Barron’s Abelson is one for the record books

by
Alan Abelson

If there were a definitive business journalism Book of Records, Alan Abelson would no doubt dominate some major categories:

  • Longest current tenure as a columnist at a single business/financial news outlet;
  • Sued or the subject of threatened lawsuits by the most number of story subjects;
  • Subject of the largest number of letters to the editor – both complaints and compliments;
  • Most-efficient journalistic financial hot air ‘valve’ – letting the air out of over-inflated egos and stocks.

In other categories, Abelson would rank at or near the top:

  • Role model to other financial columnists and bloggers;
  • Reviled and feared by CEOs;
  • Accused of being in the pocket of short sellers;
  • Contrarian;
  • Razor-like wit.

Abelson, who turns 87 years old this week, is still writing his own legacy – both literally and figuratively.

Once a week, as he has consistently since he originated the “Up and Down Wall Street” investment commentary column for Barron’s National Business and Financial Weekly in 1966, Abelson still labors to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted – all while delivering pithy and polarizing views on business, financial, economic and political news and events, as well as his forecasts for specific industries and stocks.

In early 1966, the Dow Jones Industrial Averages made a run at the 1,000 level – actually surpassing it once on an intra-day basis, but closed short of the mark and ended the year at 785.

In October 1966, when Abelson turned 41, Edward A. Finn Jr., Barron’s current editor and president, was an 11-year-old boy attending elementary school in Whitinsville, Mass.  Finn was only a year old when Abelson first joined the Barron’s staff in 1956.

Abelson became managing editor of Barron’s in 1965 and in December 1981, succeeded Robert M. Bleiberg to become editor of the Dow Jones & Co. tabloid.

One of Abelson’s early hires was a college dropout and former press secretary to, then, Sen. John Durkin (NH-D/1975-1980), named Floyd Norris.  Norris began as a staff writer, who quickly advanced to stock market editor and then author of the magazine’s “The Trader” column.  Norris joined The New York Times in October 1998 and has been its respected chief financial correspondent since September 1999.  Dozens of award-winning business journalists, in the mold of Norris, were also hired or tutored by Abelson.

Abelson’s tenure at the top of the Barron’s masthead lasted 11 years.  In December 1992, at age 67, he was asked by the muckety-mucks at corporate to step down.  The New York Times quoted Andy Zipser, a Barron’s staff writer, speculating that Dow Jones came to view Abelson’s administration as “a rogue operation,” adding that “now there is a new emphasis on team players.”

Initially, the betting was that Abelson would also quit his “Up and Down Wall Street” column and leave the company altogether. But he didn’t and has since penned another roughly 1,080 columns.

[Let the history books record that Ottaway Newspapers scion James H. Ottaway Jr.’s most defining contribution to business journalism in the 20th century was likely the role he played in sacking Abelson.  Ottaway, at the time, was a senior vice president at Dow Jones. He explained Abelson’s departure to the Times, saying “We agreed that since we are about to start a redesign project for Barron’s it was a good time for a new editor to take over.”  Huh?]

I looked up the value of Abelson’s home in Croton on Hudson, N.Y.  If the real estate listings are to be believed, he resides in a rather modest single family residence on a nice chunk of land worth roughly half a million dollars.

I was curious about Abelson’s lifestyle, as I’m guessing that he long ago stopped writing for Barron’s because he needs the paycheck.

His wife, Virginia, who like he attended the University of Iowa, died of cancer in 1999 at age 72.  His daughter, Reed, has been a reporter for The New York Times since 1995.  He also has a son, Justin, who has worked in journalism in Greenfield, Mass.

I suspect Abelson continues to write at his age primarily because he has yet to get the journalism-bug out of his system.  It’s why former Fortune editor Marshall Loeb, now, 83, is still reporting for MarketWatch and why Dan Dorfman, who died this past June at 82, kept churning out copy nearly until the end.

How many of today’s columnists, bloggers and reporters have the Abelson-Loeb-Dorfman genes, I can’t really say.

Perhaps contemporary financial scribes, such as Reuters’s Felix Salmon, Naked Capitalism’s Yves Smith and Infectious Greed’s Paul Kedrosky – each of whom channels the best of Abelson in their writings – will still be tweeting, blogging and tweaking the arrogant well into their eighties too.

Regardless, the brand of financial commentary that Alan Abelson launched in 1966 and has refined over all these years, is certain to endure long after the writer, himself, has typed his final “-30-.”