By: Wayne Robins
Humility is not always on the agenda of a reporter on the day she wins a Pulitzer Prize. But last week, hours after her award was announced, the honoree returned a call to E&P saying simply: “Hello, this is Gretchen Morgenson. I’m a reporter for The New York Times.”
While the Times won a record seven Pulitzers, Morgenson’s award stands out because it’s one of the few that cited individual achievement — for her writing about Wall Street, both in the daily newspaper and as “Market Watch” columnist in the Sunday paper — rather than a team effort. But Morgenson would not indulge in self-congratulation.
“You’re never alone when you win a Pulitzer Prize,” she says. There’s Deputy Business Editor Winnie O’Kelley (“my daily inspiration … she sees where I’m going with a story before I do”); Sunday Business Editor Judith Dobrzynski (who “always makes my stories better”); and Business Editor Glenn Kramon (“a great advocate for the stories I write, which are arcane sometimes — Wall Street tries to make things seem impenetrable”).
What makes Morgenson stand out among business writers is a relentless advocacy for clarity and fairness in Wall Street’s murky waters. As a storyteller, she can be as smooth as Flannery O’Connor — yet as scary as Stephen King — as when she described how two Morgan Stanley Dean Witter brokers took a Microsoft Corp. executive’s $700,000 nest egg and left him with $403.95 and a $40,000 tax bill (“One Investor. Two Brokers. An Account Runs Dry,” July 22), and when she detailed how stock-market analysts kept raising share-price targets, despite evidence to the contrary, so that “investors were emboldened to stay at the party even after the band had gone home” (“Price Targets Are Hazardous to Investors’ Wealth,” Aug. 5).
Morgenson, 46, was raised in State College, Pa. and attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Her first job is politely described in bios as an assistant editor at Vogue, but she cuts through the camouflage and says: “I was a secretary. … You were really just a gofer.” For some women of means, such jobs are the price of entry to New York society. “I wasn’t from a rich family,” she says, so she went where the money was: She became a stockbroker.
“I thought I might succeed at helping people understand the investing world, but if you have any capacity for guilt, you can’t stay,” she says. “But I learned the tricks of the trade, things you can’t learn in books.”
She’s been at most of the stops in business-magazine journalism, at Worth, Money, and Forbes. She took leave from the latter title in 1995 to become the press secretary (“you mean ‘flack,'” she corrects) for Steve Forbes’ underachieving presidential campaign.
“I thought it would be fun,” she says. “It was absolutely not fun. It was horrible. I had always been interested in politics, but you don’t want to see that kind of sausage being made. I did get to see what it was like being on the other side of the notebook, dealing with the ‘obstreperous’ press.”
As a kind of health inspector for Wall Street’s financial-sausage factories, she takes her share of shots from obstreperous corporate big shots. “The most aggressive are the CFOs [chief financial officers] of major companies who call me up and yell at me, try to tell me I’m wrong, in varying tones. Those are the people who can be most difficult. I listen, I don’t scream back. … Most of the time, we have to agree to disagree. … Because you’re at the Times, they watch what you write very carefully and scrutinize … But when you work at the Times, you’re not alone out on a limb.”