2017-ICPAS-INSIGHT-Masthead

Q&A with Jay Levine

Award-winning journalist, reporter and chief correspondent keynotes the 2016 Show. Summer 2016

jaylevine - online

Q:

After a 42-year, award-winning career as a journalist, reporter and chief correspondent, you decided this was the year to shift gears and slow things down. I doubt anyone expected you to follow up your career with being the keynote speaker at a conference for Illinois accountants, auditors and other finance professionals. So what gives, what brings you to us?

A:

Haha, you’d think that when you retire, life gets nice and easy, but I have a busier schedule now than I ever did before! Listen, when you take a look at reporting today in this era of trying to hold people accountable and seeking transparency and responsibility, you see how many stories we can go back on and find out that accounting issues, and that watching the purse strings, and that the people who knew where the money was, is increasingly important. Whether we look back to the accounting committee of the Sun-Times while it was imploding, or Enron when it was going bust, or Madoff when things were being done there that shouldn’t have been done, what we see is that watching the numbers and watching the books gives us a lot more information than ever before. It’s once we really started following the money, you know, “Show me the money,” that we could really show you the story. So, it was intriguing to me when the idea came up to be the keynote and to speak to these people who are really on the frontlines of what I think is an increasingly important field.

Q:

You’ve covered breaking news and led special reports spanning an immeasurable number of complex topics. How were you able to shift gears and messaging to connect with such varied audiences, which is something CPAs often have to do too?

A:

I’ve covered a lot of fascinating people and events in my career, and what you have to concentrate on is the story. If you can convey interest and enthusiasm and involvement in the story, people will listen, but you have to show how and why you’re interested and why the story is important. I always reflect back on Mrs. Peterson, my daughter’s fourth grade teacher here in Chicago, who said that you have to start every story you write with a ‘wow sentence’—a sentence that makes people sit up and pay attention. I take that message to heart every time I write a story: What’s my wow sentence? What’s my hook? What will get people interested? That’s what people in the field need to think about when they are making their reports and telling their stories: Why is this important? Why should you listen? How can I make this interesting?

Q:

Speaking of those fascinating people and events, do you consider any of them to be career changing?

A:

That’s a good question. Back in the 80s, I started traveling all around the world to cover stories—going to the Vatican to cover the Pope, going to Central America to chase drug runners, going to Asia to see what they were doing for the Beijing Olympics…. I guess I have done so many different things and traveled so many different places that I don’t think there’s been any one thing, it’s just been an evolution of someone who got a chance in Chicago after never having a television job before in his life, to someone that became comfortable with the medium and (I don’t like talking about myself in the third person)…. I was trying to expand my reach, expand what I could do, expand the story. Whether it happened in Berwyn or Berlin, I would go there. This is the long way of getting to a short answer, but becoming familiar with the way people live around the world helped me appreciate what we have here and shaped my perspective of the world, the people in it, and the stories I was covering.

Q:

That’s interesting; of all the places in the world that you’ve worked in or traveled to, you always came back to Chicago. Why?

A:

Because I think there’s no better city in the world than Chicago; no city more beautiful, no people more welcoming. Sure, it takes a while for Chicago to really accept and embrace somebody—I remember telling Mary Ann Childers, my wife, when she first came to Chicago, on her first day, I said, “You just have to hang in here long enough for people to forget that you’re not from here.” I came to Chicago in 1974 and it wasn’t until maybe the late 70s that I was really accepted for what I was doing. I’ve spent my whole life here. I’ve raised my daughter here, because I love Chicago. And even as I retire and work just on the stories that really interest me, I would never ever even consider not making Chicago my home. Will I spend time elsewhere? Will I travel a lot? Sure I will, but Chicago is home, it has been and will always be.

Q:

Speaking of home, we’ve seen some pretty heated political campaigning going on here. You’ve extensively covered political campaigns, something we’re in the midst of now. How do we navigate this cycle?

A:

There was this saying back at the old City News Bureau of Chicago, which was a training ground for journalist: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. I don’t trust anybody who has ever had to run for office and make promises that maybe her or she can or can’t keep. You have to earn my trust first of all, and even then, it’s our job, or at least my job in the media, to really take a hard look at anybody promising anything. And it’s the same thing in business. But I don’t come to any story with a preconceived opinion. In the purest cases, I don’t have an opinion; I am simply someone out there asking the questions that people want to ask. So whether its Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, we have to ask the tough questions so that we can decide how we’re going to evaluate their answers.

Q:

I went to journalism school too, and it now seems like it’s an old-school concept to be this unbiased source that just presents the facts so people can make decisions for themselves—the media today seems very different, with a lot of opinions and agendas afoot. You’ve always been an advocate of spin-free journalism. How do we navigate through all of these sources and find out who we can really trust?

A:

I think that’s an extremely good and timely question right now. You know if you’re watching Fox News you’re getting one side, and if you’re watching MSNBC you’re probably getting another. You as a viewer, listener or reader need to make your own judgements on what makes sense to you. You have to have your own ‘BS Meter’ so to speak, to say, “Hey, come on, that’s spin, that’s not reporting.” You have to look very, very carefully at what everybody says and what their ulterior motives are, because sometimes it’s hard to put the blinders on and judge for merits.

But, to a greater extent, I think the mainstream newspapers, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, are sources you can trust, and the mainstream news organizations, ABC, CBS, NBC (and the sources I leave out, I leave out deliberately) are sources you can trust. The Chicago news sources, whether it’s DNAinfo, The Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times, I think you can trust, but more and more they have an agenda and you have to be careful about that, too.

Q:

Social Media is emerging as a preferred source for communication, and sharing and gathering information for just about everything. How do you see this impacting our culture and the way we do business and make connections?

A:

It’s having a huge impact and you have to again be very, very careful. All too often people are taking something from a blog, which may just be the opinions of some guy sitting in his underwear in his basement who’s never gotten out onto the streets to cover or understand the story, and all of a sudden it becomes truth and reality. On the other hand, social media is very important, it’s an incredibly effective and valuable tool, it lets us multiply by the thousands our eyes and ears around the world. I’ve gotten very active on Twitter because you can find out so many things and learn so much about people and how they react to things. Back in the day, I used to have to do MOS’s, man on the street interviews, to get an idea about what people are thinking; now you just hop on Twitter and Facebook and you get a good sense of that. We don’t operate in ivory towers, we operate in the real world, and without understanding how people are viewing things, it’s impossible for you to do a good job.

Q:

About good jobs….Today it’s not unusual to job hop or switch career paths entirely. In contrast, you’ve had a long and fulfilling career with mostly CBS (26 years) and ABC (16 years). What tips can you share about keeping your work and career interesting?

You know something; it’s a matter of passion. This was my passion. To me, I would go to work every day, and every day was a war, every day was battle, every day was a competition to get the story I set out to get. That’s a tremendous amount of stress, it’s a tremendous amount of pressure, but I loved it—I loved the chase. The bottom line is that you’ve got to pick something you love to do. When I sat down in a studio at night to report the story I had been working on all day, or all week, or all month, there was an incredible amount of satisfaction there. The one thing that I stress is that my stories have to stand the test of time. I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say, “OK, you did a good and responsible job.” There are too many people that go for the cheap headlines, but I’ll warn you, Chicago spots a phony real fast. Chicago spots people that aren’t invested in what they’re doing better than anybody else. Chicagoans are real.

Q:

So what’s next for you?

A:

I think you’ve asked some really good questions that get to the heart of what we are doing and what I will be talking about. And you know something? I officially stopped working the first of the year, and the only thing I’ve accepted so far is to speak to you and your group.

 My father turned 100 back in March and we had a big celebration. I can’t tell you how many family events I missed while I was working 24/7/365, so now I’m making sure that I don’t miss those family events.

Am I thinking about doing some other things? Will I do something? Might there be other projects? Probably. Have I decided what it is yet? No. Right now I am simply enjoying spending a lot more time with my family.

8.23 / 8.24

Catch Jay at the 2016 Midwest Accounting & Finance Showcase held at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill. Register here.