The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

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New York Times columist Joe Nocera shares insight on economy

Joe Nocera, a business columnist who has been at The New York Times for the last four years, sat down with the Torch on Tuesday, March 31 to talk about the financial crisis. He shared his insights into how the current state of the economy is affecting college students and private universities, and how the Obama administration is handling college education. He also spoke about the future of print journalism. Nocera has also written for Fortune Magazine, and GQ Magazine.

Torch: During your time at The New York Times, what has been your favorite event to cover?

Nocera: I have the most fun when I take on someone who people think is untouchable. I like challenging the reader. Anytime I write about consumer electronics, I get tons of mail.

Is there any experience in your career that stands out most?

Texas Monthly is where I learned how to be a business journalist. I was assigned a story about T. Boone Pickens Jr. who was a Texas oil man.

While I was working on the story he did a hostile take over; one of the first in the country, actually. And we knew each other well enough that he invited me to New York to come watch him do it and it was an amazing experience.

And that’s what got me hooked on business journalism; my first story at the Texas Monthly. I’ve been hooked on it ever since. Out of all the places I’ve worked, that had the most impact.

What advice do you have for seniors?

Be humble. You’re not going to walk into a high-powered job because we’re in a kind of time that those jobs don’t exist.

I graduated during an economic crisis-in 1974, there was a recession, which at the time was called the worst recession since the Great Depression. And it took me a long time to get a job, and my first job was as a secretary. And that’s fine.

At least I was in the news business and I was working for somebody who could teach me things, and I was his assistant.

But I also tried to write on the side and tried to do things to kind of further my career and get clips out there. So, I would say number one is be humble.

If you step into a job right after you graduate, you’re really lucky because a lot of people aren’t going to do that. That doesn’t mean you’re bad or that you’re unqualified or that it’s not going to happen for you, it’s just in times like this, jobs are scarce. And that’s kind of what you have to brace yourself for.

Torch: Have you seen any jobs that haven’t been hit as hardly as others?

Nocera: Lawyers. People are suing each other; there are a lot of lawsuits in an economic crisis, I’ve discovered. But in most other spheres of life, society is cutting back.

So if you’re a consumer goods company, fewer people. Journalism, fewer people.
Anything people buy, if they’re buying less of it, then that’s going to mean layoffs.
The truth is, what’s good for you guys, if they’re laying off high-priced talent, eventually when it comes time to hire again, they’re going to start with kids, who don’t cost as much.

So, I guess the Internet business is growing too, but a lot of that, especially on the East Coast, pays so little.
How do you feel private universities such as St. John’s are going to have to adapt in today’s economic times?

Well, maybe tuition will stop going up. I mean, universities have been on this rate race for 20 years of ever-escalating tuition, like an arms race kind of thing.

It might not be such a bad thing if that ends, or at least dies down a little bit.
Universities are going to have to tighten their belts, just like everybody else.
Endowments have gotten crushed in this crisis and a lot of parents can’t pay what they used to be able to pay.

Construction may be put on hold. The crisis is going to affect universities the way it’s going to affect everybody else.

Is the Obama administration doing anything to make college more affordable?

Nocera: I think there’s a high likelihood, although it’s not at the top of the agenda, that eventually they’ll tackle the student loan programs and try and make them a little better for students.

Right now, they’re pretty onerous, especially the private student loan programs with the high interest rates, and they last forever and you can’t get out of them even in bankruptcy.

There’s a lot of talk about those programs being unfair, and Sallie Mae needed to do something to make Sallie Mae a little bit more on the side of the students and a little bit less on the side of themselves.

I don’t think you’ll see this right away, but I believe there are enough Democrats who care about the student loan program that I think it is definitely within the realm of possibility that they could tackle student loans.

You mentioned during your lecture that you felt the recession might last for another year or year and a half.

Nocera: I don’t really know. That’s hopeful. 2009 will be tough, but maybe a year from now we’ll start to get out of it.

But, you know, a lot depends on government response, a lot depends on whether consumers get their confidence back and whether the country gets its confidence back and its financial system.

And a lot depends on whether the things the government is doing now to improve or eliminate the crisis are going to work, and we don’t know. We just don’t know.

If you read about the Great Depression, you sort of realize that in 1932, the world was very much like it is right now. Things were bad, but you could sort of see it could go either way, and it went worse.

Instead of making the right policy actions, we made the wrong ones.

And part of the problem is you don’t know what the right policy actions are until after the fact.

You mentioned during the lecture that everyone at The New York Times recently received a five-percent pay cut. Do you foresee any more cutbacks in the future?

Nocera: I hope not. We had layoffs last year and we had the five-percent cut this year. The Times, like every other institution is sensistive to the economy.
So the problems of the newspaper business are made worse by the fact that we’re in this economic crisis.

The Times is trying to hold on to get through this crisis just like every other company, and they have said that they hope there won’t be layoffs this year.

And then we’ll see where we are next year and see where the crisis is. All you can do is cross your fingers and hope things get better.

Many people feel that newspapers may become obsolete in the next few years. You mentioned in your lecture that you don’t feel that’s true. Any reasons why?

I think people are still going to have a hunger for news. The problem is, how do you define newspaper?

If you define it as this paper product, then yeah, most of those are going to go away.

That form that worked so well for a long time doesn’t work so well anymore because we have the Internet and people have different reading habits.

But the idea that newspapers are going to vanish seems wrong to me because people are still going to have a need for news, and a desire for news.

If you look at The New York Times’ Web site, it’s really a phenomenal resource, with lots more stuff than just the newspaper.

And, I think we’ll gravitate to a world where most newspapering takes place online.

Based on the reports that you’ve done and the people you’ve talked to, what is your best guess as to how the state of the economy is going to change within the next year?

I just don’t know. I think journalism is at its best when it’s looking backwards, not when it’s looking forward.

So, predicting is not something we’re v
ery good at, and I can find as many smart people saying we’re going to wind up in a depression as I can find people saying we’re going to pull out of it at the end of the year.

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