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From City Pages to the ‘billionaire beat’

At City Pages, reporter Erin Carlyle covered North Minneapolis Hells Angels. Now, she covers Carlos Slim Helu.
Caryle, who quit her CP gig last year, landed on what she calls the “billionaire beat” for Forbes.

At City Pages, reporter Erin Carlyle covered North Minneapolis Hells Angels. Now, she covers Carlos Slim Helu.

Caryle, who quit her CP gig last year, landed on what she calls the “billionaire beat” for Forbes. Fluent in Spanish, with time living in Costa Rica, she’ll specialize in Latin American and Iberian billionaires, including Helu, the Mexican media baron whose $63 billion placed him atop Forbes’ world’s richest list in 2011.

Carlyle's Forbes tagline; it's blunt.
Carlyle’s Forbes tagline; it’s blunt.

“My job is tracking these people and their deals, and their fortunes,” Carlyle says from Forbes’ New York City offices.

She’s only been in New York since Jan. 4, so there aren’t yet many tales to tell of putting the Lamborghini on the company credit card while chasing Amancio Ortega through the Galacian countryside. At Forbes’ last count, the world billionaire supply stands at 1,210, and while the beat contains a lot of work-a-day reporting — prowling public documents, interviewing friends, associates, competitors and, sometimes, the billionaires themselves — the magazine’s “wealth team” does get to hang out on yachts, Swiss art shows, and the Davos World Economic Forum.

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Carlyle hasn’t done any of that yet, though she does have a blog called, subtly, “Strike it Rich.”

“The travel is wonderful and unusual — the internationalism of it was one of the appeals of taking the job,” she says. “A big emphasis is on success and how they got there — business stories told through life and personalities.”

Carlyle’s own path to the wealth beat is a good illustration that journalism isn’t a straight-line thing. She started at a tiny weekly in San Francisco’s bay area, lived in Costa Rica for a year, worked for a small California daily covering county government and triple murders, took a break as a psych researcher and Spanish teacher and Columbia University journalism grad-student, worked a few months at the Orange County Register covering immigration, then at CP for three years.

How did she get the gig with no formal business-writing experience? “I think a lot of my skills ended up applying,” Carlyle replies. “The Spanish-language skills, good basic reporting skills. I took business writing at Columbia and got honors in the course. Business reporting is still reporting, and I’d done a lot of document reporting at City Pages.”

Although the term “reclusive” has become nearly synonymous with “billionaire,” Carlyle says the mega-wealthy are, like most groups, diverse: “There are those who don’t mind publicity and others who prefer not to speak to the press at all.”

Of course, Forbes is known for its “400 Richest Americans” and “World’s Richest Issues” – sort of the “Top Docs” or “Best Dining” issues for local glossy mags. Forbes says it deploys more than 50 reporters in 13 countries on the world list.

So does Forbes net all of the world’s ten-plus-figure whales? Perhaps not, but Carlyle notes it’s more responsible to be careful in these circumstances “Forbes isn’t going to take risks,” she notes. “I can tell already, [my team] is very conservative in our estimates. Those who are there, we’re very secure they’re on the list.”

I asked Carlyle if she read the news differently now that she was writing about the sort of people who look down on the 1%.

“I think in this job, you see a few people are running a lot of different things. For example, [Ortega’s] Inditex [fashion company] owns the Zara brand, and that’s something you’re not aware of as a consumer. I just wrote about the CEO of Urban Outfitters stepping down — people might not be aware of all the brands Urban Outfitters owns.”

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Although Carlyle won’t disclose if she’s put that Givenchy gown on the expense report yet, those of us who knew her will eagerly watch how she masters the anthropology of the ruling class.