A Conversation with Beloit alum Bob Adams and Wall Street Journal Editor Russell Adams
This past Friday the Round Table sat down Beloit alum Bob Adams’65 and his son Russell Adams, an editor at the Wall Street Journal. Bob Adams was a swimmer and member of Tau Kappa Epsilon during his time at Beloit. Russell Adams has been at the Wall Street Journal for 15 years. We talked about the future of journalism, Bob’s Beloit memories, and the unexpected story inspiration that came from Jack in Box tacos. Bob Adams is a Minnesota native but has been residing in San Diego since the early seventies. Russell Adams lives and works in New York City.
Round Table: Can you tell me a little about your journalism trajectory?
Russell Adams: “When I decided I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to go into sports writing, I wanted to be a journalist and I had a passion for sports. I thought it would be great to combine the two I did end up doing it for about six years. I got to a point where working around sports had started to take the fun out of it a little bit, and combining two passions, in theory, is a good thing, but it also muddies the waters. It got to the point where I associated sports with work, so I decided to establish more boundaries between personal interests and work.”
RT: Could you tell me about the years you covered the media and what that was like?
RA: “I covered the media from 2008 to 2012. It was a particularly awful time for the newspaper industry especially The bottom was falling out of the entire industry. I spent most of my time covering the death of the newspaper.”
RT: When covering the death of the newspaper, was this referring to mostly smaller newspapers?
RA: “Everyone was really struggling. In fact, at the time, a lot of my focus was on the New York Times Company. At that time, they were in a really bad place financially and had to sell everything to stay afloat including the building they occupied. There’s this billionaire in Mexico, Carlos Slim, who gave them a financial lifeline and bought a big stack into it with high interest to keep them afloat. They have stable footing now. So to answer your question, the Times was in trouble and the Post was in trouble. The Metro Dallies were also in a bad spot. The only stability was in small community papers because the work they do is irreplaceable. The decline of the business was so steep during that time it was bound to level off. In the last couple of years, they have mostly been hiring and not firing. When business was good, Metro Dallies were ambitious. Papers like The Boston Globe and The LA Times had foreign bureaus and Washington bureaus.”
RT: How do you think journalism has changed since you first entered the industry?
RA: “When I started in journalism in the late nineties we had email, but not everything centered around the internet. Now my entire day is online and everything I do is on the internet. Back then it wasn’t a reporting tool. All my reporting was on the phone or in person. Readers didn’t have an easy way to contact you, so you could kind of get away with mistakes and never hear about it. But now it’s instantaneous.”
RT: Did you expect your story about Jack-in-the-Box tacos to blow up in the way it did?
RA: “No, in fact, I talked about it earlier in a journalism class. That was one of those things that was personal to me. At the time I had moved into editing so I wasn’t writing a lot. I like to be working on something even as an editor. I was looking for a new story and I was brainstorming my own experience. When I was in high school, right outside of our football field was a Jack-in-the-Box. We always used to sneak off campus to get tacos. They were grotesque, but somehow all this badness turned into something good and addictive. For some reason that popped in my head. I wondered if my experience with these tacos was more widespread and if people experience their confounding appeal as I do. So I started out by emailing my older brother and seeing if he had the same memories of these tacos as I did. He absolutely did. I went to Twitter and searched for mentions of these tacos going back years and found some funny comments about them. I contacted those people. Then I went to food blogs and gathered enough material. Then I went to the company to find out how popular they were, and how many they sold. Truth be told I am more proud of the Jack in the Box story than the Tag story. It was something that had been in my head for 30 years and I thought to myself, I viewed it as sort of a personal challenge. If I could get Jack in the Box tacos on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, then I am doing a pretty good job.
RT: How did you find the Tag story? RA: “I didn’t discover them. It was a former colleague who found out about the game these guys played and was introduced to one of the guys. He thought about doing the story himself. He got wrapped up in other projects, and then eventually left the Journal. He had one of the guy’s numbers and put me in touch with them. I spent several weeks interviewing these guys by phone and putting the story together. I originally had planned to follow the game in person, and embedding myself in the game. My editors didn’t think it would make it that much better because they wanted to run it advance of that year’s game.”
RT: What role did you play in the movie?
RA: “I didn’t have any direct role in the movie. They have to require the rights to the article, even if they end up not really following the story. If the article is about real people, they have to acquire life rights. They had to acquire both, and from that point on they control it. There was negotiation with things like money. I did ask for some kind of consulting role which they didn’t give me. They sort of cut me out the process. I didn’t know how much they would take until I saw the movie.”
RT: For reader clarification, what is your formal title at the Wall Street Journal?
RA: “There’s a corporate bureau chief who oversees all corporate coverage at the journal, which is basically the people who write about businesses and companies, I am his second in command I oversee about 12-14 reporters.”
After sitting down with Russell Adams discussing everything from journalism to tacos, we turned the conversation over to his dad Bob Adams. He regaled us with stories about his time at Beloit and how he met his wife on the campus.
RT: What drew you to Beloit? BA: “Two things. First of all, being from Rochester where most of my friends’ dads were doctors, I was around very bright people. A handful of them went into medicine. They were amazing guys and the fact that they wanted to go to Beloit really impressed me. Secondly, it was a small college. I had friends who went up to the University of Minnesota and that is a monstrous size school. I didn’t think I was emotionally or intellectually mature enough to compete in that environment, I need to be nurtured. This was the most wonderful place for that. I joined a fraternity and had a great group of friends.”
RT: What were you involved in on campus?
BA: “I was a TKE and I also swam. All my friends and I from TKE stayed in touch from day one after graduation. When we all turned 50, someone said we ought to have an annual event dedicated to this friendship, so ever since 1991, we meet every summer. We’ve met all over, from upstate New York to Cabo San Lucas, to Lake Tahoe. Russell was describing when he wrote Tag that if you could find one word that would capture the most intimate and important essence of the story of these Tag guys, it was friendship. That’s what Beloit means to me. Friendship. “
RT: I understand you met your wife at Beloit, would you share the story with me?
BA: “I was walking by the Science Center (currently Pearsons) and I saw this adorable girl. We smiled, but she just knocked me out. I knew when I was back in the Fall I would date her. I knew this was the woman for me. She was a hard sell. She lived in Aldrich Hall. We were talking one night, and she said she couldn’t go out, and commons was closed and she had to study. We had a big table of sandwiches on Sunday night at the TKE house, so I told her I would bring her a bag lunch. That was the hook The first time she got interested in me was because I fed her lunch on Sundays. That’s where the courtship began. She was two years behind me. After she graduated, we got married in ‘65. We moved to Minneapolis while I finished medical school.”