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New WSJ editor talks China, big tech, and the struggle to cover a "unique" president

WSJ Tech D.Live
Editor in Chief, The Wall Street Journal Matt Murray and Kevin Systrom attend the WSJ Tech D.Live at Montage Laguna Beach on Nov. 13, 2018 in Laguna Beach, California. -
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Phillip Faraone Getty Images for The Wall Street Journal file
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Matt Murray was named editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal in June, taking the reins of the 130-year-old title after former top editor Gerard Baker stepped down amid newsroom dissent about the paper's "soft" coverage of President Donald Trump.

Murray joined Dow Jones & Co. in 1994 as a reporter in Pittsburgh, and moved to the Journal's Money & Investing section three years later, covering banking. He has also been the paper's deputy managing editor, deputy editor-in-chief, and national news editor.

In his first major print interview since taking the job, Murray discusses the challenges of covering Trump, and the biggest stories on the horizon, from China-U.S. trade relations to tech regulation and climate change.

The newspaper just reported a record 1.7 million paid subscriptions for 2018, the highest number since the newspaper first went online in 1996. This interview has been edited for brevity.

Q: How do you feel about the difficulties of covering Trump and being part of News Corporation [owned by the conservative-leaning Rupert Murdoch] and the perception that Murdoch is friendly with President Trump?

A: First, I'd say Rupert Murdoch has never given me one instruction about how to cover Trump. He's never even indirectly implied in any way anything concerning the proper way to cover the president.

It is true that Trump is a unique figure because he's such a polarizing figure, his media habits and his Twitter habits, he commands attention, and drives the debate and the discussion. It's different than we've seen. To be honest, I think every organization struggles with how to cover him properly.

My view on the president is it's our job to cover a wide range of aspects. So we've written about the investigations, we've done ground-breaking work on Michael Cohen — but we've also written about policy implications in all kinds of ways: immigration, and how well the economy is doing. Our distinct mark, I hope, will be writing about the full range of the presidency in as clear and fact-based and unbiased a way as we can.

Q: Do you hear from Trump? Does he call you up?

A: Nope. I did once when I was a deputy and I had an interview in the Oval Office. But no, never heard from him since I've been in this job.

Q: In your eight months in this position, what have you changed?

A: Our job is partly to synthesize but have unique lanes in stories that we can really dominate. Michael Cohen is very important to us. One story we've really dominated has been the Federal Reserve and rate hikes — one of the biggest stories last year — and the impact on the economy, and criticism that the president has leveled at the Fed and how [Fed Chairman Jerome] Powell has responded to that. That's a classic Wall Street Journal story.

We're all trying to get our heads around climate change and the impact on all of us. It's a big, complex topic beyond emissions. One of the things we did last year is a good, strong series going pretty deep into investors and money managers and where they are placing bets and how they're understanding what's happening.

I'd also like to grow our international audience again. We closed our international edition two years ago. Covering foreign news is important. It's a time where cost cuts for many organizations have meant cuts overseas — but at the same time we're more global than we've ever been. Readers need to know what's happening with Brexit and what's happening in France, the European Union, and the new ISIS splinter group that's growing in Africa. These are big issues.

Q: The Wall Street Journal is inherently banking and finance. Who are you writing for today?

A: Certainly we have at our core influential and ambitious career-oriented people in all kinds of industries, plus a large contingent of individual investors and stock buyers. But I think we have a broader mission that goes beyond that, a wider appeal to more general readers — and our circulation would suggest we have the most subscribers we've ever had. Markets, economics, and business are the lens through which we view the world, and I think of those as gigantic forces that shape all kinds of human events.

Q: How have you addressed the issue of climate change?

A: Whatever one thinks of the particular science, there are real impacts one can see about climate change. Broadly, there is very little disagreement that some climate change is happening. Real people with real money are making decisions right now based on what they see happening out there. One of the most popular stories we did with readers showed that a big buyer of underground water in Napa Valley is Harvard University. They have an endowment, and water is becoming rarer and more valuable out there. How the climate changes and its effects on us is clearly a big thing that factors in our age that we're all going to have to understand.

Q: There seems to be a turn towards covering the ill effects of tech at the moment. Are we in a new era where people are thinking much more critically about the influence of technology?

A: We are feeling the effects of it. We probably had a period early on where we were utopian about it. We all love novelty and the cool bells and whistles. It's great to be able to order a book online and have it show up at my door, but it is different if you go out on the streets of the city 15 years later and there are no more bookstores and you feel its impact.

Clearly, the election in 2016 for real or perceived reasons got a lot of people thinking about the impact of social media and information gathering, and galvanized a lot of people. I think these companies are big and powerful enough that we're feeling the effects now. My industry has lost more than half its jobs in the last 10 years — that's directly related to the means of information having changed, and the economic foundation for our industry, particularly advertising being eroded by the tech companies.

Fundamentally, Facebook and Google are there to make money, and their business models are not there to serve journalism. That doesn't mean they aren't platforms that can sometimes be helpful to journalism, but they're not very helpful when it comes to differentiating high-quality news versus fake news. We are in a constant conversation with them about the importance of helping quality journalism survive and thrive.

Q: FX is doing a show set inside The New York Times.Do you have a feeling about allowing cameras in the newsroom?

A: Not against it, but I'm skeptical of it. We're here to tell stories about the world, not to tell stories about ourselves. And with all due respect to my tremendous news staff, of whom I'm very fond, they're not that interesting. If they're doing their jobs well, they're spending their days on the phone talking to people and drinking lousy coffee.

Q: What stories are you most excited to cover?

A: We've got some big things going in technology, some of the measurement tools, and how technology really works. There are a lot of good questions to be had in the entire digital space about what kinds of numbers companies report, how much of it is real, and who is checking it. Several people have been asking that question about Netflix.

There will be a lot of discussions at some point about tech regulation and what should happen there and how to redefine that industry. There's an anti-trust discussion.

The economy remains a great interest: Are wages really catching up? I'm interested in the changing nature of the workforce. What does it look like now and how has it come back in the last 10 years? We're at a moment of low employment over the last five decades, what are the jobs, what are the growth areas?

I think we all hope all these investigations of President Trump reach some crescendo and we get some clarity on that. That will be interesting to watch.

I think the China-U.S. story is probably the biggest global story. Bigger than North Korea and bigger than Russia and, presuming we get a trade deal, China and the U.S. will be negotiating their interactions with each other. The U.S. trying to manage the rise of China will be a big ongoing story for some time to come.