If you asked me to locate any Wesleyan alum in the general New York area, the first place I’d look would likely be a coffee shop in Williamsburg. The second place I’d look might be a Bernie Sanders rally. I would most certainly not be turning to the business desk at the Wall Street Journal. Yet that is exactly where I found Miriam Gottfried ’05, who covers media, telecom, and retail for Heard on the Street. Heard on the Street is WSJ’s column that provides advice for investors from a forward-looking, analytical standpoint rather than, as Gottfried points out, a news standpoint.
Gottfried speaks decisively and quickly, getting all the words out but making sure they’re the right ones, and going back to correct them if they’re not. I met with her on a Monday morning in one of News Corporation’s looming midtown buildings, where she led me upstairs with a slight limp (“a combination of yoga and kickboxing,” she explained) to the intimidatingly buzzy and sleek Wall Street Journal offices.
“How did I get here?” she said. “It was a long road of many internships. And other positions.”
Gottfried isn’t able to pinpoint a certain moment when she decided journalism was for her, mentioning multiple times that, in a way, she always knew. She had written for her high school’s newspaper in Oregon, and she joined The Argus upon her arrival on campus, writing for the News section throughout all four years and even taking on the role of Editor-in-Chief as a junior. She has done professional journalism internships every summer since her freshman year, most of them based in Oregon. It was during one of these internships that Gottfried first became interested in business journalism.
“The News Tribune made me move among the different desks,” she said. “When they moved me to the business desk, I was, like, ‘Oh, not business, I don’t know anything about business.’ But then I loved it. I thought it was so interesting, and I think the reason I liked it so much is because business is just a framework for which you can understand anything in the world… There’s an economic reason for everything.”
I can just hear Professor Richard Grossman shouting with triumphant glee.
Gottfried, however, would not have been taught by Professor Grossman or any other economics professors at the University. A COL and Spanish major, she wrote her thesis on how Vladimir Nabokov used “Don Quixote” as a subtext in two of his novels. She recalls a sort of epiphanic moment that inspired the topic, when she noticed the connection between the works. This was all thanks to two classes she was taking simultaneously, one taught by Priscilla Meyer on Nabokov and the other by Michael Armstrong Roche on Cervantes.
So what did she learn at Wesleyan that’s contributed to her career?
“I think I learned how to read, write, and think at Wesleyan,” Gottfried said. “That’s basically all you need to know how to do at any job. Not only that, but it made me a more skeptical person, which is a huge component of my current job.”
Gottfried recalls first finding this skeptical voice upon arriving on campus with a passion for political activism and intentions to get involved in various protest groups. She soon discovered that she felt the issues being debated were much more complex than students were acknowledging.
“It made me kind of take a step back and say, ‘I can’t really participate in this protest because I agree with points one, two, and three, but not four and five,’” she said. “So, how [could] I be an activist in my own nuanced way that I [felt] comfortable with? And that was what pushed me into journalism. There’s nothing more satisfying to me than to be able to explain a complex topic in a nuanced way so that people will understand it. That [experience] made me skeptical, and it also made me willing to tear apart my pre-conceived notions. I think that’s something Wesleyan gave me.”
Another shockingly arbitrary aspect of Gottfried’s career, aside from the fact that she landed in the Wall Street Journal’s finance section within ten years of graduating from a liberal arts school, is that she came quite close to dedicating her life to food writing.
“Food was and is an interest of mine,” she said. “When I went to work at Forbes in Chicago, I really wanted to do some food writing. It was 2005, 2006, so before the foodie craze took off in a big way.”
Gottfried eventually got in touch with Chicago Magazine’s food editor, who sent her on a test run at a French restaurant.
“[It was] pretty fancy-looking, kind of an expensive restaurant,” Gottfried said. “I came back and I said, ‘It’s not a good restaurant, and it should not be in the Chicago Magazine listings,’ and I gave this entire long description of why. And [the editor] said, ‘That was the right answer.’”
She went on to write consistently as a food critic for three years, reviewing two restaurants per month using a fake credit card so as not to give away her identity as a critic.
“I had to order appetizer, entrée, dessert, and wine each time, so it was a great way to get to know the Chicago restaurant scene, especially as a young person who didn’t have very much money,” she said.
Gottfried also had a food blog about cheap eats called The Mango Lassie, which she started in 2006 and abandoned after six years, though she still pays for the site’s domain.
“You know, I lost interest [in food writing],” she said. “And the reason is that everybody writes about food now, and it’s a big cacophony, and none of it is really that interesting anymore. I find business writing to be so much more impactful and stimulating over the long run than food writing.”
There’s no doubt Gottfried was well-prepared to take on the wine aspect of her role as food critic: as a senior at the University, she and her best friend Sarah Hexter ’05 taught an accredited wine-tasting class, after the two returned from studying abroad in Spain and Italy, respectively. After getting the class approved, the two were informed by the Dean that they would not be able to serve actual wine, so they continued to teach it, while more discreetly organizing class meetings either off-campus or at Psi U where they could serve wine. The next semester, the two turned the class into a club, formally called the Wesleyan Wine Guild.
“The ironic thing was that we were meeting on Wednesday nights when all these people who were not 21 were going to the Gatekeeper and getting trashed and we were just, like, sipping wine, and all over 21,” Gottfried said. “People still got credit for the class, though. We brought in wine importers, and a sommelier from a local wine distributor. People had to do presentations on whatever wine region or grape variety we were talking about, and we had a French professor and a Spanish professor come in and talk about the role of wine in their respective literatures.”
Since her University days as an on-campus wine connoisseur, Gottfried has gained an extensive amount of knowledge in both the food and business fields. After a year-long post-graduation position at Forbes Magazine, she freelanced for a few years and then went after a business and economics journalism graduate degree at Columbia.
Some might call Gottfried old-school in her approach to modern journalism and its intersection with technology. I’d like to think she’s more practical, applying the same business-oriented mindset that she does to the rest of the world.
“I think the need to get clicks and traffic, because so many digital media properties are completely driven by advertizing revenue, shapes the coverage in an unfortunate way,” she said. “I feel very glad that the Wall Street Journal has maintained a policy of trying to grow through subscription revenue—our website is not free. And that requires a lot of discipline, but it’s really good from a business standpoint because people are willing to pay for it.”
She also argues that publications providing completely free articles online are actually pursuing a dismal business plan, and that the money they make from advertising won’t be as plentiful in the long run as money made from subscriptions.
“The people at Wesleyan now would probably never pay for a newspaper,” she said. “Why would they? They’ve been trained to expect to get their news for free, and that’s a shame because in the end, advertising only grows at the rate of the broader economy. Traffic doesn’t necessarily mean revenue, and it doesn’t mean they’ll stay in business.”
Gottfried also remarked that she speaks from a field that’s particularly advantaged in amassing subscriptions, citing other financial publications who have, like the Wall Street Journal, maintained strict pay walls online and relied primarily on subscription revenue.
“People who rely on the news for their investment decisions will pay money for reliable financial coverage,” she said.
This target audience differs greatly from the college students and recent graduates who are most likely perusing websites like Vox or Buzzfeed. These graduates would be significantly less willing to pay for their news, especially given the fact that websites have already provided so much free content.
Gottfried’s final lament about the journalism world’s transition towards an online presence was that a large section of news is getting left behind as journalism supposedly speeds ahead.
“Small regional papers, like some of the ones I worked for, have really been hit hard,” she said. “Many of them are going away, and I think that has huge implications, because if you look at the digital media upstarts that have filled their places – I mean, Buzzfeed and Vox are not gonna go and cover the city council meeting in Tacoma, Washington, for example. So there is a void. And the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times can’t fill that.”
Gottfried, however, is not averse to utilizing and promoting certain forms of technology in the world of journalism. If you follow her on Twitter, you will see that she posts multiple times a day, mostly to update her followers with brief bits of market-related news.
“The people who tend to use [Twitter] are people who like to have the immediacy of information that it brings,” Gottfried said. “It’s really an of-the-moment conversation, so journalists use it all the time, and a lot of people [like investors] who want to have breaking news follow journalists. But they’ll also go on and talk about their ideas related to the stocks that I write about. So it’s great for me because I can see what they’re talking about.”
Not only is she in sync with social media, but she also hosts Heard on the Street’s podcast, which started in November and posts approximately once a week. Like the written column, the podcast provides analysis of current financial news, along with advice for investors. Given her experience in radio reporting for Chicago Public Radio, hosting the podcast was a smooth transition for Gottfried, and she says it reminds her of the way she questions her sources and converses with her colleagues.
“Every morning we have a meeting at ten, and we sit and talk about our stories and upcoming issues that we might write about that week,” she said. “The podcast reflects the kinds of conversations that we have during those meetings. We all weigh in on each other’s story ideas. It’s sort of like being in a seminar at Wesleyan.”
(Yes, she did just compare a Wall Street Journal editorial meeting to the Romanticism & Criticism class I had this morning, where approximately two students had done the reading—myself not being one of them.)
It’s clear, not only from the fact that she feels Wesleyan’s presence in her weekly editorial meetings, that Gottfried holds the University close to her heart and is actively involved in on-campus goings-on. Most recently, she led other former Argus editors in writing a letter adamantly opposing the defunding of the paper. While her motivations for writing the letter were varied, they were mostly based in an empathy for the editors as well as an understanding of how all the activity was being perceived in the world outside campus.
“Just remembering how it was to be editor of The Argus, I think it’s not really clear how much work that takes and how much you’re hanging by a shoe string at every moment,” she said. “It was a very anxiety-producing job, so to think that the funding could be arbitrarily cut when Argus editors were already stretched so thin was very upsetting to me.”
More importantly, though, Gottfried feels that linking the act of cutting funds to the now infamous op-ed piece would place Wesleyan in an incredibly negative and silencing light.
“Obviously I’m disturbed by racism everywhere, as most members of the Wesleyan community are, and I think that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought a lot of valuable things to light,” she said. “But I think that’s not the point. It could have been any controversial article. What if this was another school and somebody had written an article defending the rights of LGBTQ people that was considered controversial? And then that school’s student government cut the paper’s funding in a way that could be perceived as a reaction to that controversial opinion? We, as Wesleyan people, would think that was despicable. So why should we accept the same reaction for an opinion that many people in our own community disagreed with? It can’t be the content of an article that allows you to cut the funding.”
Gottfried’s formal involvement in the University extends beyond this letter: she’s a member of the Argus advisory board and is currently running for alumni-elected trustee.
“I love being a Wesleyan alumna,” Gottfried said. “I love meeting Wesleyan people in the outside world, because they’re all doing such cool things. Even if they’re, like, a lawyer or a banker, they’re a Wesleyan lawyer or banker. There’s a different thing going on with whatever they’re doing. And I love that.”
Just like the Wesleyan lawyers and bankers, Gottfried is not just a Wall Street Journalist—she’s a Wesleyan Wall Street Journalist. And, as she says, it’s a completely different thing.