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The University of Minnesota Duluth

BRIDGE - Fall 2009, Volume 27, #1

Alumni Profiles: The Economist: Global News and Analysis

Foreign Correspondent Eric Gustafson covers stories on the economy of Iraq, Great Britain, Central America, and the US

An off-duty Salvadoran non-commissioned officer and Eric Gustafson (right) walk to a village west of San Salvador. Gustafson was working on an article on narcotics trafficking.
Gustafson considers his Iraq experiences as some of the most challenging and rewarding of his life..."Even in the depths of hell, people come together and make the best of the situation."

His talent for writing has propelled Eric Gustafson ’97 around the world. His curious and compassionate nature has helped him to tell hundreds of stories about thousands of people. He credits UMD with giving him a solid education and concrete skills that he continues to draw upon.

In 2002, Gustafson earned a Master of Arts from the Diplomatic Academy of London. While he took classes at night, he worked for the British magazine, The Economist, during the day. Gustafson began to report on illegal practices in bookkeeping at Selfridges department store, where they kept two accounting systems in order to hide bad investments, similar to practices at Enron. As a result of Gustafson’s reporting, Selfridges CEO went to prison and other finance executives paid fines or spent time in jail. The career of the young man from a farm in Princeton, Minn. was launched.

Gustafson majored in international studies at UMD. From Professor Paul Sharp, he learned “many lessons on how systems, groups, and individuals make a difference in the world. I remember being struck by how complicated and fascinating the global economy is,” he said.

He also studied writing. Two more professors, Thomas J. Farrell and Roger C. Lips, stand out in his memory. “They were both hard professors and that helped me, because after graduation day, nothing is simple. You need to know how to work hard, make the details shine, and always be better than the next person,” he said.

After graduating, Gustafson worked in marketing for a time, but soon discovered that it “felt like I was in a cage.” He decided to explore journalism. He had written for the UMD Statesman. He landed a job as a news editor at the Winona Post in Winona, Minn. “It was just the kind of change I was looking for,” he recalled.

The foundation of international studies begun at UMD has proven invaluable in his work at The Economist. In December 2005, they sent him to Iraq for twelve months. Gustafson considers his Iraq experiences as some of the most challenging and rewarding of his life. He remembers close calls and soldiers and journalists who didn’t come back, but he also recalls many good things. “War is a horrible thing and it brings out the worst in people, but it also brings out the best in a lot of people as well.” He was impressed with how people helped each other. “Families and strangers alike. Even in the depths of hell, people could come together and make the best out of a situation,” he said. A book he wrote, A Brief History of Iraq, is a primer on the history of that country.

In the summer of 2008, after a stint in Central America, The Economist sent him to cover politics and economics in California, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona. “That summer, of course, the main focus was on the presidential election and whenever any of the top four candidates were out west, I attended their events, town hall meetings, rallies, and interviewed them,” he said.

Gustafson now writes primarily on economics, politics, immigration, and the debate over health-care reform. He continues to be drawn to the human side of complex stories. While attending a lengthy Federal Reserve meeting in Los Angeles, filled with discussions about theories and formulas, he went outside for some air. There he met a former Citibank employee who was shining shoes. For Gustafson, this encounter brought home the meaning “of what’s going on a lot more than a whole week of formulas ever could. To hear his story, how in just the last eight months his whole world had turned upside down. That’s a detail I brought into the story to bring things full circle.”

To students contemplating a career in writing and journalism, Gustafson says, “don’t forget the basics” such as good grammar and spelling. “Read good literature. A blog has nothing over Faulkner, Tolstoy, and Thackeray. If you emulate a blog, you will blend in with everyone else,” Gustafson cautions.

He also encourages young people to “Go out and live. Have adventures. Work on a farm or an oil rig. Meet extraordinary people. Meet ordinary people. Listen to the words they say and how they say them. Spend a month in another country or at least a different state. If possible, do not stay at home.” He believes that most good stories are told “by people who step out of their comfort zones.” He admits that when he came to UMD he was “a shy, inward looking guy from that little farm town.” Getting involved at UMD and pushing himself to be better “helped me step out of my comfort zone.” And Gustafson adds, “That has made all the difference.”

— Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann



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