Solman works to make economics accessible


Paul Solman

Taylor Rogers | Staff Writer

Paul Solman thought he knew the answers when he first started reporting on business and economics.

In the ’70s, he took up a story on why Cambridge, Mass., was paying a lower interest rate on its municipal bonds than Boston. As he began asking questions, he said he came to the realization that he simply didn’t know how it all worked.

“I thought to myself, I don’t know the basics of municipal finance, and nobody I know either my age or younger does either,” he said, “and it was a sobering realization.”

So Solman turned to Harvard University. He obtained a Nieman Fellowship in 1976, spent the next 10 months studying business and the next 30-plus years as a business and economics correspondent for public television, where he remains today. He’s returned to Harvard to teach; he’s won numerous Emmys and Peabodys for his work, and today, he’ll speak at Chautauqua for the second time. He first spoke here in 2006.

Solman’s lecture is at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater as part of Week Seven’s theme, “The U.S. Economy: Beyond a Quick Fix.”

Solman described his time as a Nieman Fellow at the Harvard Business School as “ideal” for someone like him, someone looking to better understand America’s economy. He said the curriculum, which was filled with case studies, required intense participation and reflection.

“My year was literally eye-opening,” he said.

The Boston PBS station hired Solman as its business and economics reporter for the nightly news program shortly after he finished his fellowship.

But it wasn’t as easy as that. Solman said he essentially created his own position there, assuring his future bosses that business reporting didn’t just mean business stories.

“They never heard of such a thing, but that’s what I proposed,” Solman said. “I said, ‘Look, I can do any story with a business or economics angle.’”

And that’s what he’s done ever since. Solman is now the business and economics — and occasional art — correspondent for “PBS NewsHour.” He also has managed to teach media, finance and business history at the Harvard Business School and co-author a book in 1983 titled Life and Death on the Corporate Battlefield: How Companies Win, Lose, Survive.

Solman said he’s remained with public television largely because of the audience.

“It’s gratifying to have a thoughtful as opposed to federal audience, which is sort of why I’ve never left,” he said. “I’ve never had the slightest urge to leave and, you know, get a bigger audience, make more noise, be more impassioned. None of that has held any allure.”

His audience and his sources remain a few of his favorite parts of the job, he said. He’s met with a diverse collection of people, from Nobel Laureates to the homeless, and through those sources, Solman humanizes business-related topics and makes them more accessible. His 2004 Peabody award, an example of that accessibility, was due to his reporting on the undercounting of unemployment.

Solman said his speech today will be chiefly based on the idea that we are in the midst of a race between a lighter future and a darker one. The current debates on debt, he said, are missing the point.