She's So Fine

By Basheda, Valarie | American Journalism Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview

She's So Fine


Basheda, Valarie, American Journalism Review


Wall Street's media analysts have an impact on the way publicly held newspaper companies operate. Few are as highprofile as Merrill Lynch's Lauren Rich Fine.

Lauren Rich Fine grew up in a house near Cleveland where three newspapers were delivered every day. But even at a young age, it wasn't the black-and-white columns of the Cleveland Press or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal that caught her fancy.

It was something of a slightly different color.

"I was always interested in making money," she admits.

At the age of 12, Fine asked her parents to help her find a job and embarked on her working career by putting together candy boxes at Draeger's ice cream and candy store. She hasn't stopped since--graduating from serving up chocolates to offering financial advice to some of the biggest players in the financial world as a publishing and advertising analyst for Merrill Lynch.

What she dishes out now isn't nearly as sweet, but it certainly gets attention. As one of the most media-accessible of the newspaper company analysts, she seems to be everywhere talking about the industry's woes. Profit margins in the 20s aren't enough. Knight Ridder has been an underachiever. You need to maintain earnings in the short term.

When Lauren Rich Fine talks, people listen. And among the people listening to Fine and other analysts are newspaper company CEOs, who have slimmed down their companies' workforces and products at an accelerating rate in the past several months. After all, the analysts are the liaison between Wall Street and the companies, the people who tell investors whether a company is a "buy" or "hold."

They've also become the favorite punching bag of late of some journalists, who deride what they see as the analysts' cold-blooded, bottom-line mentality And as journalists hear the news of cutback after cutback from companies like Knight Ridder, the New York Times Co. and Dow Jones, they worry that analysts seem to increasingly dictate how newspaper companies run their businesses. Reviled by some, respected by others, who are these gurus of Wall Street who can send a stock price soaring or reeling with a single pronouncement?

Take Fine, for instance. She's smart and well regarded among Wall Street types and newspaper CEOs alike. She's earned high marks in rankings of analysts put out by consulting firm Greenwich Associates and publication Institutional Investor--two of the most influential in the field.

On the weekends, she's a soccer mom, shuttling her two children and niece to soccer matches and tennis lessons. But during the week, Fine works at whirlwind speed. She's monitoring the stock market, reading and writing reports, talking to clients and the companies she monitors, attending quarterly meetings. Although she used to work in Manhattan, she and her husband returned to the Cleveland area more than four years ago because they thought it was a better place to raise their family.

When Fine works out of her third-floor office in her Shaker Heights home, she starts her day at 7:30 a.m., after getting the kids off to school. She sits at an L-shaped desk with two computers, surrounded by files stacked on the floor and on wall shelves. She's also usually accompanied by her springer spaniel, Bogart (who more than once has been known to mess up those files).

On this particular day in May, Fine had just come off a thee-day West Coast trip that took her from a speech in Los Angeles to meetings with clients from Southern California to Portland and Seattle. Her next task was finishing a 165-page "primer" on the newspaper industry that she prepares annually. As is usual when she works at home, Fine takes a dinner break with her family at 6:30 p.m., then heads back to work at 9:30 p.m. for several more hours.

Fine, 41, fell into becoming a newspaper analyst after working at Merrill Lynch a second time. (She had worked there part-time to put herself through school while getting an MBA at New York University) She didn't like what she was doing in the treasury division and was ready to leave when some friends hooked her up in equity research. …

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