Working from the Island: Columnist makes West Tisbury home

Caroline Baum at home in her office. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Note: The online version of this article was updated and corrected, as of 11:30 am, October 18, 2012.

Working from the Island is an occasional series about Martha’s Vineyard residents who take advantage of advances in high-speed broadband access to the web and digital communications to telecommute, doing business off-Island while enjoying life on the Island.

As an award-winning economic writer and columnist for Bloomberg News, Caroline Baum has found that living on the Vineyard full-time fits her style. “No dress code in the Vineyard bureau, I like to say,” she remarked with a hearty laugh from her home in West Tisbury, “I commute from my bed to my desk.”

As a writer, Ms. Baum can work from just about anywhere, and she doesn’t miss the noise of the newsroom where she used to work. “You don’t have to listen to people on the phone who are constantly talking to their decorator,” she said.

She sometimes misses the helpful offhand comments, however, and the brain-storming and ready suggestions from her co-workers in an office environment.

For years, Ms. Baum had a weekly slot on the Financial News Network. Her book, “Just What I Said: Bloomberg Economics Columnist Takes on Bonds, Banks, Budgets and Bubbles,” a selection mined from her 1,300 columns, was published in August 2005. She has written on central bank policy, the bond market, money, politics and most any aspect of the economy imaginable for over 25 years.

Ms. Baum’s work has appeared in Barron’s, The National Review, Bloomberg Markets, and other publications. She now appears on Bloomberg TV and radio.

Ms. Baum is one of five finalists for the 2012 Bastiat Prize, which honors writers who best explain the importance of freedom with originality, wit, and eloquence.

Growing up in New Jersey, she first came to the Island in 1952 when she was two years old. “I don’t know what year I start remembering the Vineyard, but it has always been my special place,” she said. “It has always been my spiritual home. We didn’t summer here, but we rented a big house with a bunch of other families for a number of years. We ended most every summer with a week or two on the Vineyard.”

Her fondest memories of the Island as a child are the final miles of traveling to the Vineyard. “After the Bourne Bridge it took forever,” she said. “After every turn you think the trees are going to part and you are going to see that funky stone house that sticks out on that peninsula and beyond. That’s the one thing I don’t like about living here. I don’t get to come here.”

Her parents built a house in Lower Makoniky in 1974. They retired to the Vineyard in 1984. Her father, a physician, continued to work part-time taking in walk-in patients on Fridays out of Michael Jacobs’s office in Vineyard Haven. After he died in 1989, her mother sold the house. “That was very painful for me,” she said.

Ms. Baum’s career took a circuitous route. She earned a B.A. degree in political science from Tufts University and a Masters in cinema studies from New York University (NYU) with a plan to write esoteric film criticism. But she ended up selling municipal bonds to individual investors for a lot of small companies. “I would work with recent widows who were left at the mercy of Wall Street,” she said. “I liked the people contact, but I wasn’t about sitting at a desk dialing for dollars.”

She took night courses in non-fiction writing at NYU and spent $65 in 1986 to take a career change course. “Changing careers can be scary. You have no output, no paycheck, nothing to show for it.” She overcame such challenges and became “the over-achiever I was meant to be.”

The first full-time writing job she had was with the data side of Dow Jones, writing daily commentary on the government securities market. “I think the only reason I got the job was that the expectations were low and I knew that government bonds traded in 32nds.” Eleven years later, in 1998, she was recruited by the editor in chief and founder of Bloomberg News, Matt Winkler. She has been there ever since.

Ms. Baum, who lived in New York until 2005, began making regular trips to the Vineyard in the late 1990s. She said she tried to work from the Island for a week a month, calling herself a year-round-part-time person, but it was difficult. “The telecom wasn’t great.” she said. She bought her house on the Vineyard in 2000.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2011 that she gave up her mainland home for a year-round, full-time life on Martha’s Vineyard. Now, she said, she sits at her desk all day. Advances in communications technology mean that the information she requires to do her work is now just a Google search away.

All she needs is a computer and a telephone. She reads several newspapers every day, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times (she has the Times delivered primarily for the crossword puzzle), and she reads bits and pieces of The Financial Times, The Washington Post, and other publications. She travels infrequently for her job, an occasional conference or speaking or teaching gig. She said the only real problem she has encountered working from the Vineyard is Island power outages.

On her down time, which she says there is not much of, she works in her garden, walks her dog, and plays duplicate bridge two days a week. She joined the Island board of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and is a member of The Friends of Lambert’s Cove. She said she reads non-fiction “because she has too much to learn,” and she is a World War II buff.

Ms. Baum said she expects to write for the rest of her life, but if she were to retire she would use her time to learn Italian. She said she loves to travel and has contemplated taking trips off-Island just to relive that drive back to the Island. For her, coming home is almost as good as being home.

Caroline Baum’s column appears on Thursday’s Bloomberg View