About the last episode of Recode media, CEO of Fortune Media Group, Alan Murray, took place with Recode & # 39; s Peter Kafka talks about the sale of Fortune to the Thai billionaire Chatchaval Jiaravanon, and about how a brand that was once known only for its magazine, increasingly insists on live events and other companies.
Earlier an ex-editor at the Wall Street Journal, Murray also reflected on how that paper changed after News Corp bought it in 2007. At that time he had the Journal's digital, conferences, book and video divisions, and News Corp founder Rupert Murdoch was always in favor of his team "making a swing."
I think Rupert Murdoch is the best thing that happened to the Wall Street Journal, & # 39; he said. "When we made streaming video on the Journal website, this would have been in 2011, we had four to five hours a day of live video … Well, the late Roger Ailes started calling Brupert right away and said: This man is trying my case to take over & # 39 ;, which was an absurd claim.
"I got a phone call from Rupert on a regular basis and said:" Roger says you're trying to take over his business, "Murray added." At the end of the day, despite that, Rupert had my back. I was violating tradition, I did something else and you knew Rupert Murdoch wanted you to. "
You can listen Recode media wherever you get your podcasts – including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Cloudy. The last episode also includes an interview with co-founders of Gimlet Media, Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber, who have just sold their company to Spotify.
Below we have shared a slightly edited full transcript of Peter's conversation with Alan.
Peter Kafka: I'm here with Alan Murray. Hello, Alan.
Alan Murray: Hey, Peter. Delighted to be here.
Thanks for coming. You have had many titles in the past. What is your current title now?
My current title is President and CEO of the Fortune Media Group.
So, I think of you as the man who runs Fortune Magazine. Are we still calling it a magazine?
Well, some people do that. I prefer to call it Fortune Media Group. I mean, if you look at our business today, the magazine is less than half the turnover. We have a large digital company that reaches 20 million people per month and we have a fast growing event business.
We will talk about that. Normally when people come in, they talk about their plans to set up a payment wall. Maybe they explain what went wrong with their business, or are they talking about plans to sell their business to a billionaire. You've done at least two, right?
Yep. We can talk about all these things. Yes.
Yes. I'm going to slaughter this person's name. The magazine …
Chatchaval Jiaravanon. We call him Chat.
Chat, internal. I call him Chat.
Some people call him CJ, or you can call him Chatchaval Jiaravanon, if you want.
He bought your magazine, your legendary brand, late last year. Did we announce a price?
I think we have announced the price. It was $ 150 million.
Perfect. You know exactly what it was. This is part of the sale of titles purchased by Meredith magazine publishers when they launched Time Inc. early last year. bought. There were many questions about what would happen with Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, partly because the Koch brothers helped with the financing of the acquisition, and partly because …
Well, is this a question? Because you have a lot in that statement.
I have a lot in it and partly because we're just trying to figure out … Meredith and Time had been trying to come together for a long time, and the thought was always what would happen to those titles if those two companies together, and now we know it . They are sold, are usually sold.
Yes. So look. Time Inc. was around for, what, 90 years? I mean, it's a great business started by Henry Luce. I was the last headquarters of Time Inc., a beautiful, modern digital expression for editor-in-chief. It was sad to see it end.
I think Meredith, when it was Time Inc. bought, always primarily interested in the women's titles, which would be Southern Living, InStyle, but also, People is a largely female subscribership, had less interest in the news titles like Time and Fortune, or the Sports Illustrated, more male titles such as Sports Illustrated. So it was not a big surprise when they announced that they were going to sell them. I think what was a surprise, a pleasant surprise to me, was this interest that they all came from wealthy individuals who thought that owning a media property is a good thing to do in the world. I agree with them.
So you both had the company and then the management of the sale of the company at the same time.
I was in charge of the editorial side of the company and all of my colleagues in the Time Inc. C-suite were basically released at the time of the sale. They asked me to stay around …
Release with a really generous, very generous package, but yes. Continue.
Yes. Well, they were pretty generous. Most is public information. So they asked me to stay, both to help the orphans to sell, as I called them, but also because they wanted me to consider continuing with Fortune as the CEO. So they packed us. They place us as a package deal, me and Fortune.
People who listen to this podcast do not have to know why printed magazines decline, why their value has been decreasing for years and years and years. Forbes magazine as comp was sold for 425 million a few years ago. You can place an asterisk around that sales price. But the values have gone up and down, and many people thought that there might be almost no buyers for titles like Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated. Marc Benioff bought Time at a very good price.
$ 190 million.
Chat bought Fortune.
Also for a good price.
Sports Illustrated, while I record this, is NIBD.
To be determined, but I think it will end up in a good place.
So we start easily. Set the tone for why a billionaire or someone else would want to buy a good that is essentially based on a printed magazine in 2018.
Well, because of my position, during the past year I had the opportunity to talk to a number of people …
You have created this pitch before. Yes.
… and hear them, and you're talking about people with a lot of money, not particularly interested in maximizing their return on that money. At a certain point when you read the …
We are talking specifically about a billionaire, in this case or private buyers, because there were other people who were poking for business reasons. Right?
Some private equity boys.
Well, but most of them stopped pretty quickly because they were not willing to pay the asking price. People who were actually in the media industry quickly decided that what Meredith was looking for to sell these titles was not something they were willing to pay.
What a big warning flag should be, anyway, if you're a billionaire?
If you are not.
It is possible, yes, but I think you have a group of people who … they are billionaires, so they have a lot of money. They are not that interested in absolutely maximizing their returns. If they were, they would not look at media properties. They wanted to do something with their money that they thought was interesting, fun, a social purpose, and I think the media scratches that itch. So I tease Marc that …
There is a limited number of these things, right? There are only a handful of legendary publications that people know about. Jeff Bezos has bought one. Right?
Especially iconic brands. I think, Peter, I am interested in your opinion on this because you have worked for a great legacy brand, the Wall Street Journal, and you have worked for more start-up publications. It turns out that great brands are not easy to build and that they are pretty hard to destroy. They stay for a while. There is a real value in that legacy, and I think that is what we see in this wave of interest in titles like Fortune.
It is scarcity, right?
There are only a handful of brands that people know. I worked for Forbes forever and people often confused Forbes and Fortune, but they still knew what they were.
What they were, yes.
BusinessWeek, not so much, that only sold for a dollar. So when people came to you and said, "What do you have?" What did they expect when they peeked under cover and looked at the finances?
Well, I think you should separate the titles a bit. I know I had the talk with Marc Benioff, where he said, "Look, I do not intend to make more money with this investment, but I'm not going to lose money." So what they're looking for is something they can do where they can feel good and be enthusiastic about. It is going to be a big drain.
Now, that is a hard line to walk sometimes. I mean, if you talk to David Bradley about his 10 years at the Atlantic, he eventually lost more money than he made. So that is not an easy bar to come across. But let me distinguish Fortune from it, because Fortune is really in a different place than all other brands from Time Inc., or any other Meredith brand, for this reason. Fortune is the one that has actually crossed over, where the majority of the income does not come from the magazine but from the growth companies. The bulk of Fortune's revenue comes from digital and conferences, and the magazine is a minority.
That is the other line that goes up and it is the print line that goes down. Right? We have crossed over.
That's right. The print line is pretty universal … at least for ads-supported magazines – I'm sure we'll be back to the subscription part as soon as possible, but for magazines that are supported by ads, the print line has continued steady for the latter ten years, and the hope was that digital would grow to the point where it made that good and the company would grow again, but it has not happened in most publications, and it happened only at Fortune because we have a very large and successful live events business.
You mentioned Benioff. He would buy Fortune. He was very, very far from the road and eventually opted for buying time. How did …
That is a question that you should ask him.
Yes, but I ask you.
Well, I can tell you that from where I am, a Benioff purchase of Fortune is somewhat problematic. Marc Benioff was at the top of our hundred best companies to work for the list, he happens to be running Salesforce, running a very good company, and that has a rigorous methodology, but he came out on top. He was on & # 39; the world's largest leader list. We spent a lot of time writing about Salesforce and Marc Benioff and I think it would be somewhat problematic to do that if the magazine was owned by Marc Benioff. I mean, the South China Morning Post clearly has this problem with Jack Ma. The Washington Post would have the problem with Amazon, except that it does not have to write much about it.
Yes, and most people really have a hard time writing about their property / bosses, right?
Of course. Right.
It's just the reality.
So I think Fortune would have been a problem and I think it would probably have been a problem for him. What if we wrote a dirty story about a huge Salesforce customer and they went to him and complained? So I think the time is a … scratching his philanthropic itch, but it solves that conflict of interest problem.
The most interesting bidder I have heard was Steve Burke, runs NBCU and Jaime Diamond.
Again, you should talk to them about that, not me.
They did not come to talk to you? I'm sure they've come to chat with you.
Yes. I'm not going to go in …
Do not you want to talk about it?
I am willing to talk about everything that has happened in public, but not about things that have happened privately.
Honest. Maybe we can find a gray area in between. So the process lasted about … Yes, go ahead.
But I will say – and this was the point I was making at the beginning – I think that for all these titles it is not just the last buyer. Most bidders fall into this category of high net …
… who want to do something with their money where they can feel good, and they think it's socially useful, and kind of fun, and media scratches that itch, maybe the way a sports team does that.
I wanted to talk about that. So it was so that you bought a sports team almost completely for ego and you would claim that you may not have earned money. It turned out that these things were phenomenally valuable investments over time, again because of scarcity, and I think that is perhaps partly the analogy.
Yes. I think that is partly true. I mean, look, it's not new that people have bought media properties. I mean, you can talk about Sam Zell in Chicago. You can talk about Mort Huckerman with the American news and world report. It's not new for rich people to buy media assets that were hard, but I think probably, especially because of Jeff Bezos, there has been a wave of interest.
Turns out he got a lot, right? He bought the Post on a kind of bottom of the market, or what appears to be the bottom of the market.
So people say, "If he can do it, we might be able to do it."
So, how do you arrive at Chat? How does that happen … Am I still slaughtering his name?
Yes. No, you're fine. To chat.
So, it is an interesting story.
When the deal was announced, I ping a few people to Fortune and someone said, "He's a Thai billionaire nobody has ever heard of," which I think is still pretty accurate.
How many Thai billionaires have you ever heard?
All right. So, Chat's family, his great-grandfather and his siblings started a company called the CP Group in Thailand, which has now become the largest private company in Thailand. It is huge and it works together with Walmart. It runs 7-Elevens throughout Thailand. It does a lot of agricultural things. It is in telecommunication. Today it is reasonably varied. So, big, rich company, gives members of that family, including Chat, access to capital.
He has an interesting history with Fortune. He is in the mid-fifties, so if you turn back the clock to the end of the war in Vietnam, the US withdrew. We have left Vietnam. Saigon fell soon after, Laos, Cambodia. I suspect that if you were a member of the largest capitalist family in Thailand, the world would look rather scary.
So when he was sent … He was at school in Singapore. He was sent to school by my family in Arizona, I believe, at a fairly young age, as a teenager. So, grew up there and then went on to study at the USC, studied business at the Marshall School and was at that time required to read Fortune magazine as part of his curriculum. So, in an early stage of his life he met Fortune and the covenant with him. When he left the US, he spent a lot of time in China, was very interested in, invested in China and he knows the power of the Fortune brand in China. You may not know this, but every three years we do a big event, the Fortune Global Forum in China.
Gives you a lot of money. Do you do it in combination with the government there?
Yes. It is a huge event. It gets a lot of attention in the press. For emerging cities in China it looks a bit like the Olympic Games. It puts them on the map in business, and so they do everything they can to bring the Fortune Global Forum to their city. The last one was in Guangzhou last year. No, two years ago now. We're in 2019. It was in 2017. So Chat was familiar with the power of Fortune in China, as well as his historic connection with Fortune when he was in school, and I think when he realized it was in the neighborhood, he said: "I am interested."
I think a lot of people, or at least I, thought that a fortune for Fortune probably comes from Asia, precisely because that brand might even be beyond its weight, a sort of Asia, outside of the US. Again, you saw that at Forbes.
I thought that. I thought that, but I think it was closed by the … Well, a few things. I mean, in the beginning Xi Jinping came down to companies like HNA that invested heavily outside of China, so there was some pressure from the government on foreign investment, and then the whole trade war issue complicated. So I think that kind … I do not know if it formally closed the door, but I think it kind of informally closed the door on Chinese buyers for Fortune. So, chat is another version of that. He is of Chinese descent, but he is …
China-side by side.
… China-adjacent and ethnic Chinese.
Yes Yes. The mechanics of it, so this deal with Benioff, it does not happen. Are you trying to beat the bushes for another buyer, or does Chat appear because he knows Benioff can not buy it?
Oh, it's complicated. In fact, Chat had someone working with him and was trying to find a way to come to me and went through my friend, Bob Nardelli, the former Chrysler CEO, Home Depot, was with GE. So the first approach actually came through Nardelli and me, and at that point we were in exclusive conversations with another buyer, so I said, "I can not really talk to you about this," but I introduced them to the bankers. , and when the exclusivity ended with the previous buyer, he jumped into it.
So you do all this. You are trying to sell a publication. You also run a publication. You have to keep the doors open. You have to keep the trains moving. You think about what you will do this year and next year, and that also applies to your staff. Right? So, how do you manage that process? It seems to be a very difficult thing to make out. By the way, it's almost public. Right? Some of these transactions, people inside, may know that they are going on, but people on the outside do not know it is for sale.
I spent a large part of the past two years with investment bankers. People like you and me go into journalism, so we do not have to spend a lot of time with investment bankers, but …
Yes, and you have been a corporate journalist for a long time. You were in the Journal for a long time. It is not as if this is a strange concept for you, but it is different from actually doing it.
Yes. It was quite a training to be in those rooms instead of outside those rooms that were trying to enter, but it devoured a lot of time. Look, we have a great team at Fortune. I was the chief editor a few years ago; I am not now. Cliff Leaf is the editor-in-chief, so I do not have to lead the editors, so that made it possible for me to include this.
And again, this is a company that only owned Time Warner a few years ago; then they spin Time Inc. and it is sold to Meredith; then they spin out the individual titles. So if you have not been there for years, you have undergone a huge change.
Huge change, huge change. I mean, you have to realize that Fortune in the Time Warner days, and that was only four years ago, under Time Warner, did not even have a website and could hardly make a video. It had no website because the web content was all given to CNN Money. CNN could run the website, and of course video was done in the studio, that was all …
Dan Roth did that for you for a while. He was another guest in this show.
Yes. Then there was at that moment, that was not me; I came shortly thereafter. But Time Warner had basically said that your magazines will print, period, and we will take the money, thank you very much, and we will use it productively somewhere else. So that was a death sentence and leaving Time Warner was incredibly important. So the advantage is that we can determine our own destiny, we can now run our website. The disadvantage is that we only stand when the media business shrinks, especially for printing companies.
Yes. None of these billionaires have magically solved the problems of the print media company, in particular the advertising-driven media company, and Time, Inc. was by definition predominantly supported by advertising. We had a large digital presence. Time Inc. all-in reached 130 million people monthly, no paying walls. It is fully supported by advertisements and most magazines are also pretty dependent on advertisements.
The majority of your income comes from advertisements.
But that is mainly due to the way the conference business is structured. More and more of our conference income comes directly from the participants and less from the sponsors, but it is still about half and half.
And that's the direction you've been for a while, and with congressional affairs that did pretty well. When you have a new owner, do you have to say what we are doing, what do you want to do? Or are you saying that this is what we are doing, this is our plan, you are joining for the ride? How does that work?
Well, he owns it, so it's his baby now.
So that was my first question, something like why did you buy this? What do you want to do with it? If you want me to run it, how do you want me to run it and with what purpose? He has been pretty clear on that point. He thinks Fortune is a great brand and should have global resonance. It should be part of … When someone thinks about things or money, Fortune should come in their minds. So he wants it to be much bigger than it is, much more influential than it is. And when I say, "And how do we do that?", He said, "That's your job."
And what about the type in general? Do you want us to sell advertising? Do you want us to sell expensive conference tickets?
No no …
You look for it.
You'll find out, yes. I think I would say one thing about it when we look at where we went prior to the sale, we were probably on the way to making the events business more than half of the business. I'm not sure if this will happen now because he is interested in the events business, but also wants us to grow the media business.
So the event business, the way it works in my world and the way you describe it, is … Well, there are a few different ways to do it. You can ensure that advertisers endorse the thing and that people appear free or usually free or you can ask people to pay a lot of money to appear. You are already in that model.
We always have … Look, we really see our events business as a community business. It is not about putting great people on stage and then selling tickets to see them. It is about creating a community of people. It's been a few years since I was at your conference, but I think yours was a similar model. The person sitting next to you will be just as interesting, perhaps even more interesting than the person on stage.
And that belongs to the field, yes.
So that is an important part of it, and that has always been the way we approached our conferences. And we ask people to pay. We ask speakers to pay who are present. The executives who are on stage are part of the community, so they pay to be there and it's a fairly high ticket price. So we have … in case we have done business, we have virtually compensated the revenue from consumers and sponsorship.
And the trick, at least in my world, is how you scale this stuff, right? Because there is a certain number of people that can afford such a ticket; there is a certain number of people interesting enough to have on stage; there are a number of people who do this kind of thing; you are there, Bloomberg is doing it, other people are coming in and out, it seems, and you have now done a few franchises, right? You have the most powerful women, you do an Asian. It seems that you are being listened to at a given moment. There is a limited target group for this.
Yes, I think the restriction comes to us … We're doing the most powerful women's conference you mentioned. We have a great technical franchise, Brainstorm Tech, which takes place in Aspen and competes with what you do, but in my opinion has a better attitude.
Have you been to Phoenix?
We did that, but Aspen is great.
We have this Fortune Global Forum franchise, which is in a different city around the world every year, and then we have some new ones. The one I am most excited about is a franchise called The CEO Initiative, a community of CEOs who really want to dedicate themselves and share ideas on how we can make the work for companies better for society.
It started with an event that we had done in Rome in the Vatican in December 2016, including a meeting with the Pope, where 100 CEOs in working groups broke to talk about what the private sector can do to get some of & # 39, to tackle the world's most pressing problems. whether it is about global warming or the billions of people who do not just have basic health care. And brainstorming there was quite fascinating and a number of interesting projects ensued. Novartis worked with a non-profit organization called Last Mile Health to address the problem of people in areas with too little healthcare budget.
These are interesting themes & # 39; s and ideas. I only think about the public for this kind of thing, because you fill in this idea of access to this club. You are in a club if you can come into this.
By definition there must be a limited number of people in the club, otherwise it is not so valuable. So if you want to keep growing, do you have to think of ways to do things that are less exclusive but still have that brand?
No, I think you've put your finger on it. There is a limitation to how far you can go with these things. In our case, the biggest limitation is only the number of CEOs or senior executives and the amount of time they have available in their agendas. We push the … I think we did 18 different events last year, that we no longer have CEOs who can do that.
What we have heard from the companies with which we work closely together is that they want us to go further through the hierarchy; that in the world today things have become so complicated and peripheral vision has become so important.
You may have been very successful in coming up in the banking sector, but unless you realize that your competition is not from another bank now, it will come from Ripple or come from Apple or it will come from Apple Pay, Amazon, whoever, and so it requires a greater degree of peripheral vision. It requires you to get out of the business and meet networks and people in other industries, and that is where we think we can play an important role. So we look at ways we can serve that need.
And the trick, well, is figuring out how to make that more accessible to more people without reducing value?
It is the TED / TEDx problem.
Is that TEDx model, where literally almost everyone can create their own TED and say they were running a TED conference? Does that appeal to you, where do you fall for the type of franchise?
That is a kind of user-generated model. That is not something that we spend a lot of time to look at. It is interesting, but I think we are looking more at how we can actively help companies to meet this need.
And as far as the content you put on the website, in the magazine, Fortune was always, in my mind, considered to be a writer's magazine for a long time. It really has had a great long-standing journalism. We are in a world that, on the one hand, may still value that, or perhaps have a renewed value, and there is a lot and a lot of fast twitch almost designed to be disposable content that you flick and flip over. phone and you continue. Can still be valuable, but it is something else. So 2019 and beyond, what do you think you are going to do?
I think we will do both. I think you should do both. We try to help entrepreneurs get the information they need to be successful. Sometimes that is a story of 5,000 words by Jeff Colin about what happened to GE. It was one of the best-read stories we have done over the past year. But at other times it is a very busy company director, who wakes up at six o'clock in the morning; needs a quick download of what they need to know is important, so they go to one of our newsletters or see a news flash on their mobile phone. And I do not think you can even choose – or. I think it is our mission to serve our public and keep them informed, we have to do both.
There was a time when some of the properties of Time, Inc., including you, did many short-lived things, and it was a … Sports Illustrated had its own version of some sort of BuzzFeed thing called Hot Potato or something and Time did a lot of aggregation and you also did a part of it. Will that remain so or is that less attractive in a world where advertisements are less valuable?
Well, you talk about short-term things in general.
Ik denk dat de manier waarop ik het zou zeggen dit is: ik begon in de krantensector, je zat in de krantensector. Kranten hebben altijd strips gehad, ze hebben altijd lichte kost gehad, ze hebben altijd … en diep aangeschreven verhalen gehad. Je hebt allebei gehad.
Ja, ik ben niet zozeer aan het denken of het licht is of niet; alleen al of het zo'n publicatie is die dit heeft gepubliceerd, hier is onze versie van dat verhaal. Het is heel gewoon, maar ik denk dat we er nu minder van zien. Ik denk dat sommige van de publicaties die alleen dat deden, het moeilijker hebben om dit te overleven …
Ik denk niet dat je dat alleen kunt doen. Maar kijk, als ik een drukke directeur ben en ik wil op Fortune rekenen om me te vertellen wat ik moet weten, moet je aannemen dat niet alles wat je moet weten in een origineel verhaal zal worden vastgelegd door een Fortune-verslaggever . En dus voor ons om te verwijzen naar verhalen op andere plaatsen die interessant of belangrijk zijn, is een waardevolle dienst voor onze lezers en we zullen het blijven doen.
Dus doen we het op onze nieuwsbrieven, we doen het op de site. En nog een stukje daarvan, Peter, dat je goed kent, is dat we een groot aantal diensten hebben, tot enkele die erg duur zijn. Als je lid wilt worden van het CEO Initiative, kost het je $ 15.000 per jaar. We zien dat als een trechter. We willen dat mensen naar Fortune komen om hun meest elementaire nieuws over zaken en geld te krijgen, maar na verloop van tijd zullen een aantal van deze mensen, hopelijk, converteren naar tijdschriftabonnees, nieuwsbrieflezers en uiteindelijk conferentiegangers en leden van onze community's.
Dit is duidelijk, maar we moeten het zeggen. Een van de redenen waarom een titel als Fortune zo waardevol is, is dat het een zakelijke publicatie is. You get a much higher rate generally for advertising there, which is why people are still always trying to sort of get into this business. Jessica Lessin, another guest, has moved into this. Quartz, Bloomberg is, seems to constantly … I’m always confused about whether they want to be a terminal business or they want to be a media business. I think they would say both right now. Who’s your primary competition for your readers’ time and for your advertising dollar?
Everyone you mentioned. I mean, there’s not a simple answer to that question. I think both our readers and our advertisers are looking at the rapidly evolving media landscape. I think what distinguishes Fortune is you have a lot of the big publications are principally investor focused. I would say that about the Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg or CNBC, those big media organizations. Their first go-to is the investor. We’re really interested in businesses; in the people who run them, in the leadership qualities necessary to be successful, in how you adapt technology to make your business great. And I think in that space, we shine.
So this map you’re laying out, this is the map that you would have had last year; this road map is the same one you would have had last year prior to the acquisition. Is anything changing because you have new owners?
Zeker. The big thing that’s changing is last year, if we wanted to invest to grow, you basically … I mean, for awhile you had to make sure you got a return on that investment in the first year, then it became the same quarter. Under pressures from the marketplace, we were shaking the quarters out of the pillows every three months. What’s changed is we have an owner who’s been very explicit in saying to us, “I want you to grow this business, but I’m not interested in taking cash out of it in the near term. You can reinvest your earnings. I will make resources available to you if you have good ideas for investment.” That’s … You can’t underestimate how profound going from a “make the return in the quarter” mindset, to a “hey, you got seven years to show you can do this.”
That sounds great. Do you really think you’ve got seven years?
Yes. I mean look, there’ll be milestones along the way. We’ve got to show that we’re actually growing it. We’ve got to show that we’re creating value. You mentioned BusinessWeek, you hear rumors about how much money they lose every year. We’re not going to do that.
You can’t lose money?
No, I didn’t say that. I think what we can do is invest; that we can spend money if we think we have good reason to believe that we will make money in return at some point in that seven-year window.
I’m just trying to think, the seven-year itch? I’m just trying to think … I mean, I know you’re not going to say it on-air. Just how real … what you think the honeymoon period is?
But that’s not any different from …
No, no, no, no, no, no.
That’s no different from any venture investor. In fact, Chat basically, I think, is modeling himself after Silicon Valley venture investors. They’re saying you need to grow the business and we’ll give you the time to get it, and we’re obviously going to keep an eye on you and make sure that you hit your benchmarks and all of that, but the goal is to create more value over five to seven years, not over three to six months.
Have you found yourself trying to explain things like, “Well, that’s not the way the media business works. We can’t do that because generally our journalists are going to balk at that kind of story.” Any of that sort of basic education, or does he come to this pretty fully educated?
Well, you asked … There are two separate questions there. First of all, let me be clear. We’re sitting here on January 3rd. I met Chat for the first time six weeks ago? Seven weeks ago? So this is a new relationship.
It’s a new relationship.
It’s a very new relationship. What I find so invigorating about it is that it’s challenging me to do two things. One is to stretch myself and say, “Okay, what can I do with this business that I …” I knew I had a path to get it from decline to growth but it was still kind of modest growth, and what he wants is 2X, 3X. So, how can I stretch myself to meet his ambition, which no one in the media business has ever put in front of me before?
Then the second part is, “How can I, in the process, also make sure he understands what I’ve learned over the last 40 years about what does and doesn’t work in the media business?” I think that’s what’s going to make my job challenging but also fun.
And if you had to say things like, “I can’t put you or your family or your friends or your investor on the cover”?
I haven’t had any inkling of that at all. It just has not come up. No, he is a, in many ways he’s …
Because by the way, he might say, “That’s what I want. I’m the boss. I own this thing.”
No, that’s right, and when that day comes, if he wants to put himself on the cover he can and I’ll leave. That’s pretty simple and straightforward, but that’s just not who he is or how he’s approaching this. In many way Edward Felsenthal, who’s now running Time, and I are very close. I put Edward in the editor’s job. We talk all the time. He’s incredibly talented and I’m really happy about how this has turned out for him. We compare notes.
In many ways, his situation with Marc Benioff and mine with Chat are similar in that they have big ambitions and they have lots of resources and they’re challenging us to meet their ambitions and are giving us the resources to get there. One way in which they are different is that Benioff is a very big public figure and likes that. Chat is not. Chat likes to keep quiet. He didn’t do interviews at the time …
Yeah, I don’t know which one would make me more nervous, if I was with Chat or if I’d be more nervous working for Marc Benioff or someone that no one really knew very well.
I think that makes clear that this is not something he bought for his personal aggrandizement. I don’t think the day will ever come when he says to me, “I want to be on the cover.”
I’m just pausing so we can all mark that down and when he shows up on the cover we’ll know.
Yeah, well you’ll know if that day comes because I’ll …
Because you’ll be hosting your own podcast.
I’ll come asking for a job at …
We’ll put you on the podcast.
I don’t see … I don’t think that’s the way he’s looking at this at all.
Goed. We’ve been talking about your current job and what’s going to happen. I want to go back in time a little bit. You spent a bunch of time with the Journal.
Did you overlap almost entirely with the Murdoch era?
Yeah, I preceded him. I preceded him and I stayed for four or five years afterwards.
Reporter, editor, Washington columnist. When I knew you, you were running digital.
Yeah, yeah, which is the main reason I stayed. He, well, it was Marcus Brauchli, when Marcus Brauchli was briefly working for him, offered me a job to run digital and conferences and video and books. Basically he said, “You can have editorial responsibility for everything but the print newspaper.” I thought at the time that was a pretty cool job.
The Journal was early in sort of figuring out a digital strategy which was, we’re gonna sell expensive digital subscriptions, and that has worked pretty well for them.
Yeah, I think some of it was luck, Peter Conn would tell you back in 1996 when he made that decision and was very much going against the grain at that time. Information wanted to be free, you know, everybody just …
The Times tried selling opinion access and then stopped. Right away.
He said from day one, “We’re not going to give this stuff away. People are going to have pay for it.” And that, of course, turned out to be right.
So now that you’ve been out of there for a couple of years, what is your sense of how the Journal has adapted to both Murdoch and now the Trump era?
I’m trying to figure out how I can answer this without getting into politics.
Mmmmm, let’s go there.
Because I’m not a highly political person, I’m very much a centrist. If you saw my voting record over the last 30 years you would think I was indecisive.
But you vote.
I do vote, but I’ve probably voted for one party as much as I’ve voted for the other party, in fact, almost exactly equally for different reasons over the years. So I’m not a highly political person but I think Rupert Murdoch’s the best thing that could have happened to the Wall Street Journal, for two reasons. One is because he provided capital at a time when virtually all the money that the Wall Street Journal was making was being paid out to the Bancroft family in dividends. I love the Bancroft family, they’re good people, but they had the right to want to make a living off of their investment.
The other thing about Rupert that was so much fun for me … I mean, I was working in the non-legacy party of the business, right? I was doing everything but the print newspaper. You sort of knew with Rupert Murdoch at the top that taking a swing was going to be supported. I’ll give you a very specific example. When we created streaming video over at the Journal website, this would have been in 2011, we got up to four or five hours a day of live video.
I filled a couple of those.
You did! You were a big part of that. You were great. And you remember, we did it very inexpensively. We were doing it from the news desk of the Journal.
Very inexpensively. I didn’t get paid for it.
You didn’t get paid a penny for doing it, but we were having a lot of fun and doing really well. Well, the late Roger Ailes started calling Rupert up directly and saying, “This guy’s trying to take over my business” which was an absurd claim. Roger Ailes was making, what, a billion dollars a year and we were spending maybe 15 million on this or 10 million on this operation. He would call Rupert Murdoch and complain that, “Alan Murray is trying to …”
You guys were in the building on Sixth Avenue.
He’s generating a gazillion dollars.
He feels in some ways threatened by the tiny Peter Kafka video operation.
Yeah, someone once explained to me that, he said, “You have to understand. Roger sees Sponge Bob Square Pants as competition.” He sees everything as competition, but he really went after me in a pretty vicious way, both directly with Rupert Murdoch and in the trade press. He planted a rumor that I was trying to take over Fox Business News, which was entirely untrue. So, why am I telling you this?
No, no, this is great, because I heard a story about this which was that you and some other folks had to go down to his office on the second and third floor.
Yes, and try and make nice.
And then he hollered at you guys.
Yeah, and he continued to be …
Turns out he had a gun in there, too, but you didn’t know it at the time.
Thank God I didn’t know it or I probably wouldn’t have gone, but I would periodically get a call from Rupert saying, “Roger says you’re trying to take over his business.” I would say, “What, what, what are we talking about here?” The reason I say all that is because at the end of the day, in spite of that, Rupert had my back. I was breaking tradition, doing something different, and you knew that Rupert Murdoch wanted you to do that.
And to be clear, Rupert Murdoch cares a lot about news.
And journalism, and it’s what sort of trips his trigger, I think. It’s great that he’s built up Fox and all that, but not the news network. Everything else is sort of ancillary I think in his head. He loves news.
Loves it and every aspect of it. I’ll tell you another interesting story. The early days of the iPad, the guy who was then running our digital business walked into my office maybe a month or two before the iPad launch. We didn’t even know it was an iPad. We just knew Apple was about to launch something. He said, “We’re not going to do anything for the iPad because we have too many other things we have to do. They’re already working with the New York Times. The New York Times has been there for two months and it’s just too much trouble.”
Right, it’s the thing where a certain number of publications worked with Apple in advance of the iPad.
Two or three, very few.
But went to Cupertino and was sort up put under a veil of secrecy.
They got locked in a room, no windows. Again, we didn’t even know the name of this device yet. So then maybe six weeks before the iPad launches, Steve Jobs comes to New York to meet with a group of editors and Rupert sits in on the meeting. He passes it around and shows it to us and then Jobs leaves and Rupert calls us into his office and says, “This is going to change the world. I want the Wall Street Journal to be on it. I want the Wall Street Journal to be on it the day it launches,” which at that point was only six weeks away. He said, “I want the Wall Street Journal app, it damn well better be better than the New York Times app.”
Yes, sir. So we put a team of people in a dark room with no windows and they spent the next … We sent in pizza every few hours. They sat there for six weeks and got the job done. He would walk in every couple of weeks. In fact …
And he also did the daily … Different group.
Yes. He would walk in. It was interesting. He came in several times and said … Because the designers were digital designers and so they were designing an app that looked like the website. He would walk in and look at it and say, “No, no. That doesn’t look like my newspaper. I want it to look like my newspaper.” And he ended up being absolutely right about that.
Yet periodically, because I reported about a lot of this at the time and it is hard to remember now how much energy and enthusiasm there was about legacy publications getting on the iPad specifically. It was going to cure a lot of ills. People were very excited about it. The iPad, you can debate how successful it is. It’s still a successful product but it ended up having no impact on the media business.
A short-term impact. It was a good business for the Wall Street Journal for several years but it didn’t …
Yeah, and you could argue that all the time you and everyone else spent thinking about the iPad, you would have been better off thinking about the phone.
That’s probably right. Yeah, that’s probably true, but you can’t always see five or 10 years down the road.
So you clenched up when I asked you about the Journal and Murdoch and Trump. I think the Journal’s been getting a lot of fair criticism about some of their pulled punches. They all had done really really important reporting, too.
Look, this is a terrible time for journalism because you have the president of the United States calling out credible publications as being false news. That may help drive subscription revenue in the short term but in the long term it’s undermining their credibility in horrible, horrible ways.
I think the Journal has probably done a better job than anyone else, in fact their surveys … You know, Peter, that I spent a couple years of my life running the PEW Research Center in Washington. PEW really does the benchmark survey on media credibility and what that shows is that the Journal has done the best job of maintaining credibility on both sides of the great divide. I think there’s going to come a moment in our history when that becomes very, very important.
And I’m assuming, to bring it back to Fortune, you want Fortune to occupy that same sort of …
Dat is juist.
Logical space or non-space.
Dat is juist. That doesn’t mean we won’t write tough stories about Donald Trump. We have, but I don’t think we can afford to write off 30 percent of the country or 35 percent of the country, which is I think what publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post have come very close to doing.
What if it turns out that 30 percent of the country just doesn’t want to read news that isn’t anything but astonishingly flattering to Trump, like Mark Whitaker’s embarrassing speech he made on behalf of Trump a couple days ago, praising him?
Yeah, yeah, I think there’s more going on than that and maybe this is driven a little bit by economics, but I think some news outlets are reveling in their opposition role and as a result …
Even when they say, “We’re not the opposition. We’re just doing our job.”
Yes. I grew up in Tennessee. We were talking about that earlier. I know a fair number of people who, while they probably weren’t Trump supporters or voters, are so turned off by what they might see on CNN. It almost drives them to become more sympathetic to Trump because they feel like, “Those people just spend all their time attacking them.” And again, it may all be … I think Trump has actually worked this pretty cleverly. Ten or 15 times a day he’ll throw out a statement that you and I know is absolutely false. It’s like red meat to the …
Yeah, because when the president lies you should be upset about it.
You should, right, but I think what’s happened at an outlet like CNN, the linear part of CNN, that’s all they do. Nothing else in the world happens. It’s just, “The president lies. We report that he lied.” It’s become a game that enhances, it increases viewership for CNN. It increases core support for the president. I don’t think it serves society very well.
Yeah, it’s also the function of 24-hour news, right? Before Trump there was the blue crews or the Malaysian plane and you find a thing and you sink your teeth into it and you go and you go and you go. We’ve had years of Trump. That’s a different hour of discussion.
This has been a great hour. I will be looking for Chat on the cover of Fortune Magazine.
And then offering me a job when it happens.
I’m happy to have you come chat whenever you want. I don’t know how much we could pay. We could figure something out. Alan, this has been great. Thank you.