Alumni newsletter - Letter from America

Sam Fleming is the US Economics Editor at the Financial Times, based in Washington, DC. Sam started his working life at the firm before changing career and becoming a journalist. Sam has now worked in journalism for over 15 years and former roles include Economics Correspondent at Bloomberg, Associate City Editor at The Daily Mail and Economics Editor at The Times. He has worked at the FT since 2013, originally as Financial Policy Correspondent, before becoming US Economics Editor in 2015.

In this newsletter, Sam reflects on his time at the firm and talks about his adventures as a journalist since leaving, and Donald Trump.

Having joined Slaughter and May in the late 90s, Sam Fleming later opted for a career in journalism. In 2015, he was posted to Washington, DC as the FT's US Economics Editor.

On the face of it, the law and journalism may not seem like obvious stablemates, but for Sam, the two disciplines have been virtually intertwined for much of his career.

“I did a lot of writing during my university days,” he explains, “so initially, becoming a journalist seemed like the natural step for me. But when I was in my third year, I developed a fascination with law and absolutely loved spending time delving into the library to review old cases and conundrums. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why – after all, there’s a strong emphasis on research running through both professions."

Having made his choice, the Cambridge history graduate joined Slaughter and May to embark on a two-year training programme. Commencing work in the EU competition area, he then transferred to Hong Kong for six months before returning to work in litigation, and ultimately qualifying as a solicitor in M&A.

It wasn’t long, however, before Sam’s love of writing began to reassert itself and he was hired by Bloomberg to cover the legal industry. “Once I’d made the switch I knew it was the right thing for me, and I haven't regretted that. Bloomberg takes a very open-minded approach to recruiting and I think the extraordinary reputation of Slaughter and May definitely helped me get through the door. But even so, it was a huge challenge – because nothing can prepare you for the cut and thrust of being at Bloomberg.”

Sam soon found that the thorough training he had undertaken at Slaughter and May would stand him in good stead. “Having experienced life on the other side of the fence – in terms of the way a transaction works, and how deals are put together – has always been helpful” he points out. “Legal training teaches you to be rigorous about facts and extremely precise about your language, which translates really well. Then there’s the research aspect, of course, and there’s definitely a strong element of that in journalism.”

Going Stateside

Beginning his career with some basic reporting, which covered law and more general assignments, Sam moved on to industry, the stock market and then economics – which has now become his specialism. He followed a four-year stint at Bloomberg with the role of Associate City Editor at the Daily Mail, and then Economics Editor at The Times, before joining the Financial Times in October 2013, covering financial regulation. Sam was posted to Washington, DC as the FT's US Economics Editor in early 2015 covering the Federal Reserve and economics.

“It’s been an extraordinary period” he states. “Last year was very unusual because of the election and our whole office spent much of it on the road trying to figure out the emerging trends. It was a fascinating experience though and I've been incredibly lucky, because it has really given me an amazing opportunity to get to know the country and the people living in it. Now, we have a President like no other and the parties themselves are undergoing a period of flux and uncertainty – so it continues to be a very interesting time.”

And what of Donald Trump's own approach to the media?

“It's certainly more adversarial than that of his predecessors, descending into open warfare at times” says Sam. “That’s probably proving to be quite effective with people in certain parts of the country, but whether that’s going to work for him in the long run is open to question. What it really serves to highlight is the more fragmented nature of the media these days – in terms of what people believe to be true or false. There really isn’t a trusted source, or authoritative voice, that unifies anymore.”

With the exception of some sourcing requirements, there is little difference in the way Sam goes about his job in the US and the UK – although he admits the whole debate about accuracy has made him more determined than ever to show his readers there is no partiality in his writing. “I’m acutely aware now that as a reporter I need to go that extra mile to make it clear that I’m approaching the story with an open mind.”

Back to boom

Having gone through the same difficulties as Europe, the US economy is now very much in recovery, with the services sector leading job creation, according to Sam.

“There’s some debate as to whether this has been a partial recovery that has only benefitted a small number of Americans, because if you drill down from a macro level, a very fragmented picture tends to emerge – with large areas that haven’t seen it.”

He continues: “The reality is that wages have stagnated, but a very long-standing, if shallow, recovery has prompted a long period of uninterrupted private sector hiring that has pushed unemployment levels down as low as the early Bush Jr years. This has all come at a period of low inflation, which in some way, is a concern to the central bank, but conditions are more benign in terms of cost of living. Overall, however, it's a disjointed picture that is a big problem for the future.”

For a financial journalist, however, surely such uncertainty is nothing new? Not at all, says Sam. “So far in my career, I’ve gone from boom to bust to boom again. When I started reporting on economics in the early to mid-2000s, the banking sector was going through the roof. That was followed by very public bailouts in the US and UK, but now the sector is flourishing once again. Of course, these profits are being funded by a lot more equity now than they used to be, but it's undoubtedly a real recovery from the ashes. I've been lucky enough to cover it all from start to finish and I've seen a lot of interesting developments.”

And Washington's real view on Brexit? Well, that is equally divided, he reveals. “It's fair to say that Trump voters typically see it as a good thing, while the more traditional establishment looks on with dismay and little sympathy towards the UK for getting itself in this predicament.”