Ken Wells, a seasoned business journalist, watched print news outlets evolve from traditional printing presses to the Internet’s 24-hour news cycle. At the first newspaper where Wells worked in Bayou Black, Louisiana, he used to run downstairs and smell the ink of the first papers coming off the press. In today’s world, he considers himself agnostic on which medium to use for publication, as long as people continue to tell these news stories.

Ken Wells speaks to a crowded room
“The best business stories aren’t about business,” Wells said. “But about their use as an interface for the human condition.” Photo by Alyssa Rabil.

Yet when Wells first started college, he didn’t dream about becoming a journalist. “I liked biology, and my father was a marine, so I decided to become a marine biologist,” Wells said.

He quickly became disillusioned with his classes and dropped out of college. Wells started working as a short-order cook at a 24-hours diner, but he quit that job after intervening in a late-night fight between customers. “I decided that breaking up attempted murder for minimum wage was not a good career,” Wells said.

He found an ad in his hometown newspaper, the Houma Courier, that read “Wanted: Part-Time Reporter, $1.87 / hour.” After the Courier hired Wells, his editor sent him off with a Polaroid camera to report on a bartender who had caught a 300-pound snapping turtle. Wells spent several years at the Courier before getting his master’s degree at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1977. From there, Wells worked at the Miami Herald, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News.

Wells spoke to J-school members as part of the Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, which honors Cole’s dedication to the journalism field after his death, on-assignment, on January 24th, 2001. Cole graduated from the UM J-school in 1980 and had worked his way up to The Wall Street Journal by 1992 as an editor and reporter. Participating in this lecture series had personal meaning for Wells, who met Cole through The Wall Street Journal. Wells said, “He was a great writer, a great reporter and always in amiable spirits.”

Both Wells and Cole followed their editors’ mantra “We can fix your writing, but we can’t fix your reporting.” Since then, Wells developed his own idioms for today’s journalists: “Google might run the news, but it won’t write it” and “You can break news on Twitter, but Twitter won’t save the world.”

Over the years, Wells’ reporting proved to him how strongly business relations influence science, culture and other important fields. He said, “Outside of terrorism, the business stories are probably the most important of our lives.”

During the question and answer session at the end of the lecture, second-year graduate student Andrew Graham asked Wells about approaching his first non-fiction books after his lengthy career writing for newspapers.

“There a few things you should never do for money,” Wells replied. “Get married, make love and write a book.”

Wells enjoyed the reporting stage so much that he didn’t become a diligent writer until he confronted his first 80,000-word deadline. He said he had to lock himself in the attic for 12 hours a day to write. “I stopped talking to my wife, I stopped taking showers and I started kicking the dog.”

Regardless of the medium, Wells said that business journalists must embrace their responsibility as public watchdogs to be the truth-sayers in society. “There are stories growing on trees,” he said. “I think that we have a bright future in front of us.”

Learn more about Ken Wells’ work as a journalist, author (fiction and non-fiction), photographer and musician from his website.

To catch up with live coverage of Ken Wells’s delivery of the annual Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, follow the University of Montana School of Journalism’s Twitter and Instagram accounts.

By Jana Wiegand

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