The fall of the house of Forbes

September 30, 2011, 1:00 PM UTC

Welcome to the Weekly Read, our column that features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. Each week we feature a different review. This week assistant managing editor Leigh Gallagher takes a look at Stewart Pinkerton’s The Fall of the House of Forbes, a new tell-all about the financial media company (and Fortune competitor), where Gallagher worked as a reporter.

Everyone has that place where he or she spent the formative early years of his or her career — the analyst trainee program at a consulting firm, the junior associate program at a big law firm. For me it was the years I spent as a reporter for Forbes magazine. From 1998 to 2004 I cut my teeth in the magazine’s fact-checking program, where the pool of 25 or so of us, all in our 20s, were the first and last eyes on the stories we checked — and held responsible for any mistake in-between. It was a stress that regularly kept us at the magazine until 2 a.m. and then drove us to the bar around the corner afterward. (Then bolt upright in bed in a cold sweat a few hours later, panicking we’d let some epic error slip through.) It was stressful, it was exhausting, and oh was it fun. I wrote my first business stories there, I learned how to read a balance sheet there, I found important mentors there, and some of my closest friends are people I met there. The place, in other words, still means a lot to me.

Which is why even though I now work for a direct competitor — I’m an assistant managing editor at Fortune — it has been painful to see some of the company’s troubles in recent years. But at the same time, my ties to Forbes are also what made Fall of the House of Forbes: The Inside Story of the Collapse of a Media Empire such a rollicking read. Stewart Pinkerton, the magazine’s former managing editor — one of the top editorial bosses during my tenure there — has woven together a lively narrative that paints a less grim picture than the title heralds. But what it lacks in news-breaking revelations it more than makes up for with a tale rich in memorable anecdotes and colorful characters.

The book opens with the death of Malcolm Forbes, but it’s in the story of Bertie Charles (“B.C.”) Forbes, Malcolm’s father and the founder of Forbes the company, where the narrative comes alive. Bertie, we learn, developed an early flair for journalism in his homeland of Scotland before coming to New York in 1903. In one brief anecdote — how Bertie caused a furor after joining the Journal of Commerce and Commercial Bulletin by publishing the real prices of raw silk instead of the importers’ inflated prices — you see for the first time both the entrepreneurial origin of Forbes Inc. and the beginnings of a commitment to don’t-write-what-others-want journalism that would serve the company well through much of its heyday.

Pinkerton, who left in 2009 under, well, not-so-happy circumstances, also delivers one of the best characters in all of journalism in Jim Michaels, the ferociously talented editor who ran the magazine from 1961 to 1999. While I was there, Michaels was a much-feared overlord who was seen and heard mainly through his scathing all-caps comments on stories, viewable for all to see in the company’s editing system. (Among them: “I DON’T CARE WHAT THE ANALYST THINKS. WHAT DO YOU THINK??;” “I ASSUME YOU UNDERSTAND THIS BECAUSE YOUR INITIALS ARE ON IT. I DON’T. FIX IT. JWM;” and “THIS ISN’T REPORTING. THIS IS STENOGRAPHY. WHY IS THIS PERSON STILL ON STAFF???”). As Pinkerton recounts, Michaels would rewrite stories at the eleventh hour or kill them entirely; he kicked writers who quit out of the building; tortured his lieutenants; and ran such stressful story pitch meetings that writers were known to throw up before them.

But he was also a brilliant editor — it was said he could edit the Bible down to six words — who left his imprint on some of journalism’s biggest names. “My column today consists of techniques I learned from Michaels,” Fortune columnist and seven-time Loeb Award winner Allan Sloan told me recently. “I cannot tell you the influence he had on my career.” (Read Allan Sloan’s 2007 tribute to Michaels here.) Pinkerton delves deeply into Michaels’ biographical and family history, which will be new material even to most Forbes veterans.

The book ticks through the various eras of modern-day Forbes, from the birth of the Forbes 400, the magazine’s annual ranking of the richest people in America, through battles over who would succeed Michaels. (When Bill Baldwin ushered in a gentler management style, Pinkerton writes, the “collective Zoloft … bill for the edit staff almost certainly plummeted to a postwar low.”) These sections are dotted with anecdotes of the Forbes culture I knew well: late nights and idiosyncratic personalities, boozy lunches at Gotham Bar and Grill (which Pinkerton admits to keeping in business), screaming matches between Dennis Kneale, the new managing editor who’d blown in from the Wall Street Journal, and a then-retired Michaels; early fumbles with “digital convergence,” including the ill-fated CueCat experiment where subscribers were mailed a plastic barcode scanner to access advertiser content online.

Much of the book then delves into the company’s more recent troubles. Pinkerton goes into great detail about alleged gaffes within foreign licensing divisions, a series of missteps with Forbes Woman, the company’s lifestyle publication for women in business launched in 2007, and repeated clashes over efforts to merge the company’s magazine and website operations. And then there is the decision in 2006 to sell a 40% stake in the company to Elevation Partners, which Pinkerton describes as “the family’s first step in its own exit strategy.”

Pinkerton is sometimes bitter, in a few cases unnecessarily so: He reserves particular ire for new top editorial boss Lewis D’Vorkin, describing his new blogging model for as “now many voices, fuzzing the traditional focus, or at the least, drowning it out in a sea of online upchuck.” (Whatever one thinks of the new Forbes approach, that’s a bit much.)

Throughout the book Pinkerton paints a picture of the Forbes family as generous, if flawed and, more recently, out of touch. He cites the brothers’ kind and quirky touches, like Steve Forbes calling every staffer on his or her birthday, the annual Veteran’s Day picnic at the family’s New Jersey estate, and how the brothers went out of their way to support employees in need. (My own experience with Steve Forbes’s soft spot: once after returning to the office from a lively debate about tort reform on the Forbes on Fox show, Forbes made a rare appearance on the reporters’ fourth floor to find me to apologize for denigrating trial lawyers. Why? He’d remembered my father was one. “I think I may have used the word ‘rapacious,’” he said sheepishly. My father loves this story.)

The book jumps around a bit. There are magazine industry terms that could have used a more thorough flushing out. And it doesn’t give much in the way of numbers to show how badly the Forbes business is truly suffering; Fortune’s story did more to show that. There are also fewer salacious details than the press release would suggest; not one of the “dishy” stories called out in the publisher’s marketing materials would rank on my list of the book’s top 10 (though plenty others would). But the strength of the Fall of the House of Forbes isn’t spicy, headline-making revelations; it’s the thoroughly enjoyable tale rich in color from a place that had it to spare.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.