The NYTimes on the Future of The Wall Street Journal: “Murray and Latour represent two extremes—Murray is the tactful editor, Latour is the brash entrepreneur.”

From a New York Times story by Edmund Lee headlined “Inside the Fight for the Future of The Wall Street Journal”:

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 Mr. 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, Mr. Murray hired Louise Story, a journalist whose career included a decade at 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 and social media to help increase readership.

As the team was completing a report on its findings last summer, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Murray received a draft from Ms. 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….

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….The company, they say, has avoided making the proposed changes because a brewing power struggle between Mr. Murray and the new publisher, Almar Latour, has contributed to a stalemate that threatens the future of The Journal.

Mr. Murray and Mr. Latour, 50, represent two extremes of the model Murdoch employee. Mr. Murray is the tactful editor; Mr. 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….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.

Their longstanding professional rivalry comes down to both personality and approach. Mr. Murray is more deliberative, while Mr. Latour is quick to act. But the core of their friction is still a mystery….

About a month after the report was submitted, Ms. Story’s strategy team was concerned that its work might never see the light of day…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….

The leak angered Mr. Murray….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….

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….

Change in any news organization is hard. When Mr. Murdoch bought the paper in 2007, the newsroom was on tenterhooks, worried he would destroy its culture. That didn’t happen. Instead, he expanded its coverage to compete more directly with The Times. But over time, the paper has retrenched. Now it’s more of a chimera; part punchy Murdoch, part old-school Journal.

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….

Early last year, as Ms. Story’s team was months away from making its recommendations, Mr. 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…But last spring Mr. Lewis suddenly stepped down. He was replaced in both jobs by Mr. Latour, who had won praise within the company for his digital know-how as the publisher of Dow Jones’s Barron’s Group.

Mr. Murray was not happy to learn of Mr. Latour’s appointment….That’s when his attitude toward the strategy team’s efforts changed, the people said.

They added that Mr. Murray was concerned that the group’s report, coupled with the staff unrest, would be taken as an indictment of his leadership, and that Mr. Latour might use its findings against him…..

Mr. 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 Ms. Story’s team dismissed it as a “woke” strategy, given its emphasis on appealing to underrepresented readers, the people said….

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 the book publisher HarperCollins.) News Corp recently hired the consulting firm Deloitte to work on a project to consolidate its many divisions….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.

Mr. Latour, who grew up in the small village of Welten, the Netherlands, 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 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 Mr. Murdoch.

Mr. Murray, who grew up in Bethesda, Md., 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.

Their strained relationship has gotten in the way of progress….In a mid-November meeting, people saw that firsthand when a disagreement flared up between Mr. Murray and Mr. Latour….

The third character in the ongoing Journal drama is Ms. Story. She has tried to carefully nudge both Mr. Latour and Mr. Murray toward her vision, people around her say.

In her decade at The Times, Ms. Story covered the 2008 financial meltdown and was part of the 12-person group behind the Innovation Report, a 2014 manifesto that laid out the strategy that has helped The Times to thrive and the principal reason Mr. Murray hired her to run The Journal’s audit.

Ms. Story has recently been in discussions about an editor in chief role at both Reuters and The Washington Post….

One of the key issues outlined in The Content Review was the need to retain younger readers….To help solve that issue, Ms. 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 Ms. Story’s team in summer 2019 while in high school….

“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, a staff of 10 reporters, editors and designers were hired to start working on features about inequality in education, student debt and related topics…..

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, Ms. 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, Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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….

Mr. 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.”

Edmund Lee covers the media industry as it grapples with changes from Silicon Valley. Before joining The Times he was the managing editor at Vox Media’s Recode.

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