James Michaels, 86; former editor of Forbes fueled journal’s growth

From Bloomberg News

James W. Michaels, the former editor of Forbes magazine whose cantankerous manner and contrarian take on American business flavored the publication and fueled its growth during a career spanning four decades, has died. He was 86.

He died of pneumonia Tuesday in New York City, the magazine announced.

Michaels was both a relentless advocate of free markets and a dogged critic of financial scoundrels and politicians given to meddling in the markets and promoting regulatory excess. Those themes, packaged in compact and often-opinionated stories, resonated with business readers, leading to a sixfold increase in circulation while Michaels worked at Forbes. The magazine’s current circulation is 925,000, according to Laurie Baker, director of corporate communications. It was 130,000 when Michaels joined the magazine in 1954.

When Michaels became editor in 1961, he “brilliantly turned what was then a second-rate publication into not only the leader of the business category, but also one of the best magazines both here and around the world,” Steve Forbes, chief executive of Forbes Inc., said in a prepared statement.

“He virtually created modern business journalism. He saw Forbes as the ‘drama critic’ of business. Under his stewardship, Forbes became the definitive source of who was doing well, and who wasn’t, and why,” Forbes said.


“While Forbes stories were full of statistics, Jim always made sure they focused on the people in charge. Business -- which was once regarded as a dull area of dry statistics -- became a fascinating stage of drama, triumphs and tragedies, thanks to Jim’s editorial flair and leadership.”

Michaels retired in 1999 from the magazine to become group vice president for editorial at Forbes Inc., responsible for the expansion of the parent company into books, television and other media. He was succeeded as editor by William Baldwin.

“After some 37 years of having the biweekly responsibility of getting this magazine out, I felt I was ready for a change,” Michaels said when he stepped down.

“For a guy who never watches television, to develop television is a hell of a challenge,” Michaels was quoted by Forbes as saying about his new post.

The Wall Street Journal lauded Michaels on his retirement, calling him “a legendary editor who built one of the nation’s most influential voices in business journals.”

Among Michaels’ accomplishments at Forbes was the introduction of the grading of mutual funds and the creation in 1982 of the Forbes 400, the annual ranking of the richest Americans that has become one of the benchmarks of financial success.

He was given the Loeb Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994 and was named Editor of the Year by Adweek in 1983.

Michaels was born June 17, 1921, in Buffalo, N.Y. He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University in 1942.

Before joining Forbes, he served as bureau chief in New Delhi and Calcutta for United Press in the 1940s, covering stories that included the first account of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi in 1948. The dispatches are still included in some anthologies of model reporting on deadline.

At Forbes, he was a reporter covering mutual funds, then managing editor from 1957 to 1961, when he became editor.

Michaels is survived by his wife, Jean Briggs, who was a senior editor at Forbes, and three children from a previous marriage: sons Robert and James Jr., and daughter Ann Frank.