SMU Data and Models

SMU Spotlight: A Conversation With Michael Cowden

Written by Becca Moczygemba

It’s always interesting to take a peek behind the curtain. For Michael Cowden, managing editor of Steel Market Update (Hey, that’s us!), it’s a common experience. 

Michael CowdenAs a seasoned journalist, Michael is no stranger to asking the tough questions. Multiple times a year he moderates panel discussions, live interviews, hosts workshops, and speaks at various industry functions. With Tampa Steel just around the corner, we thought it would be fun to have him in the hot seat. Fortunately, after some arm-twisting, we convinced him. 

The full text of the interview is below.

Steel Market Update: How does it feel to be on the other side of the table?

Michael Cowden: It feels like a conversation. I guess I’m the one doing more of the talking, which is a bit unusual since I’m used to asking the questions. I’ve always enjoyed doing interviews, so it feels like familiar territory.

SMU: Did you always want to be a steel journalist?

MC: I grew up in Pittsburgh in the ’80s and steel wasn’t doing terribly well at that time. I had some family in the industry and the advice from them was, “Whatever you do, don’t get into the steel industry.” I think any time your parents tell you not to do something, you’re naturally inclined to do it. So here I am. My father and one of my uncles worked at the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. Aliquippa Works in western Pennsylvania. Both of my grandfathers worked in steel as well. My paternal grandfather worked in building the foundation of an expansion to a J&L mill in the Monongahela River Valley in the early 1930s. My maternal grandfather, whose parents were immigrants from Poland, worked as an instrument repairman at Crucible Steel in Midland, Pa. I don’t want to give the impression that steel was an unvarnished good for my family. My maternal great grandfather was killed in an explosion at a J&L furnace when my grandmother was a toddler. … She never knew her father.

SMU: When you were in college and journalism school, did you feel like steel was what you wanted to report on, or did you have something else in mind?

MC: It didn’t even really occur to me that it was an option, to be honest. I studied English, and after college I got a job as a copy editor at University of Chicago Press. Then went back to school, night school initially, at Northwestern (University). One of the professors suggested that I apply to journalism school, so I did and got in. I was taking a business journalism class and one of the beats was manufacturing, and in Chicago that included the steel mills. I was covering some of those mills and I was thinking, “Oh wow, I’m writing about the stuff that my dad and uncle and grandfathers were talking about.” So that was part of it as well, and I think that stuck with me.

SMU: How did you make the decision to come to Steel Market Update?

MC: I had been at Fastmarkets for, gosh, almost 14 years, and I think it was the opportunity to lead the publication. To do more than just traditional reporting. I mean, that is SMU. We’re not doing just news and pricing. Those things are very important, but we’re also doing events, webinars, NexGen; there’s this whole community. It was an opportunity to do something bigger than what I had been doing.

SMU: What’s your favorite part of what you’re doing now?

MC: Having the ability to go to events, give talks, do the Community Chats. I think one of the things SMU does really well is quantifying the soft indicators around pricing. The fundamentals like lead times, service center inventories, market chatter… people’s thoughts come into play in this. It’s not just supply and demand. We’re able to quantify the market psychology. SMU is a good package of pricing tools that provides context around that. It’s nice to be able to reach out to people because they know our faces, to be more a part of the industry than you might be in more of a mainstream publication. I don’t want to say we’re necessarily part of the industry, but more part of the conversation. I enjoy that aspect of it.  

SMU: We’re like the cool uncle!

MC: Haha! We work an awful lot to be the cool uncle. But, yes, we’re the hard-working cool uncle.

SMU: If you weren’t our editor extraordinaire, what would you be doing?

MC: After my daughter, who is now a teenager, was born, I dropped back to part-time to take care of her. Some might see that as putting your career on the back burner, but I really enjoyed that time with her. If you had asked me after journalism school, I wanted to be a war correspondent. I really wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and that’s partly why I went to Cambodia. I was working some nights and weekends at the Cambodia Daily and at the AP. It’s fun when you’re younger, but that changes as you get older and have a family. You work fairly normal hours in business reporting.

SMU: What’s the coolest experience you’ve had working as a journalist in steel?

MC: You’d think mill tours get old, but I still enjoy seeing a hot strip mill, feeling the heat, hearing the noise. It’s really a cool process and it never gets old.

SMU: Do you ever get nervous interviewing people at the conferences?

MC: No, I enjoy doing interviews. My first year at SMU the power went out at one of the conferences, my first time up on stage with John (Packard). We just kind of improvised it. There’s a lot of things to worry about at conferences, but I enjoy the interview conversations. It’s fun to learn from people and oftentimes the audience comes up with better questions than I would have.

SMU: What can we expect from Steel Market Update in the next five years?

MC: I think we’ve got a really good platform, so I wouldn’t expect any fundamental changes. We’re not looking to knock down the house and build a new one on top. We’ll probably fix some things, upgrade some things, but we want to keep the feel, the content, similar to what we’ve got now. Expect to see our events continue to grow, expect to see some new faces at SMU. I think that like the industry, you’ll see things transition from one generation to another. You know, we’ve inherited (John) Packard’s baby and his legacy, and now we’re trying to take it to the next level. We want to stay true to our roots, build on it and improve on it, and expand a little bit beyond.  

Michael will be moderating at Tampa Steel. If you haven’t already, click here to register. We look forward to seeing you!

By Becca Moczygemba,

Becca Moczygemba

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