Long Way from El Dorado: A Profile of Journalist Elisabeth Butler Cordova
by Benjamin J Spencer
Crain’s New York Business senior Web news producer Elisabeth Cordova seems to regret few things about leaving El Dorado.
She would, however, have liked to take advantage of the “El Dorado Promise” – a college scholarship fund for residents set up by Murphy Oil, the major employer of the small city in the far southeast of Arkansas, where she grew up in a trailer park. Her father was a beat cop and the DARE officer of the town, her mother worked long hours at the hospital admitting room, and she had a half-brother and two younger sisters to boot, so she could have used a little financial help. But the program didn’t start until 1997, a year after she had graduated from tiny Parker’s Chapel High School (graduating class: 46 students).
Cordova got to college anyway, five hours away in Fayetteville. “I went as far north in the state as I could without leaving,” she says.
At first, she says, she had no clue what she wanted to do. Luckily, the University of Arkansas’s Fayetteville campus happened to have a great journalism program, and by the time senior year rolled around Cordova, who had done mostly creative writing up until college, knew that it was for her. She immediately sent in her first internship application to the offices of Southern Living in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I just assumed I’d be working in magazines, right? Because that’s what you do,” she laughs.
Southern Living rejected her application. Cordova hadn’t known that the internship was for another trade publication owned by the magazine’s publisher, and it specialized in a topic that at the time, she knew little about: cooking.
Bummed, she relied on the advice of her advisor Patsy Watkins – the first in a series of important figures who would help shape her future – and took a job with Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, a small publication with a newsroom stuffed full of former sports writers. This turned out to be fortuitous.
“Sports reporters make good business writers,” says Cordova, “because they can turn boring statistics into a human story.”
The clubhouse atmosphere must have made an impression as well, because she stayed until the editors gave her a small business column of her own. After two years she’d made Associate Editor. But then, a long-term relationship crumbled and she knew the time had come to say goodbye to the Gem State.
“I got my heart broken in Arkansas,” she says ruefully. “I had to leave. I just could not stand to see my old life driving around in my old truck.”
Rootless for the first time in her life and not caring much where she settled, Cordova consulted the AABP list and picked 10 different cities throughout the U.S. with well-regarded independent business journals. Then she blasted a volley of applications to all four corners of the country – “even Hawaii,” she says. She got a response from City Business in New Orleans and moved immediately.
But covering business in New Orleans proved slightly more challenging than in northern Arkansas.
“I was in way over my head in New Orleans,” Cordova recalls. “I almost left and went back to Fayetteville.”
Her old job still awaited. All she’d need to do was say the word and she’d be hailed as a returning hero (partly, she says, because she had done the work of three people at the NABJ, commandeering graphics, editing and reporting).
But that didn’t happen. Instead, the second of her big helpers came through – her City Business managing editor, Keith Brannon, who convinced her to stay and tough it out. “He helped me become a better business writer,” she says of Brannon.
So Cordova rallied. She went on to a two-year stint at City Business, eventually helping the journal establish its first Web department. And again, fate intervened. She had a falling-out with a “terrible” editor, “the worst boss I have ever worked for”, she says.
This time she had a plan.
Cordova had friends who had moved to New York, including a former colleague, Keith Pandolfi, and somehow they were making it. And she was well aware of the reputation of Crain’s New York Business: at the New Orleans and Fayetteville journals, she says, the journal “had always been held up as a standard” for clear, in-depth reporting and graphic presentation.
“I wrote [then Crain’s editor] Greg David an absolutely glowing letter,” she says.
David contacted her shortly and told her to give him a call when she got into town. Elated, Cordova moved – and ended up selling soap in Herald Square for three months. The journal had no openings. She could have gone into public relations, as many struggling writers did. But then she thought better of it.
“I know a lot of good journalists who’ve gone into P.R.,” she says. “And you just can’t come back from it. Once someone has paid you to write what they want you to say, it’s hard to look credible as a journalist anymore.”
“They do pay better, though,” she laughs.
Finally, luck was on her side, and she landed a six-week freelance gig filling in for a health care reporter on a leave of absence. When the reporter unexpectedly returned a week early, she says, “it was a bit awkward.”
“All of my stuff was at her desk. I was kind of like, ‘Hi, I’ve been filling in for you!” she laughs. But she was determined not to leave just yet. “I just sort of moved everything to a different desk nearby,” she says, and waited to hear from David. And when the journal’s fashion reporter left unexpectedly, she was there to take over.
She stayed on the fashion desk for the next three and a half years. The beat culminated in one of the best scoops of her reporting career, when she anticipated in a story that fashion icon Liz Claiborne would be completely reorganizing her empire. And it was during this time, in 2005, that she met her husband, John Cordova, with whom she now has a one-year-old daughter, Olivia. The two are expecting their second child in October.
She and her husband never would never have met, she says, if her friend Keith Pandolfi had been a bit less hung-over. She, Pandolfi and two other New Orleans friends were scheduled to meet for a brunch at Prune in the Lower East Side. Pandolfi cancelled, and one spot at their table unexpectedly opened up. “John was there by himself,” she says, and the place was packed.
“I just thought, ‘that guy’s never going to get to eat,” she remembers. So she invited him to dine with she and her friends.
Her altruism paid off. It turned out they were a perfect match. John was a line cook at Le Bernardin, the famous fish spot, and an aspiring chef. Cordova loved to try new restaurants and occasionally cooked for her friends. A year and a half later, they were married and living in Brooklyn, where they are on their fourth apartment. The two recently returned to Prune for the fifth anniversary of their meeting.
Spending the last four years helping create and edit news, video and graphics for the Web – she was just promoted to senior news editor last January – Cordova has learned a few things about what makes good business news.
“I was really intimidated by business journalism at first. I knew nothing about business,” she says.
But she’ll always remember a lesson she learned as a rookie reporter covering small, local companies, years ago, in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“The best business reporters,” she says, “get at the people behind the numbers.”