Degree(s): BJ '64
Mike Ruby writes in his office at home with his sleeves rolled up and a cup of coffee black as newsprint ink at his side, one of the two or three he can’t work without each morning. He is surrounded by memories. Photos of frequent ranch trips with his wife over the years share the walls with those of presidents, each with an autographed matting, his fellow Newsweek staffers, and cartoons of himself, going away gifts from cartoonist friends at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. They marry his love of the outdoors with his passion for journalism and represent different phases of his career. Ruby currently enjoys a slower pace and a home office, but that hasn’t always been the case. A veteran of the mainstream journalism fast lane, Ruby has faced the stresses of journalism while still managing to keep his honesty and fair mind intact, his ego in check, and his journalistic values unscathed.
Ruby, always a sports nut, came to MU from his hometown of Skokie, Ill., with hopes of becoming a sports writer.
Four years later, he graduated with a degree in advertising.
The fresh potential in television advertising, a new and growing market in the early 1960s, piqued Ruby’s interest in an area he hadn’t considered before college.
“It was, for me, a mistake,” Ruby says. “I should have followed my original instincts. I realized that, unfortunately, after I graduated.”
He tried to use it nonetheless. He worked in press relations in Chicago for two popular supper clubs with headlining talent like Bill Cosby and Ella Fitzgerald. That summer, Ruby had the chance to meet rising stars and legends, as well as colleagues, and one that, unbeknownst to him then, would change the course of his career.
After the summer, Ruby didn’t have another job lined up. To delay his search, he returned to MU in the fall to pursue a graduate degree in English. After one semester, Ruby realized he had made another mistake.
“I’m wasting my time and the time of the professors at this place,” he recalls himself thinking. “I’m not serious about this. I need to go back home and find a job.”
Back home in Chicago, Ruby scrambled for work and, somewhat begrudgingly, took a job with a trade magazine publisher.
About a year later over a beer, an old acquaintance changed his career.
In a bar frequented by journalists and advertising professionals, Ruby and a press relations colleague from his summer in Chicago happened to cross paths for the first time since working together. He suggested that Ruby apply for a job at Business Week. Ruby had no familiarity in the business field, but with the encouragement of his colleague, he pursued it. What started as a six-month probation became a five-year position, a move to New York City and a newfound passion for business and economics reporting.
His work at Business Week grabbed the attention of Newsweek. If it weren’t for that chance meeting in the bar, he might have been headed down an entirely different path.
“There’s a certain measure of talent that gets you places, but you’ve got to be lucky too,” Ruby says. “I had no business going into a national publication right out of college.”
After Business Week, Ruby was invited to report and write for Newsweek. Here his talents as a writer weren’t the only qualities noticed by his coworkers. Shortly after he arrived at Newsweek, he caught the eye of religion researcher Merrill (Mimi) McLoughlin. Some years later, mutual friends and positions as business editor and reporter-writer brought them together at the magazine, and a friendship and courtship followed.
As an editor, Ruby employed the “different or better test,” intended to keep both Ruby and his reporters in check. After revising a reporter’s story, he would hand the reporter two copies, their version and his revision. He’d then ask, “All right, is it better, or is it just different?” If a reporter felt it was simply different and not improved, Ruby would take it back and revise the story again.
“Sometimes as a writer it was difficult to croak out ‘it’s better,'” McLoughlin says. But, often times, that was the case.
Ruby, who rose to assistant managing editor of Newsweek, never thought he’d leave the magazine. But U.S. News and World Report called, offering him the position of executive editor at its Washington, D.C. headquarters. Ruby couldn’t say no, so long as McLoughlin, by then an award-winning senior editor at Newsweek, was able to join him. Anticipating his response, Dave Gergen, then the editor of U.S. news, invited her, too.
Three years and a wedding later, the magazine’s owner, Mortimer B. Zuckerman, made a proposal to Ruby and McLoughlin over lunch.
“We said, ‘Mort, we think you’re nuts,'” Ruby says, recalling it took them both a few minutes to realize that Zuckerman was, indeed, being serious.
He asked Ruby and McLoughlin to co-edit and revamp the magazine.
What could be considered the beginning of the end for most couples was for them a thriving overhaul of a multimillion-dollar magazine.
The two contrasted both in interests and managing style. Ruby ran staff meetings while the more reserved McLoughlin handled interaction with readers. Economics, business and foreign affairs were Ruby’s forte with McLoughlin favoring domestic politics and the back-of-the-book specialties such as religion and education. They lacked the husband-wife rivalry that their staff had hoped to use to their advantage.
“People would play mom and dad with us,” McLoughlin says. If they didn’t like what they heard from Ruby, they’d round the corner to McLoughlin’s office and plead with her instead. “But we learned about that really fast.”
The co-editors and their staff collaborated well, but Zuckerman didn’t always observe the peace. He wanted to be involved, as he had every right to be as owner. When his ideas didn’t match those of his editors, it often translated into “spirited” conversations between him and Ruby. Although tempestuous, they weren’t serious.
“Both of our tempers are like summer storms,” Ruby says. “They pass quickly.”
To prevent work from following Ruby and McLoughlin home, which, at times, wasn’t easy, they made a point of enjoying their interests beyond journalism. For Ruby, that often meant feasting on his ferocious appetite for reading material and indulging in the occasional vacation. Frequently, this involved traveling to a ranch in Wyoming for horseback riding and a break from telephones and televisions.
The only phone on the premises was kept in the ranch office, with a white dry-erase message board serving as the universal answering machine. On one such trip, scrawled among the other scribbled reminders, was a message for Ruby and McLoughlin: “Call Mort.”
“I had a feeling it was going to be what it ended up being,” Ruby says. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.”
Zuckerman had hired and fired four editors in five years before them, making their seven-year stretch an impressive feat. With disagreements becoming more difficult to settle and change on the horizon for the magazine, it was now their turn to be fired.
The dismissal was met with two sighs of relief. It was time for both Ruby and McLoughlin to move on.
Then, after two years away from journalism, Ruby was asked to be deputy editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a position that editor Marty Kaiser created for him.
Kaiser remembers his staff wondering how he intended to persuade Ruby to work there, his impressive resume preceding him. Kaiser was simply going to ask him, and did so, yet again, over lunch.
“Boy, I bet you could help me in Milwaukee.”
“But I’ve never worked at a paper before.”
“You can write, and you can edit. We can find something for you.”
According to Kaiser, it was his best hire. Kaiser sees Ruby as thoughtful and a source of great wisdom. Anyone could walk into his office, or now, call him, and talk to him about anything, even subjects outside his area of expertise, and afterward feel that they could make a better decision. He’s the kind of person that could, after the success he’s had, have an ego too big to fit through the front door, but has instead remained humble.
“He could be helping the newest reporter on staff and then the next minute be helping the best one,” Kaiser says.
Ruby has acquired a reputation for his journalistic prowess and honorable character. McLoughlin confirms, as both a coworker and a wife, that she’s never found him anything but honest and fair.
“He’s the single most honest person I’ve ever met,” she says. “I think some of that is what sent him into journalism. I’ve seen him try to tell his mother a white lie, and it kills him.”
Not having been at a newspaper since his stint at the Maneater, MU’s independent student newspaper, Ruby was stunned by the reader response and the strong sense of ownership from the community.
“It astonished me how invested folks were in this institution and holding it responsible,” he says. “All that stuff you learn in the J-School, all that business about responsibility and the First Amendment and the fourth branch of government is absolutely true, but you don’t see it up close unless you work at a newspaper. You are engaged with your audience on a much different level.”
Some mornings he’d arrive to find 30 voicemails waiting for him, most with the decibel level “higher than that of an F-16,” sometimes without even leaving a name or call-back number.
“The rants and the insults don’t stay with you,” he says. “The only ones that really got to me were the ones where somebody, in a civil tone of voice, made a case for a different point of view. Those are the people who stay with you and the ones you respect and certainly the people I would call back.”
Before working at the Journal Sentinel, Ruby spent two years ghostwriting and editing non-fiction books. He continued that work evenings and weekends in addition to his fulltime duties at the newspaper. Among the books was “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt’s memoir, “Tell Me A Story.” But, doing double duty was becoming a challenge, and in 2004 with a new book contract in hand, Ruby decided to leave the Journal Sentinel to become a full-time writer.
The new book project was chronicling the life of then-New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. Ruby developed a fondness of Richardson and his family and enjoyed recording the governor’s unique history as the son of an American father and a Mexican mother. Their interviews were peppered into Richardson’s already hectic schedule. Ruby even accompanied him to his mother’s 90th birthday party in Mexico.
Now with the freer and more flexible lifestyle of a writer, Ruby can decide to take a two-month vacation and then work six months straight if he pleases, a far cry from the demanding timetable he used to know. Ruby’s journalistic experiences have proved to be useful in his endeavors as an author, but ghostwritten authorized biographies are certainly missing the balance and fair-minded consciousness present in journalism.
Even though his presence in journalism is diminished, Ruby’s ideals are still revered by those he has worked with. Brian Duffy, a former editor of U.S. News, and close friend and past reporter under Ruby, says that Ruby was a skilled boss. He taught Duffy the most about being an editor, his famous “different or better test” a primary influence. Editors are there to make writers look better and make articles as clear as possible for readers, Duffy says, which Ruby strove toward each day. For him, Ruby represents the best of journalism.
“Mike’s philosophy is one that we should live by,” Duffy says, “Play fair, get it right, and just be straight.”
In the dry, desert air of Cave Creek, Ariz., where, thankfully for Ruby, neckties are scarce and cowboy boots are always in style, he works alone among the bountiful bookshelves and copious collection of books in his office. Sometimes, he misses the camaraderie of his fellow journalists and the sense of a common mission their company creates. But even so, he says, there’s enough of a connection to journalism in what he does to keep him happy.
“I probably won’t go back to regular journalism unless somebody called me up and gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says.
Q&A with Mike Ruby
Was there anything that the professional world taught you that you wish someone would have told you while you were in school?
As wonderful as Mizzou’s J-School is, it is no substitute for your first job or two out of school. I wish someone in school had said this: “Take what we’ve taught you to heart, but be prepared to absorb everything you see and hear and touch when you get to the working world. If you do, you can learn as much in six months on the first job as you did in two years of J-School.”
How did you balance a career in journalism with family life?
I can say from experience that divorce is an occupational hazard in journalism. Weekly news magazines and newspapers, which represent most of my experience, often require high-wire balance and even occasional somersaults. In other words, there’s a lot of pressure. Leaving it when you go home at night is important, even crucial, to your mental health and to the mental health of those around you.
How do you prevent yourself from getting burnt out?
You don’t. But you can get over the idea that you’re indispensable, even if your boss seems to suggest that you are, and take the occasional vacation. Also, try to develop some passion unrelated to your work. Fly fishing. Downhill skiing. Language study. Volunteer work. Anything, so long as there is no conflict of interest with your day job.
What do you think about the present state and future of journalism?
There’s no question the business of journalism is in great flux right now, and that the resulting confusion is having a significant impact both on print and electronic newsrooms, both of which have suffered serious cutbacks as a consequence of flagging advertising revenues. But I believe the craft of journalism is stronger than it’s ever been. The reporters, certainly on top newspapers and magazines, are smarter, better educated, more worldly and more aggressive, and more creative in how they write both straight news and features.
What do you think the future looks like for the print media?
The future looks good, assuming a couple of things — that publishers figure out a business model that can continue to pay for a reported and edited and illustrated news report and that we don’t get too hung up on the physical newsprint product. I suspect the physical paper or magazine will continue, but it won’t be the only delivery system. The Internet is one delivery system that’s already arrived. But there may be others — portable news tablets, for example. What will guarantee a successful future is not the form in which information is delivered but the desire of an audience for a fair-minded daily or weekly news report produced by reporters who report and editors who edit.
About Mike Ruby, BJ ’64
- Missouri School of Journalism, Bachelor of Journalism, 1964
- Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, 1974-1975
Business Week (1966–1971)
Positions: Business writer, chief economics writer, business editor, national affairs editor, editor of international editions, chief of correspondents, assistant managing editor.
U.S. News and World Report (1986-1996)
Positions: Executive editor and co-editor.
Freelance Writing and Editing (1996–1998)
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (1998–2004)
Positions: Deputy editor, editorial page editor.
Book Writing (2004–Present)
Wife – Merrill (Mimi) McLoughlin
Updated: November 10, 2011