Today's industry rewards shorter, punchier writing.
“There weren’t really any formal parts of the Goizueta MBA program that stressed journalism or storytelling at that time,” said Serwer, who earned degrees from Bowdoin College, Emory University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. “In fact, why would there be?”
That kick-started a career that’s led Serwer to some of the most well-known names in business and journalism.
Serwer became a long-form writer with Fortune magazine where he profiled high-profile CEOs like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and John Chambers. That position was a natural progression for the more experienced writers, a departure from today’s industry, which rewards shorter, punchier writing, Serwer said.
He said learning this writing style was difficult, and he didn’t succeed at first. After all, Serwer explained, the standards are very high, and someone in that position must understand independent thinking. The first piece he remembers writing well was a cover story on J.R. Simplot, an 86-year-old billionaire who invested in Micron Technologies, the chip company, and made another billion only after he made a billion in french fries.
Serwer gained notoriety in the fall of 1997 for a groundbreaking online column called “Street Life” where he wrote about the personalities and stories on Wall Street, and tried to do it using their lingo. It was published as an email and on the website.
“A lot of people said it was something they followed, and they used it,” he said. “I think it had a lot of influence on some of the younger people today.”
Serwer is now editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Finance, where he oversees all editorial content, breaking news and original video programming. He held a similar position as editor of Fortune magazine for eight years that capped a tenure of 29 years at Time, Inc. But his first boss at Fortune explained that she hired Serwer despite his degrees from Emory and Columbia.
His Emory MBA, though, later came in handy in a board room when a bank regulator from Washington visited Fortune for an off-the-record chat with the editors. He discussed a change in a bank regulation that was so complicated, the other editors didn’t follow it.
Looking at the very junior reporter in the room, the visitor heard from Serwer, “Oh, that’s the demise of RegQ,” he recalled, and recently explained he learned it from a sub chapter of an article he read in an Emory class. “The banking regulator looked at me and he said, ‘Exactly. It’s the demise of RegQ.’ And I remember all of the older editors turning around and craning their necks to see which young person on the staff said that, and it was me. I got that directly from Emory.”
We had no idea how fat and happy we were.
A native of the Washington, D.C., area, Serwer was first exposed to journalism during the Watergate era, and those political and journalistic personalities piqued his interest.
The scope of Serwer’s career has covered the dramatic shift from print journalism where weekly magazines were king — a career that fell in the second half of the “golden age” a time he describes that spanned the 1960s to the ’90s — to digital-first coverage.
“We had no idea how fat and happy we were,” he said. “We had so much advertising from dot-com bubble, 2000 was our biggest year at Fortune magazine. We had no idea we were writing about our own demise. Eventually digital would completely undo journalism.”
The worst part of that demise was the cold reality that Serwer had to lay people off, including friends, something he said he’d never forget.
“Frankly,” he said, “a lot of it was not fun.”
The current journalism model of sharing information and processes is closer to 50/50 between older people and younger people, versus the older model, which Serwer said was all but a one-way street, as 98 percent of information was passed from older people to young people.
“Today I learn so much about technology, new startups and new trends,” he said. “That’s incredibly exciting to me and exhilarating.”
The delivery method is changing from print to digital, including phones, tablets, alerts and texts. Journalism has evolved, but the principles and fundamentals are the same.
Fighting the charges of fake news and watching websites produce unnecessarily edgy content is difficult, but being 100 percent accurate is still a bedrock of today’s journalism.
“I think the whole thing about your reputation is so important,” Serwer said.
The added burden for journalists today is the almost prerequisite requirement to have a working knowledge of search engine optimization, content management systems and all forms of social media. Add that to a personal familiarity with the business side, whether a writer is self-employed or working in a startup. It’s a perfect storm of technology, journalism, business and career management.
“Quite honestly, it’s pretty challenging. It’s not for the faint of heart,” Serwer said. “And you have to work really hard. This is not a kind of go-through-the-motions career, not that any of them are, but this is full bore.”