To former Wall Street Journal scribe Jonathan Weil, a "biopsy" is an inquiry into a seemingly healthy enterprise that exposes a potentially fatal disease -- financial irregularities, perhaps, or evidence of fraudulent behavior on the part of an executive. In contrast, an "autopsy" is a piece detailing why and how a firm with a serious malady contracted it in the first place, and what contributed to its demise. But while articles in the latter category can be rewarding, Weil says, "I like doing predictive stories more than I like doing stories about things that have already blown up." Or, to put it another way, "I like uncovering better than covering."
Weil, 35, is widely acknowledged to be among the best in his generation at ferreting out the nasty secrets hidden by ethics-challenged corporate masters. He wrote the first piece questioning the accounting practices of a little outfit called Enron, unwittingly helping to kick-start a calamity that serves as the current standard for blue-suit corruption; the trial of Enron execs Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling got under way this week in Houston. Weil subsequently catalogued the sins of notorious operations such as Tyco and WorldCom, and even non-media types recognized his achievements. He was the only journalist named to a 2004 list of the 100 most influential people in accounting published by Accounting Today, a major trade publication.
Why, then, did Weil leave the Journal to take a position as managing director and editor of financial research for the Broomfield division of Glass, Lewis & Co., which analyzes businesses and industries on behalf of institutional investors? Cash was almost certainly a factor, although he won't share the specifics: "Not on your best day," he declares, laughing. But location and family also played a part. Weil attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his parents, as well as his wife's, live in Snowmass Village; they'll now have easy access to a grandson born last year. In addition, the gig itself definitely plays to Weil's strengths. He'll oversee a team of "financial sleuths who'll go through companies' books trying to identify ones that may be headed for trouble or, in some cases, taking liberties," Weil says. That means all biopsies and no autopsies -- just the way he likes it.
Weil emphasizes that the move wasn't motivated by dissatisfaction with the Journal, an institution he reveres. Nevertheless, he feels that journalists in general should spend more time searching for new material and less time conducting journalistic post-mortems. "The press needs to be a lot more skeptical," he says, "and not just repeat things without critical thinking one day, then come back two years later and discover it was all lies."
A Hollywood, Florida, native, Weil spilled ink at several area publications during his time at CU; he wrote for the Campus Press, the university's official newspaper, and interned at the Boulder Daily Camera and the Denver Post. Upon his 1991 graduation, he landed yet another internship, this time at the Journal's Washington bureau. A few months later, however, he temporarily put reporting on the shelf and enrolled in law school at Southern Methodist University. Within a few years, he'd earned both his degree and a license to practice law in Texas, but by then he'd realized that "reporting and writing were just a lot more fun" than toiling as an attorney, he says. Weil wound up at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, where he caused persistent pain to Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. He reported, for instance, that during a previous race for lieutenant governor, Huckabee's campaign paid him over $43,000 for the use of his plane without including the payments on financial disclosure forms. Such scoops reinforced Weil's decision to get back into journalism. "I found that I really dug digging," he says.
He got more chances to do so in 1997, when he joined the crew of the Journal's Texas regional edition. He soon learned how satisfying it could be to clue investors in about high-flying companies apt to nosedive, recalling with pride how one hinky venture lost over 50 percent of its stock value after he exposed its shortcomings. Still, his biggest coup involved Enron, which he examined as part of an article on energy traders. Through close readings of financial statements, he realized that the firms he spotlighted were, in his words, "reporting earnings based upon their assumptions about what the contracts they were entering into were worth." This technique, known as mark-to-market accounting, employed more fantasy than The Lord of the Rings. "They were showing huge amounts of net income, but they weren't generating any cash," Weil says, "which was a good indication that the net income was wishful thinking."
Bull's-eye -- and when Enron execs learned that Weil planned to put down these findings in black and white, they sent a damage-control crew to the Journal's Texas office to convince him that his suspicions were misplaced. They failed, and the meeting, which is recapped in 2005's Conspiracy of Fools, author Kurt Eichenwald's epic dissection of Enron's collapse, proved to be a harbinger of catastrophes to come. Yet Weil didn't dedicate himself to this subject after moving to the Journal's New York headquarters in 2000, shortly after the original salvo saw print -- not that he could have. After all, giant conglomerates were disintegrating so quickly in the early years of the century that it was all he could do to keep up with the carnage. "When the deluge of scandals starts taking away your ability to check out the new ones no one knows about, that's when it gets a little frustrating," he says.
Such a balancing act won't be necessary at Glass Lewis, since the company is more interested in the future than the past. "Finding issues before they implode, and presenting the issue to investors on a proactive basis, is what Glass Lewis is all about," e-mails Lynn E. Turner, the former chief accountant for the Securities and Exchange Commission, who's now Glass Lewis's managing director of research (and Weil's new boss). He's confident that "GL will provide Jonathan an opportunity to both continue the investigative reporting he has done in the past and expand on it, with additional resources at his side."
Leslie Scism, Weil's longtime editor at the Journal, wasn't shocked by his career shift. Staffers at the paper aren't regularly cherry-picked by recruiters from outside of journalism, "but it's not rare, either," she says. "Reporters who work on the more financially oriented stories often get approaches from the business world, and a few of the offers are too hard to resist even for people who love journalism and who've spent their whole lives at a newspaper." While she's happy for Weil on a personal level, Scism believes "it's a loss to the Journal that he's moved on to this new job, because he's such an original thinker. He likes finding unique angles that most reporters wouldn't even begin to think about, and he takes pride in originality. He does not like following the pack."
With his leap to Glass Lewis, Weil is cutting his own trail again. He hopes the business media he's leaving behind doesn't trade in aggressiveness for the sort of "stenography" that helped enable Enron-style financial shenanigans in the first place. "There've been a lot of magazine covers and assorted hype making CEOs larger than life and transforming people into celebrities, and that feeds the whole culture that was at the heart of what the press was exposing a few years ago," he says. "We need to be as careful about building people up as we are about tearing them down."
Either way, his scalpel is ready.
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Hoover time: In a January article about a town without cell-phone service by Rich Tosches, the Denver Post's "Rocky Mountain Ranger," a local expressed his displeasure in a very strange way. "Sometimes," he said, "I actually forget that I even have a cell phone. It just (word meaning 'vacuum-like function')."
Is the Post really so squeamish that it's made "sucks" off limits? What's next -- banning "heck," "gosh" and "gee willikers"? The answer to these questions is no, as Tosches reveals via e-mail. "It was indeed me who went with the 'vacuum-like function' line instead of 'sucks,'" he confirms. "I am willing to bet the Post would have allowed me to use 'sucks'' but I'm old school. And I'm from Boston. The only thing that really sucks is/are the New York Yankees."
Suck on that.