Media Movers Q&A: Journal of Accountancy’s Courtney Vien

Courtney Vien

Whenever I read about a publication going digital-only, I instinctively mourn yesteryear. But I’ve never thought about all the trees that went into the print process. It turns out that the Journal of Accountancy did: Becoming carbon neutral was a big part of why the storied publication went digital after more than a century.

The JofA may target accountants, but anyone could find its stories interesting. The coverage includes taxes (of course!), advice for professors and navigating the world of work. Why? editor in chief Courtney Vien pointed out that accountants are far more than bean counters – a phrase the publication avoids. They own businesses, they are CFOs and they are key players as companies figure out how to report and track ESG metrics.

I talked with Courtney about why young journalists might be afraid to apply to trade publications such as hers, how her Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is beneficial and – this has to be a first for this column – baking with persimmons:

Dawn Wotapka: You are a  journalist whose sole focus is accountants. Tell me about that role.

Courtney Vien: It’s a lot more interesting than many people realize! There’s so much more to accounting than doing people’s taxes – though that’s certainly important. CPAs own firms. They’re CFOs and controllers for private companies, nonprofits and government entities. They advise small businesses on how to become more efficient and profitable. They help individuals plan for retirement and manage their wealth. In my role, I need to be knowledgeable about all these different areas, and that’s what keeps my job interesting and challenging.

Dawn: A lot of the AICPA’s content goes beyond typical accounting. Your team chronicles changes in education and offers advice for leadership. Why write about more than the technical stuff?

Courtney: CPAs do appreciate the technical stuff – articles about tax and Excel are usually our most popular. But there are many other aspects to the accounting profession than just the technical. CPAs also want to read about technology trends, how to get ahead in their careers, how to manage others, how they can run their firms more effectively or generate more business, and so on.

We focus on education for multiple reasons, one of the most important being our student members. We also maintain close working relationships with accounting faculty, who advise us on what knowledge accounting graduates should have when entering the workforce. Faculty are also integral to the future of the profession: Many CPAs will tell you it was an accounting professor who first sparked their interest in the field.

Dawn: The editing process for your publications is tough – far and above what I experienced at The Wall Street Journal. Accountants actually read some of the copy and weigh in. How did that come about, and how does that benefit the reader?

Courtney: Most of us who work in publications are non-accountants. Though we become knowledgeable about accounting while working here, we’re not subject matter experts. However, we have many experts on staff who review our content for accuracy. We want to be as precise as possible, especially when we’re writing about things like tax or regulatory changes. Our subject matter experts also give us great perspective on what topics CPAs want to read about and how they might perceive our content.

Dawn: Did I read correctly that the Journal of Accountancy is more than 100 years old? That is extremely impressive! The print magazine recently went digital only. What brought about that change?

Courtney: Yes, the first issue of the Journal of Accountancy came out in 1905. We went digital-only in 2021. Our senior leadership is trying to take our organization carbon-neutral, and part of that means reducing paper usage whenever we can.

Many opportunities have opened up in the ESG (environmental, social and governance) space for accountants recently, as accountants are needed to help organizations track and report on their ESG metrics. The AICPA is trying to make accountants aware that this area is a growth opportunity, so we need to practice what we preach. I do miss print, but I understand the rationale for going digital-only.

Dawn: Tell me about the opportunities for journalists in niche publications, such as yours. Most people come out of school and dream of working for The New York Times, but few people ever get there. How can we make the trades more desirable to young journalists?

Courtney: My sense is that people may be reluctant to apply for jobs with trade publications because they think the specialized subject matter will be boring. But it’s important to keep an open mind. I find that all subjects become more interesting the more you learn about them.

Job applicants may also worry that they don’t have enough subject matter knowledge to be accepted. Whether that’s true depends on the subject. Some places will want you to have experience writing about their subject area – especially if it’s science- or medicine-related. But other employers are primarily looking for strong writers and editors and expect you to learn on the job.

Dawn: I usually ask interviewees about the need for a master’s degree. However, I can skip that with you because you have a Ph.D. First, hats off to that. Second, how does this help you in your work?

Courtney: Thank you! My degree is in English literature. For years, I spent a lot of time studying texts closely and writing analyses of them. This taught me critical thinking, how to make a strong argument, and how writing works. All that’s proven extremely useful in my job.

I also used to teach writing, so I saw a lot of shaky student writing and had to identify ways to make it better, then coach students to improve through my comments. In many ways it’s similar to what I do now as an editor.

Dawn: Finally, what do you do when you’re not working with accountants and copy?

Courtney: I enjoy baking, especially when I can use ingredients that I foraged, like honeysuckle, persimmons and crabapples.

Check out her suggested recipe for persimmon cookies.

Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, you can contact her at dwotapka@gmail.com. Be sure to connect with Dawn on LinkedIn.