NYT biz editor Murphy explains its business coverage
Dean Murphy was named business editor of The New York Times in December 2012, replacing Larry Ingrassia, who had been the business editor since 2004.
Murphy, who oversees all content for The Times’ Business Day, was appointed to his current position after a two-year stint as deputy business editor.
Murphy previously worked at The Los Angeles Times, where he was a foreign correspondent based in Poland and South Africa and reported on the war in the former Yugoslavia. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and has a master’s degree in international affairs from Johns Hopkins University.
Since he joined The Times in 2000, Murphy has reported on politics, worked as a San Francisco correspondent and served as deputy national editor before joining the business section as a deputy editor in 2010. Murphy handled several highly regarded articles, including an exposé on the hidden wealth of the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China as well as a series on the digital economy that looked at working conditions in both the United States and in China.
As part of the 10th anniversary of Talking Biz News, Murphy spoke by email about how the Times covers business. What follows is an edited transcript.
What changes have you seen in how the Times covers business in the three years that you have been business editor?
The most significant change has been the rapid transformation of BizDay to a digital-first news operation. That change has meant being both faster and smarter in our coverage 24/7, and also thinking of creative and visual ways to expand our journalism. The transformation was already under way when I was a deputy business editor, but it has advanced at an astronomical pace since then, as it has across the entire Times.
One of the first changes I made as business editor was to create a “platform neutral” news desk that serves as the brain of our digital operation, with photo editors, assignment editors, producers, digital editors and others sitting together to better coordinate our news presentation. Going forward, those digital tools are being extended deeper into the staff, so that ultimately every editor and reporter will take some ownership of how and where our journalism is read and viewed.
And that’s not just in New York, but in San Francisco, London and Hong Kong. The news imperative hasn’t changed; we remain as dedicated as ever to producing the first-rate business report that our readers expect and demand, but we’re becoming much more nimble in meeting our readers in multiple ways and places beyond the print paper. The result: We have more readers than ever, and our journalism is thriving.
What coverage have you been most proud of during that time?
We need to excel at important breaking news, and we did so with distinction on the Alibaba IPO, the Greek debt crisis and most recently the Chinese currency devaluation. We need to hold big institutions – companies and regulators alike – accountable, and we did so with our coverage of the GM ignition switch and Takata airbag recalls, our stories exposing how nursing home ratings are manipulated, and our coverage of the safety problems in the Bangladesh garment industry.
We need to explain the changing business and economic landscape, and we did so with our “New Smoke” stories on e-cigarettes, our “Driven into Debt” stories on subprime auto lending and our “Power Up” stories on professional video gaming.
We need to provoke discussion and debate through reported commentary, and we do that with our daily columnists, whether Jim Stewart calling out the airline industry for possible collusion, or Gretchen Morgenson delving into private equity firms and their hidden, complicated fee structures, or just last week, Farhad Manjoo explaining our complicity through social media in furthering the goals of the shooter in Virginia.
And let’s not forget: we also need to just tell good stories, the kind that are compelling to read and that show business journalism at its literary and narrative best. Many here do it, but for a taste, try (and expect to fail) to put down just about any David Segal profile — Peter Lik, the fine-art photographer, or Ross Ulbricht, of Dread Pirate Roberts fame, or John McAfee, the man behind the computer virus-fighting software company, to name a few.
The business news department has lost a lot of veteran reporters in the past few years. How do you adjust for that?
It is never easy seeing a colleague leave, whether it is to retirement, a buyout or an opportunity elsewhere. But at the risk of sounding immodest, one of the most amazing things about The Times is the depth of talent here – and the magnet it remains for outstanding journalists elsewhere.
Even with tight budgets, we’ve been able to hire strategically, and within The Times, recruit staff to BizDay from other departments to keep us vibrant and strong. Just in recent months, we’ve added some real reporting and editing fire power, including John Koblin from our own Styles department, Jesse Pesta from The Wall Street Journal, Pui-Wing Tam, Katie Benner and Leslie Picker from Bloomberg News, Noam Scheiber from The New Republic and Aimee Tsang from the Financial Times.
Who do you see as the biggest competitors in terms of business coverage and why?
In the digital age, the competition is ever changing. While we are not trying to be a financial publication like The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times or Bloomberg News, as major news organizations dedicated to covering business news, they are certainly among our main competitors. But what I love about BizDay is that we do a lot of different things well, and so depending on the cluster, the competition changes.
It might be CNBC on a fast-breaking financial story, or Fast Company on a thoughtful technology take-out. Take the media cluster as an example. There are some traditional competitors like the Washington Post and other big papers, but we are also competing with Variety, Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter, ReCode, Gawker and our old friend Brian Stelter at CNN.
A big task for our cluster editors is to keep abreast of the changing competition, and to set priorities for where we want to make our mark. We are not interested in being the go-to report for basic commodity news, the stuff that is forgotten by tomorrow or even in a few hours, but we do want to be competitive on significant news. There is a lot of background noise on the web that can be deafening at times, so we need to be mindful of the competition, but not a slave to it.
How big is your staff in terms of reporters vs. editors?
As you know, roles aren’t as easily defined as in the old days. Is someone who collects feeds from social media to imbed in stories considered a reporter? Does the brilliant research and digital presentation by a multimedia or graphics person make him or her a reporter? What about the person who moderates comments? Or the videographers who expand our story telling in amazing new ways?
While we certainly have traditional editors and reporters as well, I’m afraid your question can’t be answered with a simple head count. The nature of what we do and how we do it has changed remarkably. Overall, I can tell you that BizDay is one of the largest news departments at The Times.
It’s impossible to cover every business news story. How do you and your team decide that every day?
I was a foreign correspondent for a number of years, and I believe that job serves as a great construct for approaching day to day journalism, regardless of the subject. Most foreign correspondents have vast and colorful canvases before them – far more than anyone could be expected to master.
So they need to make judgments every day about what not to cover, which can be just as important as deciding what to cover. Because it is a zero sum game. In the business world, time spent writing a routine earnings story, for example, just because it is earnings season not because there is something compelling to say, is time not spent exploring other targets.
Beat reporting is the backbone of our report, and a great beat reporter has a range of ambitions, including keeping on top of significant news, but also looking around the corner at targets that might be less obvious. We are in the news business, but we are also in the business of explaining, analyzing, contextualizing and exposing.
So every day requires balancing those competing priorities, with both editors and reporters involved. In the end, I want readers to come to BizDay because it is current and relevant, but also because it is singular and compelling.
Explain the interaction between DealBook and BizDay. How do they work together?
DealBook is an integral part of BizDay, just as the technology, media, economic and health-care clusters are. It is at the center of our coverage of Wall Street and the broader world of finance.
With Alessandra Stanley covering inequality, how do you foresee some of that coverage landing in the business section?
This is the beauty of the web. Even though Alessandra does not report directly to BizDay, her stories that resonate with our readers will be posted on our web pages and mobile feeds, promoted by our social media editors and made part of our report in every way possible.
Going forward, I also expect Alessandra will team up with various BizDay reporters on some stories, just as Jodi Kantor, who does not work for BizDay, recently partnered with David Streitfeld of our technology cluster on the “Inside Amazon” story. As always, the generation of business and economic coverage is by no means an exclusive endeavor of BizDay; we routinely work with other desks, including international, science, investigations, video and Upshot. We’re the better for it, and in the end, the reader is served.
Is there a type of coverage that you’d like to increase going forward?
Like most of us, I’m very eager to explore new ways to reach our readers on mobile devices. It is an exciting opportunity to adapt our journalism to an important technology that is fast becoming the most common entry point to The Times.
In terms of subject areas, I’m very interested in the intersections of finance and technology, and business and government.
What’s the best part of your job? And the worst?
I feel very blessed. I work with fantastic, dedicated people with shared values about journalism and the reasons we’re drawn to it. The worst part is the need to say “no” sometimes because of resource constraints.