Just a month after his promotion to national news editor of the Wall Street Journal in 2008, Sam Enriquez found himself reaching back more than two decades to his courses in economics from California State University, Dominguez Hills.
That fall, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., a global financial services firm and then the fourth-largest investment bank in the U.S., declared bankruptcy, ushering in a historic autumn of frozen credit markets and government bailouts as the national and global economy teetered on the brink of collapse. After years of reporting and editing general news, Enriquez said, with understatement, that what he learned in his macroeconomics classes would “prove immensely important” in helping him understand, interpret and help edit the daily onslaught of news that evolved into the biggest story of the decade.
How does a CSU Dominguez Hills economics major become a top editor at the largest newspaper in the U.S.? Credit for his early inclination toward math goes to his father—an aviation technician turned engineer who worked on the fabled X-15 and the Apollo project during a career that began after WWII at North American Aviation. But it was Enriquez’s talent for writing that set his career trajectory.
Enriquez recalls how his ninth-grade English teacher at Miraleste High School complimented his writing and asked him to try the campus paper. The daily drumbeat of news from Vietnam and then Watergate in the early 1970s, along with doses of social rebellion on campus, made it a “a good time for young writers,” he said. Looking back, he said, he now sees how journalism gave him a way to view and analyze the events happening around him. “It trained me to be more observant,” he said. “I would report back to my friends what I saw. It was exciting to bring news to other people, readers, and my peers.” Plus, he added, being on assignment was a great way to get out of class.
But when he graduated high school and enrolled at the University of California, San Diego, he decided to study economics, intending to combine his broader interest in the economy and politics with his math skills. The idea, he said, was to enter a technical field. In his free time, he continued to fill notebooks with stories and poems. Finally, writing proved too much to resist. In his junior year, Enriquez decided to leave college and pursue a career in journalism.
“I told my dad I wanted to be a writer. To his credit he asked me, ‘Can you make a living at it?’” Enriquez recalled. His father, he said, wasn’t passing judgment but wanted an answer. “I told him I thought I could.” Even without a college degree, Enriquez managed to begin a career in the world of words.
His first paying job was at the Easy Reader, a weekly newspaper covering local news in Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach. He entered a contest, and captured the prize of $25 and a T-shirt for his winning composition—his first pay as a writer. The paper’s owner Kevin Cody later gave him a fulltime job in January 1980, covering school boards and city councils in the South Bay.
After a couple of years, ready for a bigger challenge, Enriquez reached out to the biggest nearby newspaper, the Daily Breeze. He recalled how city editor Frank Suraci returned his phone call and told him with the frankness of a longtime newspaper man, “Nobody is going to hire you unless you get a degree.” That was enough to get Enriquez back in school. He chose to complete his bachelor’s degree at CSU Dominguez Hills because he could take the bus there from his San Pedro apartment and it allowed him to continue working part-time at the Easy Reader.
“What I found out was that Dominguez Hills made sense. I could take classes in the afternoon and in the evening,” Enriquez recounted. “I’m grateful for Dominguez Hills. It was affordable, flexible with my schedule. The professors were dedicated and intellectual. Looking back you see what an incredible system they had in place.”
He graduated in 1985 with a B.S. in economics. And although not related to journalism, the degree would prove indispensable to his career. “I graduated on a Friday and I started Monday at the Los Angeles Times,” he recalled.
Enriquez, born in Inglewood and raised in Rancho Palos Verdes, worked at the L.A. Times for 22 years: as a reporter, assistant city editor, and city editor covering “courts, cops, cities, schools and features” in Los Angeles. As an editor, he directed coverage that earned the paper two Pulitzer Prizes in breaking news, the first in 1998 for stories on the 1997 North Hollywood shootout between police and gunmen after a botched bank robbery, and then for coverage of the 2003 California wildfires. “As a reporter … you get to write the story, you get the byline. It’s your show. As the editor, you work backstage. You’re not in the limelight. …But when the writers are on stage getting the flowers, you’re feeling good,” he said. After first brushing up on his Spanish, he prepared for a far-reaching assignment in 2005: foreign correspondent in Mexico City. He covered Mexico’s 2006 presidential election, the drug wars, immigration, economics and hurricanes for the L.A. Times. After working 10 years as an editor, he said, “It was nice to get back on stage.”
When he made the move to the Wall Street Journal in 2008, Enriquez’s degree seemed to work its magic again. “Part of my pitch for promotion for national news editor was my economics degree,” he said. Enriquez may not have foreseen how his economics degree would help him advance his journalism career. But with a penchant for numbers and words, combined with a philosophy of newsroom collaboration, he made the long journey from local news reporter to his latest assignment at the Journal, senior editor, Page One.
Having been on both sides of the news desk, Enriquez admits, he is still in love with reporting and writing. “Writing is the most human pursuit,” he said. “A thousand things can go wrong. But when it works, it’s magnificent.”