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From AJR,   June/July 2013  issue

Covering the Oracle for His Own Paper    

Steve Jordon has spent more than four decades on the Buffett beat. Wed., March 27, 2013.


By Rachel Rosenthal
Rachel Rosenthal (rrosenthal@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant and a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Omaha World-Herald reporter Steve Jordon has spent much of his time over the past 45 years tracking the maneuvers and machinations of just one man: investor nonpareil Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and Omaha's resident celebrity. He doesn't plan to stop anytime soon.

"If you find something that you think has some value for the readers, that's what you're going to focus on," Jordon says. "It's just interesting keeping up with what his next moves are: How he has evolved over the years, the different ways he goes about doing things compared to what he used to do."

In an age when most people's attention spans are no longer than their tweets, Jordon's stick-to-itiveness is rare. He debuted at the World-Herald as an intern in 1967 and was hired right after graduating from the University of Nebraska. His colleagues can't seem to remember a time when he wasn't working for the paper.


Steve Jordon. Credit: The Omaha World-Herald.

"I've worked in the same newsroom with Steve since 1990," says his boss, Money Editor Deb Shanahan, "But I even remember him from [when I was] an OWH intern in 1979."

Terry Kroeger, the World-Herald's publisher, recalls Jordon predating him as well. "I've been with the company for 28 years, and he was here when I got here. So he's been around for a long time."

While Jordon, 66, had already spent decades on the Buffett beat, his life got a little more complicated in November 2011 when the legendary investor announced that Berkshire Hathaway was buying his hometown paper. Suddenly Jordon found himself covering the big boss. But he says it hasn't turned out to be a huge deal. Jordon says he hasn't "noticed a change in what we've done."

"I'm still an objective reporter," he says. "If you look at our Web site, there is a story about Berkshire being rated at the bottom of corporations as far as diversity and gender.... And the Buffett book that's coming out [in April] we've been talking about that since before the Berkshire acquisition."

Titled "The Oracle & Omaha," Jordon's book has been in the works for seven months under the auspices of the paper's book publishing division. It will be a compilation of Buffett's moves from his first acquisition to present day. In addition to chronicling Buffett's impressive business accomplishments, Jordon also conducted interviews with the magnate, his children, his sisters and his shareholders both old and new to show "how Omaha influenced Warren Buffett and how Warren Buffett has influenced Omaha."

Kroeger agrees that Buffett has been hands off when it comes to covering the news, even when the news is about him. Kroeger is also CEO of BH Media Group, a branch of Berkshire Hathaway that oversees the World-Herald and the rest of Buffett's newspaper holdings. The investor has gone on a newspaper buying spree in the last two years, and now owns 28 dailies and 40 less-than-daily papers.

"One of the things Warren insists on and what we insist on at the paper is that we never have interference between the company and the reporters, so it's just not an issue for Steve or for us," Kroeger says.

Shanahan echoes his remarks. "We received clear signals from the top managers of the newspaper as well as Buffett in his speech to the staff the day the purchase was announced that we are to proceed, business as usual," she says. "Steve, maybe more than anyone, knows Buffett's M.O. is to buy companies and leave the managers in place to continue doing what they do best."

A fixture in local business news circles, Jordon has also amassed a fan base among World-Herald readers. Since 2008, every Tuesday morning he conducts "Warren Watch," a live chat on Omaha.com where people can ask questions regarding Buffett-related news. Following up on a request from one of his regulars, Jordon is currently holding a contest in which people guess what Buffett's next major acquisition, or "elephant," will be.

"It sounded like a good idea, so we did it," Jordon says. "But no one guessed Heinz as the elephant..so the prize is still sitting under my desk and we're going to keep the contest going." In February, Berkshire Hathaway teamed up with private equity firm 3G Capital Management to acquire food giant H.J. Heinz, of ketchup fame.

So what's Jordon's guess? "I haven't tried to whittle it down," he says. "I don't think I'm a good contest enterer," adding that he doesn't want his readers thinking he's any kind of Berkshire insider.

While there is a lot of local interest in the Oracle of Omaha, Jordon says the Buffett beat is not all-consuming. "You know, I am free to do other things... On occasion I will write some features for the other parts of the paper, and I have a personal life outside the paper, which helps keep things interesting."

In 2003, Jordon was coauthor of an investigative series called "On the Job of Last Resort," about the dangerous conditions facing workers who clean up meatpacking plants at night.

"You can't just focus on the one guy," Jordon says. "You'd go nuts if that's what you did. You gotta keep things moving."

He adds, "I think the article I got the most comments on, and what most people talk to me about, is when I wrote a little feature about the front porch of my house and how nice it is to have a front porch, and that's gotten more comments than the stuff I've written about Warren Buffett."

As for his personal life, Jordon and his wife, Helen, are frequent travelers. His daughter, Ingrid, is a botanist who lives in California with her family, and his son, Leland, is a musician who lives in Washington, D.C.

And Jordon himself is no stranger to music. "I play drums in some groups around town," he says. "I'm in a concert band that has a Sousa concert coming up."

Kroeger says the Buffett buff is underselling his musical talents. "He plays every year for the Omaha Press Club show and he's pretty good at it." Jordon serves on the club's scholarship board in addition to writing songs and playing in the band that accompanies its "Rat Pack" singers.

Jordon is also a member of a group of newsroom men who have a tradition of wearing Hawaiian shirts every Friday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. "Steve has quite a collection," Shanahan says.

In addition to collecting shirts, he's also spent years compiling his numerous sources on index cards, including names, numbers and titles, all in two shoebox-sized containers that sit on his desk.

Although he has spent so much time covering high finance, Jordon came to the paper with little expertise. Focusing heavily on journalism in college, he readily admits he was "one of those guys that learned it on the job."

"Business writing wasn't a thing that journalists particularly aspired to, usually. It was a beat here, and you served it, and maybe you'd go on to some other beat, [but] if you liked it, you'd stick with it," Jordon says. "I've written different stories over the years, and there have been other reporters that covered Buffett here at the paper, but I suppose as time went on it had fallen on me."

A stroke of luck for the newsroom.

"He's one of our most trusted reporters," Kroeger says. "He tells the entire story, not just a side or a portion of it... He makes sure he writes about what is interesting for our readers."

Shanahan also sounds like a fan. "As a colleague, he's generous with those numbers, his memory of events and suggestions on how to dig out a story. He cares personally about the people he works with."

And that fondness is reflected right back. Expanding upon his local celebrity, the paper hopes to attract some national attention to its longest-running business writer.

Says Jordon, "The World-Herald nominated my stories for the Pulitzer Prize, but no winners..yet."