The Times Captures History of American Business

"We are not the first to face what seem like overwhelming challenges," says HBS professor and business historian Nancy F. Koehn. A new volume edited and narrated by Koehn, The Story of American Business: From the Pages of The New York Times, presents more than a hundred timely articles from the 1850s to today. Q&A and book excerpt. Key concepts include:
  • If business leaders are to make sense of the financial crisis and its larger significance, they must have access to both depth and breadth in what they read.
  • Big themes of The Story of American Business include Wall Street, leadership, consumption, the workplace, communications, and transportation.
  • Koehn's narrations distill biography and social, economic, cultural, and business history from the 1850s to today.
by Martha Lagace

From the dawn of the U.S. transcontinental railroad in 1869 to the widespread embrace of consumer products like cell phones and iPods in our time, the story of American business is in constant motion, never at rest—or at ease.

The Story of American Business: From the Pages of The New York Times

A new volume edited and narrated by HBS professor Nancy F. Koehn, The Story of American Business: From the Pages of The New York Times (Harvard Business Press), presents more than 100 compelling, provocative—and sometimes funny—articles published in the preeminent U.S. newspaper. The articles span the nearly 160 years since the paper's founding in 1851, a period that coincided with the creation of the modern corporation, the mass market, and America's economic preeminence.

Given this vast sweep of time, Koehn's narrations—in a series of original essays and timelines—serve as signposts to readers, helping them locate and make sense of individual stories and the larger forces that, taken together, have helped fashion business and society today. Overarching themes of her book tackle the corporation writ large, the changing nature of work, and defining moments in technology.

What can business leaders take away from The Story of American Business? "I think what my book suggests is that we are not the first to face what seem like overwhelming challenges," says Koehn. "There are a number of moments in the past 150 years when the American people and the American economy stood in what seemed like a very precarious position, and where there was both a lot of hope and a lot of rage and frustration and confusion intermixed. Yet the American people and the economy have come through those crises, more often than not, both stronger and sounder."

The big question for us today, she continues, is whether we will learn from those past junctures. "Will we make something strong and good and wise out of all the destruction of the past two years?"

Koehn is an authority on entrepreneurial leadership and history. Her previous books include Brand New: How Entrepreneurs Earned Consumers' Trust from Wedgwood to Dell. She recently sat down with us and explained more about the drivers of The Story of American Business and the book's implications for managers and leaders.

Martha Lagace: Please give us a bit of backstory to this project.

Nancy F. Koehn: The New York Times approached Harvard Business Press because they wanted to produce a collection of interesting articles across the history of the paper. There were already a few publications on more specific subjects: For example, Floyd Norris, a well-respected columnist at the Times, edited a book on the history of finance in America.

Jacqueline Murphy and Ania Wieckowski, my editors at Harvard Business Press, suggested the Times project to me; and as a historian I thought it would be a terrific opportunity to gain deep exposure to the primary source reporting that newspapers afford. When I was doing research on Josiah Wedgwood, who revolutionized the manufacturing and marketing of pottery, I could go back to the few 18th-century newspapers in Britain; when I am chasing Abraham Lincoln down for the book I am currently writing, I can gather rich information from newspapers of his era. So the Times project offered me the opportunity to see a wide swath of individuals and events through the eyes of the men and women watching them in real time: to follow the arc of time, if you will. And this represented an exciting intellectual opportunity for me, as a historian and scholar of entrepreneurial leadership.

“The Times was a national newspaper by the end of the 19th century, but it did not start out as a superstar paper or at head of the pack.”

Since there were thousands of articles to choose from (more than 150 years' worth!) I needed to decide on the thematic building blocks of the book—of the larger story of American business—before I could begin choosing individual pieces. My critical decisions at the earliest stage were thus to focus on themes such as Wall Street, leadership, consumption, the workplace, communications, and transportation that added up to a credible (and relevant) set of lens for considering the history of modern business. Then, I began choosing articles and writing context-setting essays to situate and engage readers. I greatly enjoyed playing the role of narrator, distilling biography and social, economic, cultural, and business history. The book is rich with timelines, dates, and definitions. It also has a long index, so if you want to dive into some of these subjects in more depth you can.

Two animating ideas guided me:

  • What are the most interesting, engaging, and telling stories of the last 150-plus years of business?
  • How could I relate them to readers in the age of sound bites and iPod playlists in a way that is satisfying, credible, and accessible?

People's attention spans are shrinking; we're all cutting and pasting everything in our lives. Very few people will read the book cover to cover, but you can still get an astounding amount of interesting history from The Story of American Business. It has been written so that you can read it cover to cover or slice and dice it like a playlist. You can read it backwards. You can just read about Wall Street or consumption or the end of the social contract. You can make the book yours as you choose.

Selecting the best articles was enjoyable but took an enormously long time. My research associates—Katy Miller and Rachel Wilcox—and I read them on the original facsimiles. A front-page story from 1870, for example, might appear in teeny-weeny type that jumped four times.

Q: What are some of your favorite historical articles?

A: There are so many. The story of the advent of the iPod is fascinating [October 24, 2001: "Apple Introduces What It Calls an Easier to Use Portable Music Player"]. So is the piece on "pocket phones" [September 25, 1991: "Where Silence Was Golden, Pocket Phones Now Shriek"]. It was fun to see how people initially reacted to technology, to a brand-new thing, in this latter case to cell phones and how they make us rude.

This is a thematic book of stories before it is a chronological book of stories. Some of the stories, very purposefully, are out of order in terms of the datelines. An article in the chapter on consumption, for example, is by the late columnist William Safire, who wrote about how he came to own 38 shirts. His column is grouped with a reader's response and a set of stories about developments in the retail environment. Safire's article shines a light on how much time we spend in stores and shopping on the Internet. His column takes as its springboard the phenomenon of outlet shopping for entertainment.

In fact, the growth and development of the New York Times itself makes for a fascinating business story. As readers of the book learn, the Times was a national newspaper by the end of the 19th century, but it did not start out as a superstar paper or at head of the pack.

Q: What overarching themes of business history reflected in the Times interested you most?

A: I loved writing the Wall Street section. Many issues bombarding Americans today in regard to Wall Street are issues that have bombarded Americans before.

The chapter underlines how the past cannot be separated from the present. Working on it I was struck by how timely some of the challenges and individuals and opportunities of the past are today.

I also enjoyed writing the workplace chapter: how people have worked, how the pie has been divided, how employees have thought about their work and themselves, and how enormously that has changed through time. There are big junctures in the history of American business where we can see that how Americans earn their daily bread was transformed very rapidly.

I love the leadership chapter. The most fascinating subject of all storytelling is individuals. It has been a subject of my research over the last 10 years, so to work on this section was like being a kid in a candy store. Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates, and many others are covered, but that still left scores, maybe hundreds of individual leaders who could not be included due to space constraints.

Q: Are aspects of U.S. business history missing from your book?

A: There are inevitably holes and gaps. In the choices I made as editor, I had to leave some subjects at the door, so to speak. There is not a huge amount in the book about political history, which is an integral part of business. World Wars I and II were enormously influential on the American economy, but they were not comprehensively analyzed. The settling of the American West from the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 onward is not really covered. That's a huge issue for studying the growth of U.S. business and the creation of the mass market. One of the reasons the United States became the powerhouse it did was because it had a continental railroad, and by virtue of the railroad, the country could depend on a rapidly expanding population on which to build markets and scale corporations.

Q: Having examined roughly 1,000 articles covering more than 150 years of business, what changes did you notice in the practice of business journalism?

A: My overall sense is that, story by story, the reporting is very thoughtful and careful. At this moment in history when we wring our hands about the future of newspapers, readers who care about the importance and contribution of newspapers should look at the book, because it adds an enormous testament to the power of the printed word as produced by journalists.

“What we do with access to depth and breadth has grave, powerful implications.”

One thing that strikes me about coverage by New York Times reporters is how their writing styles have changed. Historically the reporters' "voices" were more elegant and at the same time more deferential to readers than they are in our time. When we read some of the early stories, such as the one about female stockbrokers in the 19th century [February 3, 1880: "Ladies as Stock Speculators"], it is fascinating how the reporter seems to invite you, the reader, into his parlor where he has arrayed aspects of the subject. In those early years the reporters' perspective was "come with me and get to know this subject." They included wonderful details that today would not be included for fear the reporter would not appear objective. In the past there was a familiarity and a sense of being right there with the subject that accompanies such grace and intimacy.

We see a similar intimacy in stories up until the 1960s, when we then begin to see a higher, thicker wall develop between the subject and the reporter and by extension the reader.

Q: How well do you think the New York Times and journalism overall inform us today about crucial aspects of business?

A: Overall the New York Times does an A1 job in business journalism, and has for a long time. But business reporting is not confined to that section of the paper. Some of it is in the front section; some of it is in the Arts section and the weekly Science section. Business stories appear in all parts of the paper even when they are not labeled as such, including the Technology, Dining, and Real Estate sections, because business touches and is, in turn, influenced by a wide range of developments and people. The Times's business news is important not only for consumers, households, employees, but also for managers and leaders at the top of organizations.

If business leaders today are to make sense of the financial crisis and its larger significance, they must have access to both depth and breadth in what they read. On both those axes I think the Times (and for many decades the Wall Street Journal) has played an enormously important role in the American economy. How can we make wise choices without access to depth and breadth? As we emerge from this financial crisis, the $64,000 question at an individual household level—not to mention at the level of boards of directors, CEOs, regulatory agencies, and politicians—is will we, and they, pick up the gauntlet of responsibility for our collective economy?

What the financial crisis has revealed is that we are all connected. The connections across the world are tight, and they reveal themselves quickly. In the past year we have learned that the capital markets, just like the environment, are organic systems, fundamental to life as we all know it on this planet. If different actors—particularly leaders in different agencies and organizations—don't use their access to knowledge and don't recognize how closely tied we are to each other and how much the future of life on this planet depends on making wise, sustainable decisions, then just like the environment we're all in big, big trouble. What we do with access to depth and breadth has grave, powerful implications.

My overall sense is that the New York Times and other newspapers have made available all kinds of information in the wake of this last astounding year. It's not that television and the Internet aren't important, but newspapers do a superior job helping people understand their role in the larger system. You cannot get that quality from a 30-second bite on FOX News.

I think it is extremely important to note that the New York Times is a family business. The Times has benefited politically, financially, strategically, and probably even psychologically from being part of a family business in which the mantle of authority is passed down.

In the book, what grabs my heart are the individual people—both the famous as well as those who, as novelist George Eliot would say, lie in unmarked tombs. We all share a connection across the years to those individuals. It is the journeys those people have made, and a brief glimpse of those journeys, that this book affords.

Excerpt From Epilogue Of the Story Of American Business: From The Pages Of The New York Times

Nancy F. Koehn, editor

In 1942, the economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term creative destruction to describe the never-ending dynamism of capitalism. He went on to define this process as one that "revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one."1 Few moments in the last fifty years have seen the gales of creative destruction move so fast and forcefully across the landscape as that ushered in by the financial crisis of 2008. Beginning in the United States, this crisis took the capital markets and the larger global banking system to the edge of collapse, ushering in a far-reaching economic downturn that was felt around the world.

As some of the dust from this extraordinary moment begins to settle, we can see that it has cleared away a range of old products, organizations, structures, perspectives, and behaviors. As this book is being published, consumers, investors, lenders, government actors, and business leaders from virtually every industry are scrambling to make sense of what has happened in the past year and of what this means for their respective paths ahead. Almost every individual and organization, from the poorest citizen to the wealthiest socialite, from Wal-Mart to Harvard University, have been touched by the powerful winds of change.

Widespread recessions are not new, of course. The United States, like most other industrial countries, has been buffeted by business cycles in different forms and to different degrees since the late eighteenth century. (The last thirty years, for example, have witnessed at least four recessions.) What is distinct about this time, our time, is the breadth and magnitude of change—political, demographic, and technological—that is unfolding in and around large-scale economic shifts.

Politically, the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States in late 2008 unleashed a current of collective idealism that washed across the planet. At the same time, the intensifying economic crisis created much larger roles for government intervention in global markets. This, in turn, realigned the balance of political power in many countries, including the United States.

Meanwhile, in companies, colleges, traditional villages, and elsewhere, a new cohort of young people born between 1978 and 1991 grew into adulthood. Many of these "Millennials," or "Generation Yers," saw themselves as citizens of the world, linked by a common destiny, shared challenges, and overlapping aspirations. One of the most important priorities of this vocal, active, and technologically accomplished cohort was to work for a company (or other organization) committed to positive social change.

At the same time, an older generation, the Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, struggled to define the next phase of their lives. For many, this meant dealing with the large—sometimes-crippling—losses to their retirement savings wrought by the financial crisis. These losses, in tandem with ever-increasing life spans (an average of seventy-eight years in the United States), promised to keep the Boomers active in the workforce long past age sixty-five. This development, as well as the growing importance of Millennials, promised to reshape the workplace and institutional objectives of the early twenty-first century.

In the midst of economic, political, and demographic transition, the Information Revolution—begun some thirty years ago—accelerated and took a firm hold. All over the world, individuals and organizations worked to understand and use the wide-ranging power of the Internet. Much like the railroad did, more than 140 years ago, the Internet and the transmission technologies that fueled its growth and its impact began to transform markets, products, and companies—not to mention collective perspectives of distance and time—in lasting ways. From music shopping to trading stocks to the business of health care, just about every aspect of our lives was affected by breakthroughs in information technology.

Underlying the possibility and challenge of all this creative destruction were two larger systems: the global financial system and the earth's environment. In the opportunity of this moment, would leaders from all walks of life and from organizations of all kinds find the direction, energy, consensus, and talent to build a stable, sustainable financial system and at the same time shepherd the earth's natural resources with an eye to sustainability and justice?

At the end of the first decade of a young century, these were pressing questions. The answers were critical to our collective future, and they were not certain. What was clear was that this was not the first time that men and women have confronted astounding, high-stakes change. The past 150 years of American history have encompassed other important inflection points. The end of the Civil War was one. The onset of the Great Depression was another. So, too, was the close of World War II. In each of these instances, American business has played a central role in moving the nation and, in some ways, the world, forward into the future. Understanding these stories offers vital perspective on our own hopeful, anxious, and, at times, exhausting moment. The past is where we came from. We cannot afford to ignore it.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.