News.me

Getting the News — Alan Murray

(This post is part of News.me’s ongoing series, “Getting the News.” In our efforts to understand everything about social news, we’re reaching out to writers and thinkers we like to ask them how they get their daily news. Read the first post here. See all of the posts, from writers and thinkers like Zach SewardAnil Dash, and Megan Garberhere.)

This week we talked to Alan Murray, deputy managing editor and executive editor, online, for the Wall Street Journal. He has editorial responsibility for the Journal’s web sites, including WSJ.com and MarketWatch. Alan’s view of news is from the inside out: As he puts it, he’s “surrounded by screens,” completely immersed in the news process at the Journal. Hilarious and insightful, he gave us his take on the future of news, telling a few stories about the development of the WSJ app and what it feels like to be Twitter famous along the way.

Describe how you get news throughout the day. What’s the first thing you check when you wake up?

I read the Wall Street Journal early in the morning, usually on the iPad, but sometimes on the Kindle Fire, sometimes in print, and sometimes on my iPhone. But I start with the WSJ. When I’m done with the WSJ I check my Twitter feed. I have about 300 people who I follow, and because I know I don’t have time to read all the things I should read, I find that my Twitter feed is a good way to make sure I don’t miss something important. If it’s important enough, I can assume somebody has tweeted about it. And then maybe three days a week, on days when I work out, I check out the New York Times and the Financial Times. In that order. The number one priority is the Journal, and I try to switch platforms so that I’m familiar with how we’re delivering on all of them.

Are there any particular people on Twitter you find very valuable?

Oh, I don’t know. I have a list of 300 of them. You could actually go to Twitter and look up the list. But there’s not any one or two that I would single out — that’s not really the way I use it. There are so many things I should be reading. I wish I read every issue of the New Yorker and The Atlantic. I wish I could get three or four other papers every day, but I can’t. I wish I was watching a lot of stuff on television that I’m not. So I find that the group of people I follow on Twitter are a pretty good way of making sure that if there’s something really interesting out there I find out about it.

So did you develop that list over time? How carefully did you create it?

Not carefully, but over time. There are some people on the list who really irritate the hell out of me, but I haven’t taken the trouble of going in and taking them off the list yet. And when I learn about people who are active Tweeters who learn about stuff I’m interested in, I follow them. And they kind of fall into three categories. There is the Washington/political category. Then there’s the interesting business and financial news, economics bloggers, those sorts of people. And then the third group is media and technology people. Most of the people I follow fall into one of those three groups.

What platforms do you use? Which devices? Do you use iPads in the morning?

I still get the Wall Street Journal delivered on my driveway every morning. I have a 45-minute train ride, which is my key morning-media reading time. I usually read the iPad, but I often have the paper with me, and I look at the paper to see how it’s laid out. Some days, I like this morning, I read the Kindle Fire instead of the iPad, just to keep up with it. There have been other days when because I forgot to charge my iPad or something, I check it on the iPhone, or my android phone.

Is there any experience you prefer?

The iPad. Not to say I prefer Apple to the other companies, but just that I think it’s the best device. And our readers feel the same way. It’s the first digital product we’ve created that readers find more satisfying than the print paper.

That’s very interesting. Did the Wall Street Journal develop that app internally?

We did. In a windowless room, because Apple said it had to be a windowless room, with three devices that were chained to a table. With a small group of people who worked pretty much nonstop for six weeks. 

It had to be a windowless room because it was before the iPad was released publicly?

Yeah. They demanded it be a windowless room. They demanded the iPads be chained to the table. They would only allow a small number of people to enter the room. It all happened in the six weeks between when the first announcement was made and when the iPad launched. It was very interesting. There was no time to plan, or do business models, or anything, which seems to have worked to our advantage.

One other thing that guided that — because many of the people in the room were actually web designers — was that Rupert Murdoch really kept insisting that the product be modeled on the print paper. Which was exactly right. Several times we had to course-correct and say, wait a minute, this isn’t supposed to look like a website, this really needs to look like the paper. It’s a big part of what people like about it. It’s scannable, skimmable, with a discrete set of content.

Do you watch television news?

So, if you could see my office, where Ashley and I are sitting, I have [counting] one, two, three, four, five, screens, I’m sorry, six screens and three devices. I have two screens where I keep an eye on business news. I keep one of them on FOX Business News, and with the other I’ll sometimes watch CNBC and sometimes watch CNN, depending on what’s going on. I have a big screen right in front of me — a Samsung Smart TV — where I get our video, via either Samsung, Apple TV, or Roku, I have them all hooked up to the same TV. We do five hours of live webcasting a day, and if I’m here, I watch those live. And then I have my two computer screens, one that I keep on WSJ.com and one on MarketWatch.com. And then I have a MacBook Pro that I work on. I’m totally surrounded by screens. I keep these two screens on with the sound off just to see what’s on. And I watch our shows, but multitasking. Just don’t tell the hosts.

What was the last great article you read, and how did you find it?

Oh, that’s a trick question. I’ll say something in the Journal, right?

You’re welcome to say something in the Journal.

If it’s a great article that’s in the Journal, I just read it because I read the Journal every day. “Great” might be the wrong word. Reading about Sheryl Sandberg’s new house in Menlo Park, CA this morning was fun. If it’s not in the Journal… well, James Fallows has a new article out on Bill Daley and the White House. And… you know, I forgot a part of my daily routine. I can’t believe you’re asking me all these questions. So if it’s not in the Journal, I read about it in my Twitter feed and go to it from there. But the other things I read in the morning are several emails. One is Mike Allen’s POLITICO email. We have a service called CFO Journal that does a morning email. I read that in the morning, that’s about 700-800 words. Sometimes I read ABC’s The Note.

How do your news consumption habits inform what you’re covering at the WSJ?

I’m not writing much anymore, because I just don’t have time. I do participate in the morning news meeting, and my views are definitely informed by the information I’ve picked up before I get there at 10:30am. We start the morning meeting with a report on what people are reading on our site, what people are searching for on our site, what they’re looking for more broadly on Google, what stories are trending — a general review of what people are reading, both on our site and off our site.

A metrics analysis?

Yes. That’s the first thing we do. We care about our readers.

My next question was going to be, how do social signals play into that? And the answer, it sounds like, is quite a bit.

Yes. One of the other things I do in the morning, in addition to looking at the 300 people I follow on Twitter, I’ll also do a search of “WSJ” — just to see which of our content is being talked about on Twitter.

What do you find out?

You get a very different view of the news, finding out what stories are really being shared, and what stories people find most interesting. We have a really active and rapidly growing Japanese-language site, with an active Twitter following, so in the morning what’s often being shared are Japanese-language stories.

Do you speak Japanese?

I do speak some Japanese. I read some Japanese. I studied it for a while. So I can sometimes make out some sense of what they’re saying. 

Is there anything missing in the way you get your news now? Anything you wish you had?

Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t know. I don’t know what I don’t know. … No. I’m pretty happy with what I have. If you were to look at my iPad, I’ve downloaded virtually every news aggregator app that exists. I’ll go around and look at them from time to time. But I haven’t found anything else that is so compelling that it’s become a part of my daily routine. The Journal plus Twitter does it for me.

How long have you had your Twitter account for?

About three years? I follow 357 people. And I have 18,000 followers.

How does that feel, being Twitter famous?

Well, it’s pretty small compared to Ashton Kutcher.

(All interviews conducted by Sonia Saraiya.)