4:28 p.m. | Updated Much has been and will be written about Steve Jobs’s outsize footprint in digital culture: the screens we stare at, the music files we listen to, the hardware in our pockets. I’d stipulate to all that, but I found myself thinking about his less obvious influence on business and the journalists who cover it.
Business has always been important, but until Mr. Jobs arrived, it was rarely accused of being cool. As a young reporter I made a lane change from writing about pop culture and politics to business, and I can remember the look of sympathy from my colleagues and the message that went with it: Good luck in the Land of the Suits. Business, while vital to the civic common, was not thought to be an important part of the stories that we tell each other.
It was not always thus. In the 1940s, Henry Luce, using both Time and Fortune, made business seem remarkable, with portraits of the lions of capitalism coursing down the broad avenues of New York in taxis on the way to doing remarkable things that made the hopelessness of the Great Depression seem distant. But as success became routine, it also became institutionalized, with faceless corporations like U.S. Steel and General Motors lording over the smooth running engines of commerce. With the tumult of Vietnam and the battle for civil rights grabbing the headlines, news about business seemed very much beside the point.
Business and business news regained luster when the masters of the universe began to lord over Wall Street in the 1980s, but it became obvious to the press, perhaps too slowly, that many of them were simply common thieves with extra zeroes behind their crimes. This was just after Mr. Jobs and Steve Wozniak came storming out of their garage in the late ’70s. They seemed remarkable in a business environment that seemed to belong to men with gray hair and fancy suits hiding their expansive guts, as well as their considerable earnings.
As America switched from a country that made things to one that bought them, so much of business began to exist in the abstract, with deeds exchanged and stocks sold. Mr. Jobs did not just move money around. He made things that he promised would change the world, and they often did. The fact that Mr. Jobs and Apple made objects that consumers could touch, and often did, made him someone worth writing about and paying attention to no matter what he did. Steve Jobs was not a suit. He said that taking LSD was one of the formative experiences of his life and had very little interest in consumer research.
Beyond that, no one played the press like Mr. Jobs. It had less to do with his black turtleneck than the head for business that floated above it. From the very beginning, he understood that any consumer enterprise had to have a strong element of show business, to create excitement and demand. An Apple launch had less to do with a traditional product rollouts than the magician’s “reveal,” a moment of wonder in which a mystery morphed into an actual product. Yes, sometimes the devices were magical, but all the more so because of how they arrived. In his presentations, his products sometimes literally introduced themselves.
In this context, the press was neither enemy nor ally to Mr. Jobs, but just one more tool in the kit. He understood the media’s appetite for what they did not know, and he tantalized them with scarcity and secrecy. Other chief executives would play footsie with reporters, feeding them a little kibble now and then to keep them interested. When Mr. Jobs called a reporter — he called me a few times — it was to argue, compliment or admonish, probing and searching, but all the while giving away nothing fundamentally interesting about the company. Steve Jobs never showed any leg until he was good and ready.
Others have tried to duplicate the approach, but over the long haul, theatrics don’t matter unless you deliver. Mr. Jobs was an impresario who came through, time and again, so his shows were always well attended.
His well-documented force field extended to other corners of business coverage. Failure was never much of a credential until Mr. Jobs got hold of it. There was the flop of the Lisa computer during his first tour at Apple, the specter of him being forced to walk the plank at his own company, and then the face-planting when he was on his own with NeXT.
Those pratfalls would be enough to sink any business executive for good, but Mr. Jobs never bought into things like reputational damage or fatal mistakes. To him, all those events were just inflection points on his way to changing computing, music, telecommunications and publishing. The future vindicated his past — first in his return to Apple and then as a creator and owner of Pixar.
His ability to rise from the dead made him scary. No one commanded the respect of the press like Mr. Jobs. I can remember a visit he made to The New York Times when the first iPad came out. The Times is a notoriously blasé place, where heads of state have been known to come and go without raising an eyebrow. But when Mr. Jobs came, the effect was electric. For three days, his advance team swept through our place, attending to every detail and making sure his time there would be seamless and glitch-free.
We were all seated when he came in, in part because there were medical reasons for him to avoid grip and grins, but the whole rock star thing was in high effect. And then it was on. No one asks a casual question of Steve Jobs.
That’s partly because Steve Jobs loved to argue. One of his great gifts was his ability to deal with geeks, business wonks and media savants on their own terms and often come up on top. Sometimes he did it based on facts; other times, just plain stubbornness. Just as he made the mouse and the disc drive disappear simply by saying it should be so, he prevailed in long-running debates over software and the media business through steady assertion — using all the leverage that his products and online retail presence conveyed.
Which brings us back to how he changed business journalism — its image and its attractiveness. Because he was a showman, because he made interesting things that consumers cared about, readers began to follow his products as they might a band or their favorite team. Being an Apple user became a marker of cultural identity and conveyed cool. Some of that splashed onto those who covered business.
Now, young reporters with good prospects often start in business coverage, becoming conversant in unit sales, earnings per share, and Ebidta. The best and brightest of them can be found chasing the latest rumor out of Silicon Valley or peering under the hood of the just-hatched start-up. There are a lot of forces in play that make that so, but you’d have to credit Steve Jobs with making business something that did not belong to the suits.
Business reporters hated Apple’s secrecy and found Mr. Jobs’s arrogance wearying, but we all knew that our craft picked up some glitz and esteem because of his involvement. Our readers, his consumers, cared about the guy and everything he did. He made business cool by using it to make cool stuff. It was fun to be along for the ride.