Dawn Wotapka's Media Movers

Media Movers: Charter’s Kevin Delaney

December 1, 2023

Posted by Dawn Wotapka

Kevin Delaney (photo by Beck Diefenbach)

When I started this column, I expected it to be filled with routine Q&As about reporting, writing and editing. But I’ve found that journalists are so much more than that. The biggest surprise for me has been the entrepreneurial sprit that I’ve found. It is fueled by dreamers and risk-takers who, in some cases, leave behind a steady paycheck in favor of reshaping the journalism landscape.

This is why I was so excited to chat with Kevin Delaney. I first met him back at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a well-respected editor. I watched from afar as he co-founded Quartz and then Charter, which describes itself as a future-of-work media and research company. Kevin clearly views the workplace as far more than a cubicle with access to free, mediocre coffee (if you’re lucky). His vision is downright inspiring.

I hope that you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Dawn: Tell me about Charter. Where does it fit in the media landscape?

Kevin: Charter is a future-of-work media and research company. 

We help owners of the talent agenda—including c-suite and people leaders—bridge research to practice to confidently and effectively implement approaches that make their workplaces more fair and dynamic. This includes doing our own research where it doesn’t already exist, such as a recent report on AI and workers.

Specifically, we have a flagship newsletter, a Pro membership that provides actionable research, case studies, and tools, a Work Tech newsletter, events like our recent Charter Workplace Summit, and a partnership to publish on TIME.com.

Our core coverage areas are AI and work, innovations in inclusion and flexible working.

Dawn: What made you decide to start his venture?

Kevin: Charter exists because there wasn’t a smart, reliable source of guidance on how to lead a team or organization in this new era of work. 

I looked for that sort of resource when I was running Quartz, and a team at The Wall Street Journal before that—and found that all of the existing options fell short, especially in terms of equipping managers to lead in coherence with important macro vectors such as sustainability, inclusion, human work in the age of AI, and multiple generations in the workforce. 

I believe that workplaces can be engines of improving society more broadly, exposing people to a greater diversity than they otherwise encounter, teaching them how to navigate difference, uncertainty, and conflict with others, helping them show up as active, positive contributors to their families and communities. We know more about how to get that right than most people realize, or are able to easily access—and I wanted to spread the practices and approaches that make workplaces and, in turn, our society, better.

I considered reporting and writing a book but decided that the research and practices about workplaces were so dynamic—especially since this was 2020, during the pandemic remote-working era—that it made more sense to cover them on an ongoing basis by launching a media and research organization. I found great partners — a key for successful new ventures — in Alex MacCallum, Erin Grau, and Jay Lauf. 

Dawn: Where do you see Charter in five years?

Kevin: Many of the assumptions we had about what it means to go to work and how to lead teams to sustainable high performance have been dramatically altered in the past few years. Now, the introduction of AI is further shifting dynamics within organizations and best practices for leading them. 

Our goal is that Charter is trusted for navigating these changes like people have looked to Harvard Business Review, Fortune or The Wall Street Journal. We also want to deliver the sort of value based in research and new frameworks that executives have historically relied on Gartner and consulting companies for. 

Charter is the playbook for the new approach to management. Looking forward to five years from now, my dream is that millions of people are thriving in their workplaces thanks to the impact of the research and approaches Charter has disseminated. Looking ahead, I also hope that our amazing team has grown and Charter itself has been a laboratory for the ideas and practices [that] we’re sharing. 

Dawn: You have an entrepreneurial spirit. How does that work in journalism?

Kevin: I think journalists are well suited to entrepreneurship, if you’re curious and try to understand how things work. You need to be critical—and self-critical—but driven to bring something new into the world. 

I was lucky to have entrepreneurial opportunities in my first journalism jobs—I created a national business TV show in Canada, then helped launch a TV station for The Wall Street Journal, then worked at the Journal’s magazine startup, SmartMoney. I was a traditional Journal beat reporter for a number of years, covering tech, before shifting to help run WSJ.com and then launch Quartz and Charter.

So much of the change in journalism over my time in the industry has been about how our work is distributed—from print to the web to social, mobile, newsletters, video, audio etc. It’s required entrepreneurialism to figure out how to continue to reach readers amid those changes, and to use the distribution channels to best do high-impact journalism and get it out into the world. 

Dawn: Tell me about your time at Quartz. What did you learn there?

Kevin: When we were starting Quartz in 2012, David Bradley said he thought we should endeavor for it to be “bold and creative” in every regard. That was the mandate that unlocked more or less everything we did from the start, including designing for mobile before desktop, foregoing a homepage (since users would reach us via social), having Obsessions rather than beats, and running only native advertising. 

I remain overwhelmed by the level of talent that the project attracted over the years — journalists, engineers and designers, and business people who are today leading the most interesting initiatives at media companies all over the world. 

So one key lesson is that if you have a project where the direction is to be bold and creative, an institutional culture of ambition and generosity, and an important, inspiring mission, the best people will flock to it and do their best work. In a short time, Quartz grew from nothing to hundreds of staff around the world producing award-winning journalism, tens of millions of readers each month, and tens of millions of dollars in revenue. 

 Dawn: You spent a long time at The Wall Street Journal. What was it like to be a writer there?

 Kevin: It was an unparalleled instruction in how to report and write. Some of the most fun and rewarding times were when I worked in the Journal’s San Francisco bureau, reporting alongside Pui-Wing Tam, Nick Wingfield and Rob Guth. I learned so much just listening to them interview sources at their desks near me, coaxing and pushing back, circling around the story and who might help them uncover it. Pui-Wing’s unparalleled coverage of HP that led to the company surveilling her and Rob’s epic stories about Bill Gates and Microsoft come to mind. We wrote a lot of co-bylined stories, which I think allowed us to break ground that others couldn’t cover.

In those days, the assumption was that your job was to write stories that no one else had written already, whether they were scoops of fact or of insight. The bar was high, and the editing was very tight. Journal style encourages precision and economy of words. To this day, I think it’s the best-edited newspaper. 

The traditional training of the Journal gave us confidence to try to reinvent the form of journalism at Quartz, where we, for example, thought the most interesting fact or anecdote in articles was often buried several paragraphs down below a throat-clearing lede and a bland nut graf. Why not just make the most interesting fact or chart or anecdote the clear focus of your article instead? Why not make it your headline? And why fill out the article with so-called b-matter when you could omit that and save the reader’s time, telling them what they needed to know in a few hundred words?

Dawn: You moved from writing into editing. Why did you make that move?

Kevin: In 2007, Alan Murray asked me what I would do if I was running WSJ.com, which he had just assumed responsibility for. I was based in San Francisco at the time, and observed that media organizations were missing vital opportunities to reach readers while the companies I was covering — Google, Yahoo, and eventually Twitter and Facebook — were succeeding brilliantly with no journalism of their own or inferior content. 

I wrote a 20-plus-page memo answering Alan’s question over the Fourth of July weekend in 2007. My recommendations included things that seem obvious now, like search engine optimization, the different strategies for both breaking news and evergreen content to reach readers, and data journalism. But the Journal was doing little of those at the time, and the memo contributed to my returning to New York and eventually becoming managing editor for digital. I quickly hired the first staff SEO, launched strategies for evergreen digital content, and green lit ambitious data journalism including Julia Angwin’s landmark “What They Know” series about online privacy.

To your question, I love both writing and editing, and one of the pleasures of my role at Charter is that I still both regularly edit and squeeze in time to write, including briefings on the latest business and management books

Dawn: What was it like to be with WSJ.com as the Journal transitioned from a print-first publication into a digital-first publication?

Kevin: It was the best of times and the worst of times. It was an amazing opportunity to rethink how journalism could be done—especially around data journalism—how the content could come alive on new devices like the iPad, and how we could reach tens of millions of more readers each month via search and other online front doors. 

But, at the time, there was a fair amount of resistance in the newsroom to the changes needed, and I had to fight—often unsuccessfully—to convince editors to embrace the new formats and consistently do things such as writing more interesting headlines and putting stories online when news broke rather than holding them until the next day’s print edition. 

To try to shift that culture, I partnered with HR team members including Meredith Lubitz and Lorna Hagen on a program called DJ@DJ (digital journalism at Dow Jones) that brought reporters and editors in for a weeklong training, meetings with company executives and fun meals and outings. It was inevitable that the newsroom would eventually embrace the digital opportunities, but that program seemed—at least on the margins—to accelerate it.

The other thing we did was to incubate and protect under WSJ.com areas of journalism undervalued by the newsroom, such as computer-aided reporting and coverage of work and management. They weren’t strictly part of our mandate at WSJ.com, but they were clearly important to Journal readers, so we invested in them when there wasn’t much other institutional support. 

Dawn: Who has mentored you in your career?

Kevin: I had a great series of mentors at The Wall Street Journal, including Tom Kamm, Alan Murray, Rebecca Blumenstein, Steve Yoder, and Betsy Stark. David Bradley, who backed the launch of Quartz, remains a mentor as well. They’re all people I admire greatly, and from whom I’ve learned even more by watching how they operate as from any conversations we had specifically about work or leadership.

I also consider my colleagues my mentors, and the people who have influenced me most formatively over the years include Xana Antunes, Lauren Brown, and Mitra Kalita. They’ve deeply shaped how I’ve thought about what a good workplace looks like. 

Dawn: Speaking of, finding a mentor is easier said than done. How does one go about making that happen these days?

Kevin: For mentees, it’s about finding someone whose work you admire and then both telling them why and asking for a short meeting with them. Explaining why you’re looking to them specifically for advice helps the prospective mentor understand the context and how they might be able to help. And If there’s a good connection during that meeting, you should follow up and ask to meet again. Mentor/mentee relationships can be built in stages over time — you don’t have to expect a long-term commitment from the very start.

Dawn: What advice would you give mentees today?

Kevin: The work of journalists is needed as much today as ever for uncovering facts, holding the powerful to account and providing the information that allows people to be safe, healthy, prosperous and understanding of each other.  

To the extent that you can contribute to those things and are driven to do so, it’s a worthy effort. It’s admittedly easy to get deterred by the troubled state of the media business and the AI technology that can instantly produce verisimilitudinous articles. But AI can be more of a tool than a competitor when you’re doing original reporting and writing, and a multitude of initiatives offers some hope for the future of local journalism. 

If I were starting out, I’d report and write and fully embrace the tech tools that can help you do so. I’d read as much as I could and try to work alongside people whose journalism I respect. I’d try to develop an expertise in a specific community or area of interest. 

You’ll learn a lot about the world by asking the questions reporters ask every day, and hopefully have the chance to do it for as long as you’d like to.

Dawn: What do you do for fun?

Kevin: I do find writing and editing fun! I’m also an avid runner and basketball player, and would swim if that were easier to do in New York City. I follow Brooklyn Nets basketball and Arsenal soccer matches with my nephews. And I enjoy reading with and cooking for my wife Lisbeth. Any conversation with my children Jack and Kamilla and family trips with them are highlights of the year.

Dawn Wotapka is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who lives for any communication model. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children. She is a slow runner, barre enthusiast and an avid Peloton user. To submit tips for her Media Movers column, connect with Dawn on LinkedIn

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