James W. Michaels, who gave an acerbic, contrarian voice to Forbes magazine in 37 years as its editor and influenced generations of business journalists, died Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 86 and lived in Manhattan and Rhinebeck, N.Y.
The cause was pneumonia, said his son, James Jr.
Mr. Michaels took over as editor of Forbes in 1961, when American journalism remained a polite, dry affair, and corporate spin was reported without much skepticism. Anticipating the direction much of the media would turn in the decades that followed, he made Forbes opinionated, interpretive and often indecorous, a magazine that was staunchly pro-business (and, its critics said, pro-wealthy) but did not hesitate to skewer companies and executives it saw as failures.
He often refused to permit articles on topics that other publications had covered, no matter how appealing or important, insisting that his staff find good stories ahead of the competition.
Forbes was among the first publications to pay a lot of attention to Warren E. Buffett, and at the top of a glowing 1974 profile, it quoted him as saying that stocks were so undervalued that he felt “like an oversexed guy in a harem” — the one concession to propriety being to change the last word of that quotation from “whorehouse.”
Mr. Michaels was an anomaly in modern journalism, an editor at a major publication who insisted on personally editing much of what it published. He strove to make articles shorter and more blunt, with a more clearly stated point of view.
Mr. Michaels served as mentor to a long line of prominent journalists, including Norman Pearlstine, who later became the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and editor in chief of Time Inc., and Allan Sloan, an editor and columnist at Newsweek and Fortune.
But many of his former underlings remember Mr. Michaels as much for his brutal assessments of their work as for his incisive teaching. He belittled the “on the other hand” kind of balance so many publications strive for as mere wishy-washiness.
Former reporters and editors recall weekly story meetings as a trial by fire, when anyone with a proposal had to be ready to fend off a barrage of harsh questions from the editor.
Mr. Michaels ignored popular culture; he once sat next to Howard Cosell on an airplane but did not recognize him. He eschewed the role of celebrity editor, arguing that journalists should not socialize with the people they cover, and leaving it to the magazine’s owner, Malcolm Forbes, to go to parties with the rich and famous.
Born in Buffalo, Mr. Michaels graduated from Harvard in 1943 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He joined the American Field Service and served as an ambulance driver, attached to the British Army in Burma during World War II.
After the war, as a reporter for United Press, he covered India, and scooped his competitors on the assassination of Gandhi. He joined Forbes as a reporter in 1954.
Mr. Michaels is survived by his wife, Jean Briggs; a brother, Albert, and a sister, Harriet, both of Buffalo; three children from a previous marriage, Ann Frank of New Haven. James Jr., of Falls Church, Virginia, and Robert, of Andover, Mass.; and six granddaughters.
Mr. Michaels embraced a rough image of the magazine, and himself. When an editor of the rival Fortune magazine was quoted as saying of Forbes, “They’re nasty, venal people,” Mr. Michaels pinned the quotation to his office wall, and said, “I just thought it was terrific.”
Correction: October 5, 2007
An obituary yesterday about James W. Michaels, former editor of Forbes magazine, misidentified the news agency for which he worked after World War II. It was United Press, not United Press International. (U.P.I. was formed in 1958 when United Press and the International News Service merged; by then Mr. Michaels was working for Forbes.)
Jean was born in Rochester, New York, on June 15, 1943. She first moved to New York City during the summer of 1964 after receiving a scholarship to attend New York University’s Graduate School of Public Administration. She began her graduate work between her junior and senior years at St. Lawrence University.
After graduation from St. Lawrence, she accepted a position at Mademoiselle magazine, a Conde Nast publication. As the Fiction Editor’s secretary, her job was to read the stories sent in by would-be authors in what was referred to as “The Slush Pile”. Jean eventaully left that job but stayed with Conde Nast moving over to Glamour magazine’s features department. The first thing she ever wrote for publication was a few sentences about a shoe in a monthly feature called “Editor’s Shoe Choice”.
Jean became more interested in economics and business but found it difficult to get a job in those fields. After women’s liberation came along, more opportunities opened up to her. Jean eventually got a job at Forbes magazine, where she worked for nearly 35 years - from 1972 to 2007 - working her way up from researcher to Assistant Managing Editor.
In June 1985, Jean married James W. Michaels, Forbes’ longtime editor. She then became stepmother to three children - two boys and one girl, and eventually grandmother to eight girls including five who were adopted from India and China.
Jean felt fortunate in many ways. She always enjoyed her work and was able to travel extensively for both work and pleasure.
Later, as a widow and retiree, Jean spent her weekends in Rhineeck, where she enjoyed taking horseback riding lessons and swimming, while her weekdays in Manhattan were spent attending the theater, opera, ballet, and museums.
Until her death, she was a board member of The Players Club, a historic theater club near her home on Gramercy Park.
Jean enjoyed a large family, including her loving sister, Ann Brown, brother-in-law, Bill Brown, newphew Gary (Caria) Brown, niece Dana (Michael Witkowski) Brown, and grandnephews, Benjamin and David Brown. She is also survived by her stepsons, Robert (Ann) Michaels, James (Karen) Michaels, and stepdaughter, Ann (David) Frank, in addition to her stepgranddaughters, Sarah (Stephan) Krobath, Michelle, Sally, Sudha, Anita, Smita, Jyothi and Bi Ping Michaels. She is also survived by several cousins and many loyal friends.
Jean was predeceased by her parents, Leonard C. Briggs and Margaret Ace Briggs, and husband, James W. Michaels.