An Interview with Matt Murray, Editor-in-Chief of The Wall Street Journal
Matt Murray is Editor-in-Chief of The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires, responsible for all global newsgathering and editorial operations. After joining the Journal in 1994 as a reporter for the Pittsburgh bureau, Mr. Murray served as National Editor, Deputy Editor-in-Chief, and Executive Editor before replacing Gerard Baker as Editor-in-Chief on June 5, 2018. He is the author of The Father and the Son and the co-author, with former New York City fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen, of Strong of Heart.
The Politic: The inspiration for The Father and The Son is clear, but what made you actually sit down and write it?
Matt Murray: I wrote a frontpage story for the Journal in 1995 about my father. I thought I had a story to tell about him and his life that would resonate with Journal readers, many of whom had similar kinds of things happen in their lives, where they reached a certain point and wondered if there was something more as their life took a turn. Part of it was also a certain level of personal ambition as a writer to tell a story in a different way. So, I wrote the frontpage story, and I got responses with book offers from agents. I was very ambitious to write it in a narrative, non-fiction way. I had personal experiences I wanted to think about and explore. For instance, my mother’s life. What happened?
The late ‘90s was also a golden age of memoirs. Everyone was writing them all over the place. It was a huge wave of memoirs, and I was particularly inspired by a book by Ian Frasier. So, I decided to write The Father and The Son to explore more of my father’s life and to see if I had a book there. But I really did it in my spare time on evenings and weekends. On my holidays, I went to my father’s home and spent time interviewing him. It all came together somehow.
Looking back, do you ever think about the book? Does it feel foreign to you?
Not exactly foreign, but it does feel like it’s from a different time of my life. I’m not sure I could ever read it again. There are things I would say differently. Things I would do differently. And because of the very personal nature of the book, both in terms of the role my father played but also in terms of the parts on religious faith and belief, I think I feel differently now that I’m 53 than I did when I was 35 or 36. I always imagined that if I went back to the book, there would be parts that would surprise me, in a good way, and parts that would embarrass me. So, it doesn’t really feel that remote, but it does feel like a different time and place for me.
I’ve also taken a different path in life since that period of time when I was really aspiring to be a narrative nonfiction writer like Tony Horwitz. I got married and went into management. I undertook a different kind of career. And now, as an editor, there’s a lot of my job that uses different parts of my brain that I wasn’t necessarily thinking about at the time. I think I’ve ended up in a place that I didn’t expect to end up. It feels like a different place. I guess I wouldn’t say I feel alienated, but it does feel like a long time ago.
How’s writing The Father and The Son influenced your approach to leading WSJ?
A couple of ways. As I wrote in the article and described in the book, when I was much younger, particularly when I went to college, I really felt like my family imploded in many ways. I felt rootless, and writing the book helped me think more deeply about the history and patterns of my family. It helped me understand the ways I’d been influenced by my parents and even their parents. Management is funny, because my father, who spent his career in government personnel (“a well-regarded government bureaucrat with a high rank and good salary”), actually had lots of thoughts on management, whether that was in dealing with people, working with people, or giving career advice.
Before he died, I would seek his counsel, because he really had a gift of working with different types of people and empathizing with them. (“In his personnel work, he had shown an almost missionary zeal, especially toward poor and underprivileged applicants.”) Everyone was drawn to him, and I was inspired by his ability to do that. In that way, I always find myself, in dealing with people or handling various situations, thinking about how my father would have managed the situation in this or that way.
I think the book also connected me to aspects of my mother’s history, too, and I think, because I was at the right age, it prompted me–without getting too personal–to engage with and think about my religious faith at a different level than I had done previously. On a very practical level, I think it helped me develop as a writer and an editor. Book editing is a much more ruthless process than newspaper editing. So, at a very practical, grubby level, when my writers reach out to me with questions about book deals they’re considering, I have a lot of practical knowledge to share with them as to how that process works.
I really liked that one anecdote where your father purged your family’s possessions and sold the home. Any lesson in that? Are you less materialistic now because of that experience?
He had a big two-day yard sale and sold off everything. But the truth is that I’m pretty materialistic, and I always have been. I was definitely a spoiled, chubby, TV-watching, breakfast-cereal-eating kid from suburbia. To this day, I probably know more garbage ‘70s television than anybody else. I’m now 53, and I think my father was about 52 when he retired and began his religious experience. What I’ve found as I’ve gotten older–at least in my case–is that you become less interested in material goods, in dragging them around, in defining yourself through them. That realization seems to happen anyway with a little bit of age and wisdom, which I can only call a positive development in my case.
If you achieved only one thing as Editor of WSJ, what would that be?
Look. First of all, I preface by saying, I’m fortunate to have succeeded a number of great editors, and I’d be immodest to pretend that I measure up to their achievements. So, I’m truly humbled. When I got the job, what most excited me was the ability to play a positive, active, and even hands on role in great stories. That’s been the most rewarding part. I get to play a role in encouraging and fostering great stories. I get to help build a culture where we want great, ambitious, memorable, impactful stories, and where we want lots of people to read them and see them, too.
If I can play an important role in supporting writers, while also keeping out of the way, that’s the best part of the job–the most fun part of my day. There are many elements of being an editor which are unfamiliar, new, or unpleasant. But this is something I’ve spent most of my career doing, and it’s the reason I got into this. So, it’s particularly wonderful when I get to see younger talents or new voices coming into journalism, and I get to do what I can in helping them craft their best stories. That’s the truth.
You mentioned supporting writers while also keeping out of the way. That’s really difficult. How do you straddle the line between too laissez-faire or too involved when it comes to working with writers?
It’s hard to get the line right, and I’m sure many people would tell you that I do a much worse job of it than I just portrayed to you. Look, there’s definitely tension between writers and editors occasionally. You want to make things better, and sometimes that involves making decisions that writers aren’t sure about. Sometimes, as you say, editors can get overeager. It’s a balancing act, and you don’t always get it right.
But I don’t know of anything professionally that matches the thrill of seeing a piece come together and get sculpted from marble into a statue. You get to see it have an impact, too. I don’t have a byline anymore, but what I’m doing now is as big a thrill as anything I’ve ever done. When I was younger, it was all about my byline, and I enjoyed that. But it’s genuinely satisfying and nice to see other people have that thrill. That’s the best part.
What’s one thing that’s underrated about WSJ or that WSJ gets too much flack for?
I think, compared to the other two publications, the Journal doesn’t get enough credit for how hard we work to break new stories and to be fair, and great, and balanced, and factual in our coverage. We have the top trustworthiness rating among readers. The Journal is often thought of as a business paper in the minds of some people. But in my mind, one of the things I’ve always loved about the Journal is our coverage of market economics and the big forces that drive and shape our lives. I think the things we write about are the most relevant to the world, and I think we also do a great job with lifestyle, arts, and other sections. We have a very, very large readership–the largest we’ve ever had. But I still think our readership should be larger and that even more people should see our work, so I think differentiation is important.
That was more of a sales pitch, but I think… I don’t know if it’s what you’re looking for, but in terms of the editing, the other thing is that I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Some might even say I’m anal. I have specific things I like or dislike. I’m a copy editor. And when you’ve been editing for too long, you don’t enjoy life. When you go out to a restaurant and look at the menu, you start critiquing it. People don’t like you, and they don’t like being around you. I get that.
At the same time, I love pushing for perfection and knowing that you’re never going to get there. One of the nice things about our business is that it’s a human enterprise. Human beings put it together. We’re flawed. We worked hard. And now, in the digital age, we get the pleasure of producing our content every minute and in real time. You get to see your work all the time, and it can always be better, but you also have a deadline, and people need the information. I like that balance a lot. Pushing yourself to do better is the goal. To go back to what you asked about my book, it’s a little like the quest for salvation. You’ll pursue it, and you’ll probably never achieve it in this life, but the pursuit is the pleasure.
You played a central role in WSJ2020, a project to promote digital journalism. How much pressure do you feel to innovate versus sticking with what’s worked?
I think we’ve felt that pressure at different times. Our business model has changed so profoundly as print advertising has declined. I think everybody here knows we innovate, and I think in the newsroom, and in the company, we’ve become more focused on innovation. I just think the trap that some organizations fall into at different times, or even the profession at large, is mistaking technology for the ‘thing itself.’ There’ve been moments where digital Cassandras, for instance, thought that the rise of the internet meant every single thing was different, that reading habits changed overnight, that everything needed to be blown up and reinvented, that we needed to be in a different place, because everything that had worked for 125 years was now obsolete.
There’ve been moments when that philosophy was embraced, and a great example is a decade ago when everyone was rushing to join social media and give content away for free. We didn’t do that at the Journal. We had a paywall early on. I was interested in that model, but I was also slightly weary of social media. So, I think the ultimate issue is that, in thinking about transforming your business, technology has to be at the center of what you do–but the core business doesn’t change. People need news, and they need accurate news. Continuing to produce that news amid the pressure of the digital world is what you need to do. That’s worked, and in many ways, technology is central to the process since it can facilitate that, but it’s not the thing itself.
Is that an allusion to Plato?
I wish, but I have more experience with Play-Doh than Plato.
Most would probably sound like sales pitches. [Laughing] But my biggest thought… Even in an industry that’s facing many, many different pressures on many fronts, some of which are brand new, journalism is still really important, and it’s still a hell of a lot of fun. I’m very, very lucky to be in the position I’m in right now.
Sadly, many journalism jobs have been lost, and the quest has become much tougher in the last 30 years. We’re not sure yet how we’ll continue to evolve, but I think what we do is as important, or even more important, than it’s ever been. It’s still fun, and society really needs it. We all worry a lot about the decline of local journalism and what it means when local papers and local TV stations have gone by the wayside and people don’t have a local news force. There are some really profound changes that are cause for concern. But, I also hope those changes will create some new opportunities for innovative journalists to do what we’ve always done: tell stories. And that’s the most fun you can have standing up.