By Sarah Foster
Medill News Service
Gretchen Morgenson was walking up Third Avenue in New York City, still fresh off her move from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal, when an abrupt shouting sounded in the distance.
“I don’t mean to bother you! I don’t mean to bother you!” the voice said.
She didn’t acknowledge the commotion at first, thinking the pedestrian was just talking on his cell phone. But soon enough, he caught up to her.
“He said, ‘I really don’t want to bother you, but I just wanted to let you know that, I really miss you in The New York Times. I don’t know where to find you. I love your stuff,’” Morgenson said. “I said (to him), ‘Don’t worry. You just made my whole week.’”
The business reporter, known for her crusade-like coverage of Wall Street abuses, isn’t used to being recognized. Her byline, a staple on the Sunday front page of The Times’ business section for nearly two decades, was enough to make financial institutions fearful and fellow journalists prideful. Her face, however, has remained mostly unrecognizable.
“I’m toiling in obscurity,” Morgenson said. “I’m not a television person. Nobody knows what I look like.”
But these moments of recognition from her readers, she said, energize her — even more than her Pulitzer Prize, and most recently, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing’s 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award, which she accepted Friday at a reception.
The recognition is always great, she said, but journalism is about more than the accolades.
Morgenson, who left the Times in November for a position on the investigations team at the Journal, remembers receiving a letter from a reader after the 2008 financial crisis. The writer thanked her for her pre-crash coverage on credit default swaps.
You saved me from aggravation and loss, the reader wrote.
“If I can help people understand the complexities and the impact of these powerful institutions and people, that’s why I get up in the morning,” Morgenson said.
Before she became the Gretchen Morgenson who helped take down Enron and WorldCom, a reporter who helped shine a light on the dot-com boom and bust, and who exposed questionable practices on Wall Street, she was Gretchen Morgenson: secretary at Vogue magazine.
She’d wanted to be a journalist early on in college, fueled by inspiration from Watergate reporters Woodward and Bernstein. Preparing to graduate from college, she mailed out countless job applications.
Vogue was the only place that called her back.
“I could’ve written ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ because that was my life,” she said.
She accepted the position, knowing it wasn’t what she aspired to do in the end, but realized the job would be a valuable introduction to life in New York. She met Truman Capote. Vera Wang. Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Eventually, an opportunity to write a monthly personal finance column opened up.
Morgenson, who had never before taken an economics class, raised her hand.
“I solved a problem for them by just saying I’d do it,” she said. “I was interested in it because I understood that finance and business obviously has a huge, huge impact on everybody’s lives.”
But after five years at Vogue, Morgenson was ready for a change. She took on a position as a Wall Street stockbroker at Dean Witter Reynolds. She figured she couldn’t make a living at Vogue, where she earned just $10,000 a year.
“I didn’t have a rich father to pay my expenses or a rich husband,” she said.
The position gave Morgenson a front-row seat to business. It was a space where she could familiarize herself with its key players. She figured out where the bodies were buried, she said.
She didn’t intend to go back to journalism when she left it in the early 1980s. But after witnessing a bear market in tech stocks in 1983, she couldn’t take it anymore. The market cracked open — and some people lost everything.
“When things went wrong, when the market goes down, and it’s not anybody’s fault, it’s really hard to feel good about what you’re doing because people are losing money, and money is important,” she said. “I just found that part of the job was too stressful.”
Morgenson found a position at Forbes and used her experience on Wall Street to set herself apart from other reporters. She idolized her editor at Forbes, who she said had incredibly high standards. The experience pushed her to learn more and improve.
She worked stints at Money and Worth magazines. She worked as a press secretary for the 1996 presidential campaign of Steve Forbes. Eventually, she found her way to the Times, where she served as an assistant business editor and columnist.
In 2002, she won the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting.
Dean Murphy, an associate editor of the Times who worked closely with Morgenson, said even though she had won the Pulitzer, she continued to write and investigate, always working for her readers.
“She just continued to be aggressive in her approach,” he said. “She was one of the most intrepid, fearless, hardworking reporters on my staff. She knew how to find things. She knew where to look. She wasn’t pushy that way, but she could really help people.”
More than 20 years later, Morgenson shows no signs of walking away.
“Business and finance intersects in every person’s life,” she said. “It’s at the intersection of Washington, Wall Street. Everybody has to save for retirement. Everybody has to put food on the table. Being able to cover it, to explain what’s happening, why it’s happening, who is doing it, is tremendously valuable.”