unlikely to be as opinionated as more recent columns, they’ll still have plenty of voice and attitude. There’s a surplus of opinionating these days; it’s reporting that’s in short supply.

In addition to 10 years as a columnist, this is my 25th year at The Post, almost all of them in the Business section. When I arrived in 1988, Financial, as it was called back then, was still something of a backwater, as it was at most papers. Business, finance and economics were considered, at least by most of the top editors, to be specialized, slightly arcane topics of interest only to a limited number of upper-income male readers. It was a big triumph back then to get one of our stories on the front page. I was helping to edit the section, and in my daily dealings with national, foreign and metro over space and reporters’ time, their attitude was invariably that every story of theirs was more important and more interesting than any story of ours.

Boy, how things have changed! The coverage of politics, foreign policy, local governments and even sports — it’s all about business these days. Taxes and budgets, the financial crisis and the recession, health-care reform, immigration, climate change, the rise of China and India, fights over development and growth, rising inequality, the latest iPhone app and the battles among Microsoft, Google and Apple, the search for new “business models” for higher education and the media, the role of money in amateur and professional sports — these are front-page news. Not only did the world change, but also we in the business press have learned to write about these topics in much more interesting and accessible ways.

It’s worth noting that the current executive and managing editors of The Post, Marcus Brauchli and Liz Spayd, are former business editors. They’re both stepping down in the coming weeks, and we will miss them more than they realize. But I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that the new executive editor, Marty Baron, is also a former business editor .

My hope is that in this new gig, I can explore the next frontier for business and economics reporting.

There was a time when Fortune was the must-read business magazine. Then it was BusinessWeek and Inc., and after that Fast Company and Wired. What the “hot book” is these days is anyone’s guess. What tends to catch my attention and admiration are the special reports in The Economist, the page-long takeouts each day in the Financial Times, NPR’s Planet Money and Michael Lewis’s narratives, and the interesting mix of business, psychology and cultural anthropology served up in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell (a Post Business section alumnus).

Remember when we all were sure that the future of the global economy would be in the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India and China and South Africa. Now, not so much. Could it be that the new hot investment opportunities are to be found in our own Western hemisphere, from Vancouver down to Santiago?

Here in Washington, decades of growth in federal spending and outsourcing has made this one of the richest regions in the country, if not the world. We know that’s about to end, but is there nowhere to go but down?

Ever since Tom Peters and Robert Waterman launched the “In Search of Excellence,” 30 years ago, there has been a steady flow of hot new management theories, from empowered work teams to reengineering to design-driven innovation. What’s striking today, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be an agreed-upon hot theory, just as there is no longer a hot company that has captured the public imagination or a hot chief executive who has attained Steve Jobs rock-star status. As my friend, Alan Webber, the founding editor of Fast Company, put it to me this week, maybe the new zeitgeist is that there is no new zeitgeist.

In the coming months and years, those are just some of the themes I expect to explore. My hope is that if we’re at the same party sometime in the future, you’ll come up and tell me how much more you like what I’ve been writing than even the old columns — not because you always agree with what I have to say, but because you always learn something new.

Thank you for reading and for sticking with me all these years. And look for other new and interesting voices in this space in 2013.

Best wishes for the holidays and the new year.

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