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Inside the fight for the future of the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal of the future, they say, must pay more attention to social media trends and cover racial disparities in health care, for example, as aggressively as it pursues corporate mergers.

By: New York Times |
April 11, 2021 1:14:59 pm
The home page of the Wall Street Journal is displayed on a monitor in New York on April 8, 2021. (Devin Oktar Yalkin/The New York Times)

Written by Edmund Lee

The Wall Street Journal is a rarity in 21st-century media: a newspaper that makes money. A lot of money. But at a time when the U.S. population is growing more racially diverse, older white men still make up the largest chunk of its readership, with retirees a close second.

“The No. 1 reason we lose subscribers is they die,” goes a joke shared by some Journal editors.

Now a special innovation team and a group of nearly 300 newsroom employees are pushing for drastic changes at the paper, which has been part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire since 2007. They say The Journal, often Murdoch’s first read of the day, must move away from subjects of interest to established business leaders and widen its scope if it wants to succeed in the years to come. The Journal of the future, they say, must pay more attention to social media trends and cover racial disparities in health care, for example, as aggressively as it pursues corporate mergers.

That argument has yet to convince executives in the top ranks of the company.

The Journal got digital publishing right before anyone else. It was one of the few news organizations to charge readers for online access starting in 1996, during the days of dial-up internet. At the time, most other publications, including The New York Times, bought into the mantra that “information wants to be free” and ended up paying dearly for what turned out to be a misguided business strategy.

As thousands of papers across the country folded, The Journal, with its nearly 1,300-person news staff, made money, thanks to its prescient digital strategy. While that inoculated The Journal against the ravages wrought by an array of unlikely newcomers, from Craigslist to Facebook, it also kept the paper from innovating further.

The editor leading the news organization as it figures out how to attract new readers without alienating loyal subscribers is Matt Murray, 54, who got the top job in 2018. He has worked at The Journal for two decades, and his promotion was welcomed by many in the newsroom. Soon after, he assembled a strategy team focused on bringing in new digital subscribers. To oversee the group, Murray hired Louise Story, a journalist whose career included a decade at The New York Times.

The New York headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in midtown Manhattan on April 7, 2021. News Corp recorded a .1 billion loss last year. (Sasha Maslov/The New York Times)

She was given a sweeping mandate, marking her as a potential future leader of the paper. She commands a staff of 150 as chief news strategist and chief product and technology officer. Her team helped compile a significant audit of the newsroom’s practices in an effort to boost subscribers and now plays a key role in the newsroom as audience experts, advising other editors on internet-search tactics (getting noticed by Google) and social media to help increase readership.

As the team was completing a report on its findings last summer, Murray found himself staring down a newsroom revolt. Soon after the killing of George Floyd, staff members created a private Slack channel called “Newsroomies,” where they discussed how The Journal, in their view, was behind on major stories of the day, including the social justice movement growing in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Participants also complained that The Journal’s digital presence was not robust enough and that its conservative opinion department had published essays that did not meet standards applied to the reporting staff. The tensions and challenges are similar to what leaders of other news organizations, including The Times, have heard from their staffs.

In July, Murray received a draft from Story’s team, a 209-page blueprint on how The Journal should remake itself called The Content Review. It noted that “in the past five years, we have had six quarters where we lost more subscribers than we gained” and said addressing its slow-growing audience called for significant changes in everything from the paper’s social media strategy to the subjects it deemed newsworthy.

The report argued that the paper should attract new readers — specifically, women, people of color and younger professionals — by focusing more on topics such as climate change and income inequality. Among its suggestions: “We also strongly recommend putting muscle behind efforts to feature more women and people of color in all of our stories.”

The Content Review has not been formally shared with the newsroom and its recommendations have not been put into effect, but it is influencing how people work: An impasse over the report has led to a divided newsroom, according to interviews with 25 current and former staff members. The company, they say, has avoided making the proposed changes because a brewing power struggle between Murray and the new publisher, Almar Latour, has contributed to a stalemate that threatens the future of The Journal.

A copy of The Wall Street Journal is displayed on a newsstand in New York on April 7, 2021. (Sasha Maslov/The New York Times)

Murray and Latour, 50, represent two extremes of the model Murdoch employee. Murray is the tactful editor; Latour is the brash entrepreneur. The two rose within the organization at roughly the same time. When the moment came to replace Gerry Baker as the top editor in 2018, both were seen as contenders.

The two men have never gotten along, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Or as an executive who knows both well put it, “They hate each other.” The digital strategy report has only heightened the strain in their relationship — and, with it, the direction of the crown jewel in the Murdoch news empire.

Both Murray and Latour declined to be interviewed for this article.

About a month after the report was submitted, Story’s strategy team was concerned that its work might never see the light of day, three people with knowledge of the matter said, and a draft was leaked to one of The Journal’s own media reporters, Jeffrey Trachtenberg. He filed a detailed article on it late last summer.

But the first glimpse that outside readers, and most of the staff, got of the document wasn’t in The Journal. In October, a pared-down version of The Content Review was leaked to BuzzFeed News, which included a link to the document as a sideways scan. (Staffers, eager to read the report, had to turn their heads 90 degrees.)

The leak angered Murray, people with knowledge of the matter said. But he offered an olive branch at the same time. “I’m very proud of the work being done by the strategy team across the newsroom,” he said, according to a recording of a meeting obtained by The Times. He added that the report’s recommendations — “some of which I disagree with” — required debate.

If subsequent debate has led to revisions or an updated strategy, the staff hasn’t been told. The Journal’s own story by Trachtenberg on The Content Review still has not run.

‘A broad cultural fear of change’

The Journal isn’t the only media organization whose leaders have been challenged by its employees. Editors at The Times, the Los Angeles Times and Condé Nast have faced tough questions from staffers on how they have handled race coverage or issues of bias or problematic editorials.

What’s unusual about the recent events at The Journal is the public nature of the grievances. The Times, by contrast, is known for how its internal spats become public. At The Journal, workplace gripes tend to stay within the family. Mostly. (None of the people interviewed for this article work at The Times, which has recruited a sizable number of Journal employees.)

The Content Review didn’t pull any punches. “We have a broad cultural fear of change and we overweight the possibility of alienating some readers, compared to our opportunity cost of not changing and growing,” it read.

News Corp., the parent company of Dow Jones, the publisher of The Journal, has put pressure on the paper to double the number of subscribers. But to meet that goal, it must “reach a sustained 100 million monthly unique visitors” by June 2024, according to the report, noting that its site has never attracted more than 50 million readers in a given month.

Dow Jones disputed that figure, saying that the site averaged about 55 million, with a peak of 79 million last March. (The Journal temporarily gave readers free access to its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic when it hit the United States more than a year ago.)

Earnings filings show The Journal had 2.46 million digital-only subscribers at the end of 2020, including 106,000 who came aboard in the year’s final quarter.

Early last year, as Story’s team was months away from making its recommendations, Murray was sanguine that its eventual report would be well received by Will Lewis, who was then the Dow Jones chief executive and The Journal’s publisher, according to several people who worked in the newsroom. But last spring Lewis suddenly stepped down. He was replaced in both jobs by Latour, who had won praise within the company for his digital know-how as the publisher of Dow Jones’ Barron’s Group.

Murray was not happy to learn of Latour’s appointment, according to five people with knowledge of the matter. That’s when his attitude toward the strategy team’s efforts changed, the people said.

They added that Murray was concerned that the group’s report, coupled with the staff unrest, would be taken as an indictment of his leadership, and that Latour might use its findings against him. The document called out Murray in one instance in which it observed that the traffic goals have “not been articulated well enough in the newsroom” and added, “Unless Matt is abandoning that goal, it needs to be announced and explained robustly.”

Dow Jones disputed that characterization of Murray’s concern and said that he and Latour had gotten along and discussed the team’s work.

Latour had his own idea of how to goose The Journal’s readership, one built on more common traffic tactics that he had employed at the sister titles Barron’s and MarketWatch. A few people on the business side and some top editors who had seen the analysis by Story’s team dismissed it as a “woke” strategy, given its emphasis on appealing to underrepresented readers, the people said.

In a statement, Story said she was proud of her team’s work and their collaborative efforts across the newsroom, which “has led to great results.”

Leadership tensions stymie progress

News Corp. looks like most aging media businesses: It’s shrinking. It recorded a $1.1 billion loss last year, and news revenues, with the exception of Dow Jones, continue to fall. Dow Jones operates The Journal and several other titles such as Barron’s and MarketWatch, but not News Corp.’s Australian and British newspapers, which haven’t performed as well. (The company also owns a real estate listings business, TV stations in Australia and book publisher HarperCollins.) News Corp. recently hired the consulting firm Deloitte to work on a project to consolidate its many divisions, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter. That would mean cost cuts and could lead to the loss of a significant number of jobs, the people said.

The Journal’s ambitious subscriber target is very much part of News Corp.’s mission to stem the bleeding and find new areas of growth. But its editor and publisher, opposite in many ways, appear to have arrived at nearly opposite conclusions about the best way forward.

Latour, who grew up in the small village of Welten, Holland, was known to have clocked more Page 1 stories than almost anyone else at the paper when he covered the European telecommunications industry. A graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he started his journalism career as an intern at The Washington Times and exhibited the kind of scrappy drive prized by Murdoch.

Murray, who grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, is laid-back, amiable and sometimes awkward, colleagues said. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Northwestern, is fascinated by the entertainment industry and is a Talking Heads fan.

What is The Wall Street Journal?

One of the key issues outlined in The Content Review was the need to retain younger readers. For years, The Journal attracted college students by offering them a reduced price; but once those offers expired, they quit the publication at a higher rate — over 70% — than any other group, the report said.

To help solve that issue, Story’s team launched Noted, a monthly digital magazine designed to appeal to readers under 35.

Noted was also partly the brainchild of Grace Murdoch, one of Rupert Murdoch’s daughters, who had interned with Story’s team in summer 2019 while in high school, according to two people familiar with the matter.

“We need to move beyond perceptions and embrace actual data about younger audiences, and that is what WSJ Noted will be providing,” the report read. This included “tailoring content” for younger readers; last year, 10 reporters, editors and designers were hired to start working on features about inequality in education, student debt and related topics.

The project ran into trouble once Murray saw the copy, according to four people with knowledge of the matter. He line-edited stories himself, rare for a top Journal editor. An article about a college campus movement to abolish sororities and fraternities in an effort to combat racism and homophobia was spiked, according to the people. Murray objected to terms such as “trans-phobia,” which was not in the paper’s style guide, referring to them as “jargon-y woke-isms,” they said. Dow Jones said that Murray and Story decided not to publish that article because other outlets had covered the topic.

Noted switched gears. Based partly on a suggestion from Latour, it focused entirely on practical pieces, such as “how to update your résumé” or “how to approach a job interview.” Two Noted editors left in the last week of March, and now there are only four people on its staff.

One goal put forth by The Content Review seemed more attainable to many inside the paper than conjuring millions of new subscribers overnight: a greater effort to appeal to readers of color. In a meeting between the strategy team and high-level editors, Story spoke about trying to track the racial diversity of people quoted in Journal coverage. Most of those gathered for the discussion were white.

In a Feb. 22 memo to the staff, Murray endorsed including a wider variety of people in The Journal’s coverage, pledging to “properly capture the diversity of our society and speak to as wide an audience as possible.”

Latour has also been talking about the need for change. In a series of companywide meetings that started last summer, he emphasized the importance of The Journal’s digital transformation, but repeated a phrase that many took to mean he wanted a continued focus on business leaders and Wall Street elites. “We need to be digging into the brand,” he said, according to several staff members.

Latour never asked for a copy of The Content Review, according to two people familiar with the matter. It’s still unclear if he’s read it.

If he has, he would know that one key message contradicts the very approach he’s favoring: “We can’t think we’ve got a comfy base of digital subscribers who will be satisfied if we just keep doing what we’re doing.”

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