Thursday, November 29, 2012

Where will journalists be without patience and perseverance?

It took Fortune journalist John Huey 10 days of waiting in frustration in rainy weather to get a photograph of Sam Walton, the legendary but publicity-averse founder of Wal-Mart, back in 1988.

Huey, who subsequently wrote a best-selling biography of Walton and who is now editor in chief of Time Inc., recounts the episode in an interview in the latest issue of Fortune.

(I am taking the liberty of reproducing the relevant passage in full to impress upon readers, and aspiring media students, that journalists who do not possess patience and perseverance in large quantities will find it difficult to make rapid progress in their careers.)

I went to work for Fortune in November of 1988, and they decided they wanted to make Wal-Mart the "most admired company." Usually when you call up a company and say, "We're going to make your company the 'most admired company' on the cover of Fortune," they roll out everything. Wal-Mart said, "Not interested. We don't want anything to do with it."

And the editor said, "We have to have cooperation," because there's never been a posed photograph of Sam Walton. He's avoided the press. The editor said, "You're a Southerner — you go down to Arkansas and talk him into it."

I went down there. It was two weeks before Christmas. It was horrible weather. I went over to Wal-Mart, and I just basically knocked on the door. His assistant — her name was Becky — said, "He's hunting. He's not available."

This went on for days. Rain kept on going. I knew that he drove this old pickup truck. So I kept riding by there looking for the pickup truck.

Ten days into this I said to my photographer, "We're going to go back over there, and if we don't see that truck, we're getting out of here."

So we rode by, and there was the truck. Sam Walton was in the building. We went in, and I picked up the vendor phone and said, "May I speak to Becky?" Sam answered the phone. I said, "Is this Sam Walton?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Well, this is John Huey from Fortune magazine. I've been here 10 days. It's raining. My wife is going to leave me, and if I don't get this picture, they're going to fire me and I'm going to have a terrible Christmas, and all I need is 10 minutes."

You know, journalists have no pride.

He came out, and we took the picture. He complained the whole time. "You're wasting a lot of flashbulbs, you're wasting a lot of the film." And then he said, "Oh, and by the way, you can't put this picture on the cover."

We negotiated. We got the cover. I wrote a long story about Wal-Mart, and then over the next three years or so, I was flying in planes with him and driving around and basically hitchhiking across America.

(It should be understood that the phrase "journalists have no pride" is not to be taken at face value. The tone is self-mocking.)

This story is part of a fascinating conversation between Huey, Fortune editor Andy Serwer, and Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute, a former head of CNN and editor of Time, and the author, most recently, of Steve Jobs. The topic of the conversation: The legacies of two remarkable men — Sam Walton and Steve Jobs.

Read the feature in full here: "Steve Jobs vs. Sam Walton: The Tale of the Tape". 
  • Photo-illustration courtesy: Fortune.

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