Q&A: New WSJ editor Murray focused on great journalism, diversity, younger readers
Matt Murray became editor in chief of The Wall Street Journal in June, replacing Gerard Baker, who had been editor for five-and-a-half years.
Murray had been deputy editor-in-chief since 2013, and had been a deputy managing editor since 2008. He joined Dow Jones & Co. in 1994 as a reporter for the Pittsburgh bureau. In 1997, he joined the Journal’s Money & Investing section, where he covered banking.
As deputy editor, Murray oversaw the newsroom transformation called WSJ2020, designed to make the paper focused more on a digital strategy.
Murray joined the news desk in 2004, and later served as a deputy national editor and national news editor. He is the author of “The Father and the Son” and the co-author, with former New York City fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen, of “Strong of Heart.”
In an email to the staff shortly after he took over, Murray wrote, “I feel prouder than ever to work for an organization that does so much so well. This newsroom has never had more talent than we have right here, today.”
He took over a newsroom that was disgruntled about Baker’s stance toward President Donald Trump and his aloof management style, which caused some reporters and editors to leave for other media organizations.
Murray spoke Thursday morning with Talking Biz News about his first six months on the job. What follows is an edited transcript.
After nearly six months on the job, what’s been your impressions of the paper, in terms of strengths and weaknesses?
I feel pretty good. I feel like we have a great run of scoops. We have broken a lot of stories and have been aggressive on our core business, markets and economic topics. We have had some great beat stories and investigations as well. I think the first thing that we wanted to do, and the most important thing I could do, is be on target and drive great stuff. And the staff is responding, so I feel great about that. I feel we’re generating a lot of really smart coverage in our core area.
What’s been your biggest lesson in terms of running the paper?
I’m learning a lot every day. It’s taken a while to learn everything. The thing that I am probably trying to figure out is I have made some progress in where I can make a difference and where I need to get out of the way. I have to set the tone for the newsroom, and I have to have a positive tone. We want great work and encourage great work. We need to take risks, but we need to be rigorous and push ourselves. There are places where I can be involved and help, but we have a fantastic staff, so there are some places where I don’t need to be involved because I could muck it up. It’s been illuminating and rewarding.
For all of the jobs I have had at the Journal, there were plenty of things I didn’t know.
What are some of the changes that you have made?
We had a big restructuring a little over a year ago, and completely overhauled our leadership team. I was heavily involved in that process. When I took over, we were eight months in, and I didn’t want to reorient everybody again. We had a really fantastic leadership team. They’re a bit younger, and they’re growing in their roles and doing fantastic roles. So I need to help them grow and get deeper into their jobs.
There are a couple of areas that are a bigger focus now. One has been strategy. We have brought in Louise Story to build our strategy team. We will be doing some hiring there to drive the growth and evolution in the newsroom.
We have to be doing more with new types of content, accelerating our place in digital and getting more involved in audience engagement. We have learned from what works and what didn’t works in the past few years. We have made some progress, but we’ve still got a ways to grow. We’re still a little too, for instance, print-centric or print-dervied in the way we think of content. Louise is making a big difference there and will continue to.
Bringing in Anthony Galloway as our heard of video had been fantastic. He is a really experienced veteran video journalist, and he has overhauled the department quite dramatically, especially with news content. Anthony is hiring some new people.
Similarly, we’re in the process of rolling out in the next couple of weeks a newsier app. We have been emphasizing scoops and news more on the web as well, just shifting our focus a little harder on breaking news and scoops, feeling that there are stories like Amazon’s headquarters where we have to break the story.
One more area is the managing editor’s office created under Karen Pensiero. We have been developing our recruiting and training and taking some of that off the shoulders of our news editors. We’re improving the pipeline of the people coming in, improving our diversity, and helping people here take the next steps in their careers. I went to the NABJ this year, and Karen went to the NAHJ. We’re working hard to have a different tone in the newsroom and get the word out.
What are some things you’d like to focus on improving but haven’t yet?
Everything. We can always get better. We’ve got to extend the range of our content in both directions. We have to develop our ability to be faster off the mark. We’re slower sometimes on getting out there on breaking news when that matters. The business news audience is changing. We consciously have to go after their habits and help shape their reading habits.
The investigative side, we have done great work on stories like Michael Cohen and Tesla. But we need to have more impact on business, technology and markets. We need to go deeper and longer. Journalistically, we have to do more work on visual storytelling. It needs to get better on the front end. I think we need to do better on new types of content, particularly for younger readers.
Dow Jones has built a large student program in the last few years, with 400,000 readers. I’d like to produce more content for those readers as they start their careers.
I think that if you’re not looking around the newsroom and seeing that more needs to be done, it’s probably a signal that somebody else need to step in. We need to keep changing.
What work is the Journal doing to attract younger audiences?
We have a large student ambassador program. We’re getting them in the door. We have started expanding our management coverage to do more with them as they start their careers. One of the things we will do with Louise is build out a team focused on new audiences and new content. We are defined as being through the lens of business and economics. And what we do today, there is a lot that we can do to bring those topics to life for younger readers. We are looking at little bit at who we talk to for our stories — are we getting diverse and young enough sources? Our social strategy and outreach strategy is part of that. And we’re visiting a lot more colleges and trying to get out there.
The challenge that we have is not unlike others are facing. But we have to reach out to more people. I think that one of the things that I am learning as we grow is that our readership continues to grow, and that is gratifying, but the bigger you get, the more ways you have to reach them.
What efforts have you made to increase diversity in the newsroom?
We aren’t nearly where we need to be. I say it with humility because if I sound like I am satisfied with what we have done and we have arrived, that is not the right message and is not reality.
When we revamped the leadership team last year, we took into account having greater gender and ethnic diversity. We were criticized internally a few years ago for not having women in leadership roles where they oversaw coverage. Now, in our six key coverage drivers, half of the leaders in the U.S. are women. And half of our bureau chiefs are women.
We are looking at pay equity constantly, and where we see problems, we act to fix them. We have also looked at benefits, and we have a new generous parental leave policy. And we now have a whole office with Karen to listen to these issues. We’ve been creating a pipeline and channel to talk about these ideas. There is a lot happening across the company on all fronts.
In recruiting and hiring, one of the problems in the past is that hiring had gotten so decentralized, that the reality was diversity didn’t happen. So we’ve centralized hiring to look across the organization. We do not let our current managers hire managers or promote managers unless they look at diverse candidates. And Karen’s team, particularly with Sarah Rabil, who was formerly the deputy in media and marketing, has been very very actively recruiting on campus and diversity organizations such as NABJ. Me going to NABJ was a sign to the newsroom that we have to take this seriously and have to be personally involved.
I would never claim that we are close to where we want to be, but there is a commitment to create a culture to make it better.
We had a bureau chief meeting with 110 people from around the world at the end of September, and we all went off site for a couple of days. We hadn’t done that in a decade. We talked three or four times about diversity and about how management views diversity. We also had a panel of younger journalists come in and tell the managers where they think we’re an obstacle to their success. These were rising stars and they gave us a lot of views. They let us have it pretty good. You have to follow up on those things and their concerns. They love the Journal and are proud to be here, and they want to see us make progress and change.
I have heard that morale is improving.
I hope that’s true. I feel morale is improving. I have always said many times that in a newsroom, the best thing for morale is great journalism, which feeds on itself and drives more great journalism. I really do believe this. I think the journalists, when you let them do their best work, that is more important than who is the editor.
How does the paper use audience data to figure out how to position stories?
We’re using it better. We had mandatory audience training last year, and everybody is familiar with the tools. It does help inform how to position stories and tackle stories. We’re much better about publishing on a digital schedule and at a certain time and on a certain platform. We’ve brought those decisions into the newsroom.
I would like it to go deeper and for us to be more aware of it. Data should help us and challenge us. It’s something that Louise and Carla Zanoni are focused on. We’re thinking about our SEO practices and bringing in some experts in that area. Analytics as a tool shouldn’t be the be all and end all, but it does bring in some sophistication into our lives. We’re someway down the road, but we still have some hiring to do and some progress to make.
How does the paper’s video strategy fit in to its overall strategy?
Anthony has modified our strategy that focuses on three areas: news video, and regular recurring features that are series and go deep and sometimes have sponsorships, and then we want to do some bigger documentaries. We have a bigger documentary project with a partner that will be debuting early next year on TV.
I think that as we built out the series and documentary areas, we have fallen down a bit too much on the news side. We do need to step up on our core news topics and turn around video much faster on news. Anthony has been thinking about the structure of his team to get that all right. He’s changing some jobs here and trying to ensure we can do all three things.
The way I can think about video is that it started for us as a revenue thing. As revenue took off, it was an ad inventory thing. But that market is changing, and meanwhile consumer habits are changing, and it has become part of a core storytelling tool, and any newsroom should expect to have that in its arsenal. In five or 10 years, it will be much more natural to have a certain percentage of stories on video. I don’t know what the percentage should be, but I would like the newsroom and the leadership of the newsroom to get to a place where it’s instinctual on when to use video, particularly in our core topics.
Has the WSJ2020 initiative completed, or are there still more changes?
We’ve got a lot more to do in general, but I don’t know if we’re branding it 2020. The context of 2020, we got a lot done last year. Once we had the leadership change and I was back as deputy editor, we were just focused on getting that team straight.
I have been thinking a little bit, but I haven’t been talking about it openly, is there are some things I will want to do next year to redeploy resources and expand coverage. I’m not really calling it 2020.
I think the newsroom is in a good place, and you want to get into a place where we’re doing intelligent revolution and not have everyone feeling like we’re in constant turmoil. We have to challenge ourselves to think differently as part of an ongoing process. That is preferable to me than a big restructuring project, and then a pause, and then another big restructuring project, and a pause.