Murray recently sold the Fortune Media Group to Chatchaval Jiaravanon, a Thai billionaire you’ve probably never heard of.
On the latest episode of Recode Media, Fortune Media Group CEO Alan Murray sat down with Recode’s Peter Kafka to talk about selling Fortune to Thai billionaire Chatchaval Jiaravanon, as well as how a brand once known only for its magazine is pushing harder into live events and other businesses.
Previously a longtime editor at the Wall Street Journal, Murray also reflected on how that paper changed after News Corp bought it in 2007. At the time, he was running the Journal’s digital, conferences, book and video divisions, and News Corp founder Rupert Murdoch was always supportive of his team “taking a swing.”
“I think Rupert Murdoch’s the best thing that could have happened to the Wall Street Journal,” he said. “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 … 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.
“I would periodically get a call from Rupert saying, ‘Roger says you’re trying to take over his business,’” Murray added. “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.”
You can listen to Recode Media wherever you get your podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast. The latest episode also features an interview with Gimlet Media co-founders Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber, who just sold their company to Spotify.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Alan.
Peter Kafka: I’m here with Alan Murray. Hi, Alan.
Alan Murray: Hey, Peter. Delighted to be here.
Thanks for coming. You’ve had many titles in the past. What’s your current title now?
My current title is president and CEO of the Fortune Media Group.
So, I think of you as the guy who runs Fortune Magazine. Do we call it a magazine still?
Well, some people do. I prefer to call it Fortune Media Group. I mean, if you look at our business today, the magazine is less than half of it on a revenue basis. We have a big digital business that reaches 20 million people a month, and we have a fast-growing events business.
We will talk about all of that. Normally when people come in here, they either talk about their plans to put up a paywall. Maybe they’re explaining what went wrong with their business, or they’re talking about plans to sell their business to a billionaire. You’ve done at least two of those, right?
Yep. We can talk about all of those. Yeah.
Yeah. I’m gonna butcher this person’s name. The magazine …
Chatchaval Jiaravanon. We call him Chat.
Chat, internally. I call him Chat.
Some people call him CJ, or you can call him Chatchaval Jiaravanon, if you’d like.
He bought your magazine, your storied brand, late last year. Did we disclose a price?
I think we disclosed the price. It was $150 million.
Perfect. You know exactly what it was. This is part of the sale of titles that Meredith magazine publishing company acquired when they bought Time Inc. at the beginning of last year. There was a lot of questions about what would happen to Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, in part because the Koch brothers had helped finance the acquisition, and in part because …
Well, is this going to a question? Because you got a lot in that statement.
I got a lot in, and in part because we’re just trying to figure out … Meredith and Time were trying to get together for a long time, and the thought was always what would happen to those titles if those two companies got together, and now we know. They are being sold off, have been mostly sold off.
Yeah. So, look. Time Inc. was around for, what, 90 years? I mean, it’s a great company started by Henry Luce. I was the last chief content office of Time Inc., which was a fancy, modern digital phrase for editor-in-chief. It was sad to see it end.
I think Meredith, when it bought Time Inc., was 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 like Sports Illustrated. So, it was no big surprise when they announced they were gonna sell them off. I think what is a surprise, was a pleasant surprise to me, was this interest that all of them generated from high net worth individuals who thought owning a media property is a good thing to do in the world. I agree with them.
So, you were both running the business and then sort of in charge of selling the business at the same time.
I was in charge of the editorials side of the business, and all my colleagues in the Time Inc. C-suite were basically let go at the time of the sale. They asked me to stick around …
Let go with a really generous, very generous package, but yeah. Go on.
Yes. Well, they were pretty generous. Most of it’s public information. So, they asked me to stick around, both to help sell the orphans, as I called them, but also because they wanted me to consider moving on with Fortune as the CEO. So, they packaged us. They put us out as a package deal, me and Fortune.
People who listen to this podcast don’t need to know full well why print magazines are declining, why their value has been falling for years and years and years. Forbes magazine as a comp was sold for 425 million a few years ago. You can put an asterisk around that sale price. But values have been coming down and down and down, and a lot of folks thought maybe there’d be almost no buyers for titles like Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated. Marc Benioff bought Time at a very good price.
Chat bought Fortune.
Also at a good price.
Sports Illustrated, as I record this, is TBD.
TBD, but I think it will end up in a good place.
So, we’ll start easy. Make the pitch for why a billionaire or anyone else would want to buy an asset that at its core is based around a print magazine in 2018.
Well, because of my position, I’ve had the opportunity over the course of the last year to talk to a bunch of people …
You’ve made this pitch before. Yeah.
… and hear them, and you’re talking about people with a great deal of money, not particularly interested in maximizing their return on that money. At some point when you read the …
We’re specifically talking about a billionaire, right, in this case, or private buyers, because there were other people who were poking for business reasons. Right?
Some private equity guys.
Well, but most of those dropped out pretty quickly because they weren’t willing to pay the asking price. People who were actually in the media business pretty quickly decided that what Meredith was looking for to sell these titles was not something that they were willing to pay.
Which should be a big warning flag, right, if you’re a billionaire?
If you’re not.
It could be, yeah, but I think you had a group of people who … they are billionaires, so they have a lot of money. They’re not that interested in absolutely maximizing their return. If they were, they wouldn’t be looking at media properties. They wanted to do something with their money that they thought was interesting, fun, serves a social purpose, and I think media scratched that itch for them. So, I tease Marc that …
There’s a limited number of these things, right? There’s only a handful of storied publications that people know about. Jeff Bezos bought one of them. Right?
Particularly iconic brands. I do think, Peter, I’d be interested in your view on this because you’ve worked for a great legacy brand, the Wall Street Journal, and you’ve worked for more startup publications. It turns out that great brands are not easily built, and they’re pretty hard to destroy. They stick around for a while. There is some real value in that legacy, and I think that’s what we’re seeing in this wave of interest in titles like Fortune.
It’s scarcity, right?
There’s only a handful of brands that people know. I used to work at Forbes forever, and people often confused Forbes and Fortune, but they still knew what they were.
What they were, yeah.
BusinessWeek, not so much, which only sold for a dollar. So, when people came to you and said, “What do you got?”, what were they expecting when they peeked under the cover and took a look at the financials?
Well, I think you have to separate the titles a little bit. I know I had the conversation with Marc Benioff where he said, “Look. I’m not looking to make more money in this investment, but I’m not looking to lose money.” So, what they’re looking for is something they can do that they can feel good about and get excited about that isn’t gonna be a big drain.
Now, that’s a hard line to walk sometimes. I mean, if you talk to David Bradley about his 10 years with the Atlantic, at the end of the day he probably lost more money than he made. So, that’s not an easy bar to get over. But let me distinguish Fortune from that, because Fortune is really in a different place than all the other Time Inc. brands, or all the other Meredith brands, for this reason. Fortune is the one that had actually crossed over, where the majority of its revenue comes not from the magazine but from growth businesses. The majority of Fortune revenue comes from digital and conferences, and the magazine is a minority.
That’s the other line going up and it’s the print line going down. Right? We’ve crossed over.
That’s right. The print line is pretty universally going … At least for advertising-supported magazines — I’m sure we’ll get back to the subscription piece in a minute, but for advertising-supported magazines, the print line has been pretty steadily going down for the last decade, and the hope has been that digital would grow to the point where it made up for that and the business would start growing again, but it hasn’t happened in most publications, and it’s only happened at Fortune because we have a very large and successful live events business.
You mentioned Benioff. He was gonna buy Fortune. He was very, very far down the road and then ended up buying Time. How did …
That’s a question you’d have to ask him.
Yeah, but I’m asking you.
Well, I can tell you that from where I sit, a Benioff purchase of Fortune is somewhat problematic. Marc Benioff was at the top of our hundred best companies to work for list, just happens to be that he runs Salesforce, runs a very good company, and that has a rigorous methodology behind it, but he came out on top. He was on our world’s greatest leaders list. We spent a lot of time writing about Salesforce and about Marc Benioff, and I think it would be somewhat problematic to do that if the magazine were owned by Marc Benioff. I mean, the South China Morning Post obviously has this problem with Jack Ma. The Washington Post would have the problem with Amazon, except it doesn’t have to write about it that much.
Yeah, and most people truthfully have a difficult time writing about their ownership/bosses, right?
Of course. Right.
It’s just reality.
So, I think that would’ve been a problem for us at Fortune, and I think it probably would’ve been a bit of a problem for him. What if we wrote a nasty story about some huge Salesforce client, and they went to him and complained? So, I think Time is a … It scratches his philanthropic itch, but it solves that conflict of interest problem.
The most interesting bidder I heard about was Steve Burke, runs NBCU, and Jaime Diamond.
Again, you’d have to talk to them about that, not me.
They didn’t come chat with you? I’m sure they did come and chat with you.
Yeah. I’m not gonna go into …
You don’t want to talk about it?
I’m willing to talk about anything that happened in public, but not things that happened in private.
Fair. Maybe we can find a gray area between. So, the process took about … Yeah, go on.
But I will say — and this was the point I was making at the outset — I think for all of these titles, it’s not just the final buyer. It’s most of the bidders fall into this category of high net …
… who want to do something with their money that they can feel good about, and they think is socially useful, and kind of fun, and media scratches that itch, maybe the way a sports team might.
I was gonna talk about that. So, it used to be that you bought a sports team almost entirely for ego, and you would argue that you maybe didn’t make any money. As it turns out, over time those things have been phenomenally valuable investments, again, because of scarcity, and I think maybe that’s partly the analogy here.
Yeah. I think that’s 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 Zuckerman with the U.S. News & World Report. It’s not new for rich people to buy media properties that were struggling, but I do think probably, mostly because of Jeff Bezos, that there has been a surge of interest.
Turns out he got a great deal, right? He bought the Post at sort of the bottom of the market, or what appears to be the bottom of the market.
So, people say, “If he can do it, maybe we can do it.”
So, how do you end up with Chat? How does that process … Am I still butchering his name?
Yeah. No, you’re doing fine. Chat.
So, it’s an interesting story.
When the deal was announced, I pinged a couple people at Fortune and someone said, “He’s a Thai billionaire no one’s ever heard of,” which I think is still pretty accurate.
Well, how many Thai billionaires have you heard of?
Okay. So, Chat’s family, his great-grandfather and his siblings started a company called the CP Group in Thailand, which has since grown into the largest private company in Thailand. It’s massive, and it partners with Walmart. It runs 7-Elevens all over Thailand. It does a lot of agriculture stuff. It’s into telecommunications. These days, it’s fairly diversified. So, big, rich company, gives members of that family, including Chat, access to capital.
He has an interesting history with Fortune. He’s in his mid 50s, so if you roll back the clock to when the Vietnam War was ending, the US was pulling out. We abandoned Vietnam. Saigon fell pretty quickly thereafter, Laos, Cambodia. I suspect if you were a scion of the biggest capitalist family in Thailand, the world looked kind of scary to you.
So, at that time, he was sent … He was in school in Singapore. He was sent by his family to school in Arizona, I believe, at a fairly young age, as a teenager. So, grew up there, and then went to college at USC, studied business at the Marshall School, and at that time was required to read Fortune magazine as part of his curriculum. So, at an early stage in life he encountered Fortune, and it connected with him. When he left the US, he then spent a lot of time in China, has become very interested in, invested in China, and he knows the power of the Fortune brand in China. You may not know this, but we every three years do a big event called the Fortune Global Forum in China.
Makes you guys a lot of money. You do it sort of in conjunction with the government there?
Yeah. It’s a huge event. It gets a lot of press coverage. For rising cities in China, it’s kind of like the Olympics. It puts them on the map in business terms, and so they’ll go to great effort to get the Fortune Global Forum to come 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 Fortune’s power in China, as well as his historic connection with Fortune when he was in school, and I think when he realized that it was on the block, he said, “I’m interested.”
I think a lot of folks, or at least me, thought that a buyer for Fortune might likely come from Asia, right, because that brand maybe even punches above its weight, sort of in Asia, outside of the US. Again, you saw that at Forbes.
I thought that. I thought that, but I think that got shut down by the … Well, a couple of things. I mean, initially, Xi Jinping came down hard on companies like HNA that were heavily investing outside of China, so there was some pressure from the government on foreign investment, and then the whole trade war issue made it complicated. So, I think that kind of … I don’t 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 a different version of that. He’s of Chinese descent, but he’s …
… China-adjacent and ethnically Chinese.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. The mechanics of that, so this deal with Benioff, it doesn’t happen. Are you then sort of beating the bushes for another buyer, or does Chat show up because he knows that Benioff can’t buy it?
Oh, it’s complicated. Actually, Chat had someone who was working with him who tried to find a way to get to me and went through my friend, Bob Nardelli, the former CEO of Chrysler, Home Depot, was at GE. So, the initial approach actually came through Nardelli and to me, and at that time we were in exclusive conversations with a different buyer, so I said, “I can’t really talk to you about this,” but I introduced them to the bankers, and when the exclusivity expired with the earlier buyer, he jumped in.
So, you’re doing all this. You’re trying to sell a publication. You’re also running a publication. You gotta keep the doors open. You gotta keep the trains moving. You’re thinking about what you’re gonna do this year and next year, and then so is your staff. Right? So, how do you manage that process? It seems like a particularly difficult thing to pull off. By the way, it’s in nearly public view. Right? Some of these transactions, people inside might know they’re going on, but people on the outside don’t know the thing’s for sale.
I have spent a huge part of the last two years with investment bankers. People like you and me go into journalism so we don’t have to spend huge amounts of time with investment bankers, but …
Yep, and you’ve been a business journalist for a very long time. You were at the Journal for a very long time. It’s not like this is a foreign concept to you, but it’s different than actually doing it.
Yeah. It was quite an education, to be inside those rooms instead of outside those rooms trying to get in, but it did devour an enormous amount of time. Look, we have a great team at Fortune. I was the editor-in-chief a couple of years ago; I’m not now. Cliff Leaf is the editor-in-chief, so I don’t have to run the editorial staff, so that made it possible for me to take this on.
And again, this is a company that only a few years ago was owned by Time Warner; then they spin out Time Inc. and it gets sold to Meredith; then they spin out the individual titles. So if you’ve been there for not that many years, you’ve undergone an enormous change.
Enormous change, enormous change. I mean, you have to realize that in the Time Warner days, and that was only four years ago, under Time Warner, Fortune didn’t even have a website and it pretty much wasn’t allowed to make video. It didn’t have a website because the web content was all given to CNN Money. CNN got to run the website, and of course video was all done over in the studios, that was all one…
Dan Roth was doing that for you guys for awhile. He was another guest on this show.
Yes. Dan was there at the time, I wasn’t; I came shortly after that. But Time Warner had basically said you guys are going to do print magazines, period, and we’ll take the cash, thank you very much, and we’ll put it to use productively somewhere else. So that was a death sentence, and getting out of Time Warner was incredibly important. So the upside is we get to control our own destiny, we actually get to run our website now. The downside is, yeesh, we’re on our own as the media business is contracting, especially for, again, print businesses.
Yeah. None of these billionaires has yet magically solved the problems of the print media business, particularly the advertising supported media business, and Time, Inc. by definition was predominantly advertising supported. We had a big digital presence. Time Inc. all in was reaching 130 million people a month digitally, no pay walls. It’s entirely advertising supported, and most of the magazines are pretty heavily dependent on advertising as well.
The majority of your revenue comes from advertising.
But that has been shifting primarily because of the way the conference business is structured. More and more of our conference revenue comes directly from the participants and less of it comes from the sponsors, but it’s still about half and half.
And that’s the direction you’ve been in for awhile, and with conference business doing pretty well. When you have a new owner, do you have to say here’s what we’re doing, what do you want to do? Or do you say here’s what we’re doing, this is our plan, you’re along for the ride? How does that work?
Well, he owns it, so it’s his baby now.
So obviously, that was my first question, is 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 to what end? He’s been fairly clear on that point. He thinks Fortune is a great brand and should have global resonance. It should be part of … Whenever somebody’s thinking about business or money, Fortune should come to their mind. 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 just sort of overall? Do you want us to sell advertising? Do you want us to sell expensive conference tickets?
Uh, no, no …
You figure it out.
You figure it out, yeah. I guess I would say one thing in that if you look at where we were headed prior to the sale, we were probably on a path for the events business to become more than half of the business. I’m not sure that will happen now because he’s interested in the events business, but also wants us to grow the media business.
So the events business, the way that it works in my world and the way you’re describing it is … Well, there’s a couple of different ways to do it. You can either have advertisers underwrite the thing and people show up for free or mostly for free, or you can ask people to pay a lot of money to show up. You guys are already in that model now.
We’ve always … Look, we really view our events business as a communities business. It’s not about putting great people onstage and then selling tickets to come see them. It’s about creating a community of people. It’s been a number of years since I was at your conference, but I think yours was a similar model. The person sitting next to you is going to be as interesting, maybe even more interesting, than the person that’s up on the stage.
And that’s part of the pitch, yep.
So that’s an important part of it, and that’s always been the way we’ve approached our conferences. And we do ask people to pay. We ask speakers to pay who attend. The executives who are on the stage are part of the community, so they’re paying to be there and it’s a fairly high ticket price. So we have … in the event business we’ve pretty much balanced out consumer revenue and sponsorship revenue.
And the trick, at least in my world, is how do you scale this stuff, right? Because there’s a certain number of people who can afford a ticket for this sort of thing; there’s a certain number of people who are interesting enough to have onstage; there are a bunch of people doing events like this; there’s you, there’s me, Bloomberg’s doing it, other folks come in and out of it, it seems like, and you guys have done now a few franchises, right? You have the Most Powerful Women, you do an Asia one. It seems like at some point, though, you’re tapped out. There’s a limited audience for this.
Yeah, I think for us the limitation comes in … We do the Most Powerful Women conference, which you mentioned. We have a great tech franchise, Brainstorm Tech, which happens in Aspen and competes with what you do but has a better setting, in my view.
Have you been to Phoenix?
We have, but Aspen is awesome.
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’m most excited about is a franchise called The CEO Initiative, which is a community of CEOs who really want to devote themselves and share ideas on how to make business work better for society.
It started with an event we did in Rome at the Vatican in December 2016 that included a meeting with the Pope, where a hundred CEOs broke off into working groups to talk about what can the private sector do to address some of the world’s most pressing problems, whether it’s global warming or the billions of people who don’t have just basic health care. And did some pretty interesting brainstorming and some interesting projects grew out of that. Novartis worked with a nonprofit called Last Mile Health to attack the problem of people in underserved areas for health care.
These are interesting themes and ideas. I’m just thinking about the audience for this stuff, because you’re sort of sowing this idea of access to this club. You’re in a club if you can get into this thing.
By definition, there have to be a limited number of people who can be in the club, otherwise it’s not as valuable. So if you want to keep growing it, do you have to figure out ways of doing stuff that’s less exclusive but still has that brand?
No, I think you 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 just the number of CEOs or senior executives and the amount of time that they have available on their calendars. We’re pushing the … I think we did 18 different events last year, that we’re running out of CEOs who can do that.
What we’ve heard from the companies that we work closely with is that they would like us to move further down the hierarchy; that in today’s world, business has become so complicated and peripheral vision has become so important.
You may have been extremely successful moving up the ladder in the banking industry, but unless you recognize that your competition now isn’t going to come from another bank, it’s going to come from Ripple or it’s going to come from Apple or it’s going to come from Apple Pay, Amazon, whoever, and so it requires a greater degree of peripheral vision. It requires you to get out of the company and network and meet people in other industries, and that’s where we think we can play an important role. So we’re looking at ways that we can serve that need.
And the trick, right, is figuring out how you make that more accessible to more people without diluting the value?
It’s the TED/TEDx problem.
Does that TEDx model, where basically literally almost anyone can sort of create their own TED and say they ran a TED conference? Does that appeal to you, where you sort of franchise it out?
That’s sort of a user-generated model. That’s not something we spend a lot of time looking at. It’s interesting, but I think we’re looking more at how we can actively help companies meet this need.
And in terms of the content you’re putting out on the website, in the magazine, for a very long time Fortune was always, in my mind, considered like a writer-ly magazine. It did really great long-form journalism, known for that. We’re in a world that on the one hand maybe really still values that, or maybe has a renewed value on that, and there’s lots and lots and lots of fast twitch almost designed to be disposable content that you flick on and you flip on your phone and you move on. Might still be valuable, but it’s a different thing. So 2019 and beyond, what do you think you guys are going to make?
I think we’ll do both. I think you have to do both. We’re trying to help businesspeople get the information they need to be successful. Sometimes that’s a 5,000 word story by Jeff Colin on what the hell happened to GE. It was one of the best-read stories that we did in the last year. But at other times it’s a very busy corporate executive, wakes up at six o’clock in the morning; needs a quick download on what they need to know that’s important, and so they will go to one of our newsletters, or see a news flash coming across their cell phone. And I don’t think you can choose either-or. I think if our mission is to serve our audiences and to keep them informed, we have to do both.
There was a period where a bunch of the Time, Inc. properties, including you guys, were doing a lot more ephemeral stuff, and it was a … Sports Illustrated had its own version of sort of a BuzzFeed thing called Hot Potato or something, and Time was doing a lot of aggregation, and you guys were doing some of that as well. Will that continue or is that less appealing in a world where ads are less valuable?
Well, you’re talking broadly about more ephemeral stuff.
I guess the way I would put it is this: I started in the newspaper business, you were in the newspaper business. Newspapers have always had comics, they’ve always had light fare, they’ve always had … as well as deeply reported stories. You’ve had both.
Yeah, I’m not so much thinking about whether it’s light or not; just whether it’s such-and-such publication published this, here is our version of that story. It’s very common, but I think we’re seeing less of it now. I think some of the publications that only did that are having a harder time surviving this …
I don’t think you can only do that. But look, if I’m a busy executive and I want to count on Fortune to tell me what I need to know, you have to assume that not everything you need to know is going to be captured in an original story by a Fortune reporter. And so for us to point to stories in other places that may be interesting or important is a valuable service to our readers and we’ll keep doing it.
So we do it on our newsletters, we do it on the site. And another piece of that, Peter, that you know well is we have a large array of services, down to some which are very expensive. If you want to be a member of The CEO Initiative, it’s going to cost you $15,000 a year. We see that as a funnel. We’d like people to come to Fortune to get their most basic news about business and money, but over time some of those people will, we hope, convert into magazine subscribers, newsletter readers, and eventually conference attendees and members of our communities.
This is obvious, but we should say it. One of the reasons that a title like Fortune is so valuable is it is a business publication. 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?
Sure. 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?
Yeah. 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.
Good. 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.
Yeah. 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 …
Logical space or non-space.
That’s right. 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.”
Yeah. 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.
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