What I like about the New York Times business columnist.

Media criticism.
June 12 2006 6:21 PM

Yes to Nocera

What I like about the New York Times business columnist.

Joseph Nocera
Joseph Nocera

If I were to write a laudatory column about columnist Joe Nocera, I'd write it in the style of Joe Nocera, using his name in the first sentence. Then I'd mention his employer, the New York Times, but in a passing way, which is the way he starts most of his columns. He does that, I think, to signal readers that, yes, my beat is business, but it's really about the businessmen behind the businesses.

Like Nocera, I'd go heavy on the first-person but almost never make it about me. Nocera is no egomaniac, I'd point out. He reaches for the first-person because it allows him an intimacy with his readers. The column is so much a one-on-one conversation over a coffee or a beer, the way a good sports column is. On more than one occasion during the year Nocera has been writing his Saturday Times column, I've lifted my head out of his copy to shout to nobody in particular, "Hey, somebody put a sports column in the Times business section!"

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By the third paragraph I'd have teed up my premise: Nocera demystifies the world of business with original thinking, brainy reporting, and the ability to see around corners. Although opinionated, he's not really a pundit who tells you what he thinks about executive pay or stock options or antitrust as much as what he's learned from his reporting. Because it's harder to show than to tell, Nocera's pieces run between 1,400 and 2,000 words, epic length compared to the Times' other columnists. For that reason I like to think of him as a weekly feature writer and not a columnist.

From his decade at Fortune, Nocera knows that business pundits are the dumb guys at the table—that if you have real smarts you're probably making money or have made a lot of money—and brings an uncharacteristic modesty to his work. Not every Nocera column comes equipped with a solution to that week's business-world problem. But when Nocera reaches a conclusion, he's not shy. A couple of weeks ago Nocera attended Home Depot's annual meeting and blistered (warning: all Nocera columns are TimesSelect) its cowardly chief executive, Robert L. Nardelli, for dodging his shareholder critics. Nocera writes:

But where are all the Home Depot people? The corporate officers? The middle managers? … Nowhere to be seen. …

Suddenly, we all understand what's going on: the board isn't coming to the annual meeting! In all my years as a business reporter, I have never seen that before.

Nocera visited the Enron trial in April and framed it not as a question of Jeffrey Skilling's guilt but of his competence as a company potentate. He writes:

How in the world could anyone have thought that Mr. Skilling had the skills and the emotional makeup to run a publicly traded corporation? If character is destiny, Enron was doomed the moment he became its president.

Before I dropped any more praise on Nocera, I'd write a disclosure sentence describing our relationship—I've edited him a couple of times at Slate and shared a couple phone calls and e-mails with him over the years, but he's not really a friend. Due diligence would demand that I cull the four-dozen columns he's written for a turkey, and I'd probably settle on the shipping containers piece he wrote and describe it as a glorified book review. But then I'd have to go back to the archives and salute his continuing coverage of the shenanigans of Overstock.com's Patrick M. Byrne, his slap at the anti-China grandstanders in Congress, his breakdown of the "energy crisis" into an argument between geologists and economists, and his contrarian valentine to Sarbanes-Oxley. For pure consumer fury, you'll never read a more explanatory business column about corporate arrogance than Nocera's "Good Luck With That Broken iPod."

As I mused about Nocera's greatness, I'd ask if the journalistic lessons about voice and point of view he teaches each Saturday couldn't be applied elsewhere in the paper, but I'd resist the closure of recommending that the Times look outside its conformist walls and hire a political Nocera or stock the Book Review, the Metro section, Travel, Sunday and Thursday Styles, and the auto pages with their own Nocerae.* Nocera knows persuasion isn't about haranguing, that it's better to lead the reader toward your conclusion and depart gracefully rather than hammer him over the head with it.

Nocera likes to tie up the loose ends of his column by asking a question and answering it, so I'd do the same.

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