Will the Fed raise rates or won’t it?
In the midtown Manhattan newsroom of one of the world’s most iconic dailies, that is the question upon which future headlines—not to mention web stories, blog posts, infographics, video clips, tweets, snapchats, and whatever new platform has emerged since we printed this story—ride. On this September morning, a day before the Federal Reserve is scheduled to announce whether it will adjust short-term interest rates, the Wall Street Journal’s executive editor ponders the possibility, but does not obsess over it. Journalism at the Journal is no longer just a daily exercise; it’s a minute-by-minute, and sometimes second-by-second endeavor. But inside the mind of Almar Latour, the tall, slender Dutchman whose easy-going manner conceals his weighty intellect, thoughts on today’s big stories must jostle for position with Big Ideas for tomorrow.
Three years ago Latour, SOC/MA ’96, was tapped to transform earth’s financial paper of record into the world’s “premier digital news organization.” For a 127-year-old publication that didn’t run photos until the twenty-first century, that’s a miniscule period of time in which to implement a seismic shift. Yet Latour, 45, has been able to mold the paper into a leaner, less fractured reportorial force that puts as much effort into mining data as gathering quotes; as much thought into designing its homepage as laying out page one; and as much emphasis on hiring software engineers as reporters.
It hasn’t always been easy. Even at dying companies change often is met with resistance or outright rebellion, but by all accounts the Journal always has been quite virile. A cog in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire, it is America’s second-highest circulating paper (with a total of more than 2.2 million readers of its print products, digital subscriptions, and material in other papers that use its branded content, it trails only USAToday, according to the Alliance for Audited Media’s most recent report). In an industry whose very existence remains on shaky ground, the Journal has never lost its footing.
Why then did its stewards feel compelled to so radically reimagine its newsroom, the backbone of its business?
“The easy thing to say is we’re already pretty big and it’s a comfortable situation, so let’s just perpetuate the situation,” says Latour, who in January was promoted to publisher of the Dow Jones Media Group. “The harder thing to say, even when you’re relatively well-off, is that everything is changing, things might not be the same tomorrow. How do we reinvent ourselves?”
Journalists love posing questions, but they’re not so crazy about answering them. In Latour, however, the Journal found a leader with a reporter’s penchant for spotting problems and a manager’s acumen for solving them.
"That’s extremely rare,” says Alan Murray, Latour’s first boss at the Journal and now editor of Fortune magazine. “Almar’s very focused and he’s very determined. There’s not a lot of nonsense or drama.”
Which is not to say that the paper’s transformation under Latour hasn’t been dramatic.
Dow Jones, which publishes the Wall Street Journal and other financial news products, occupies four floors of 1211 Avenue of the Americas, a skyscraper about a block from Times Square that houses News Corp. and some of its other subsidiaries, including Fox News and the New York Post. Journal visitors take an elevator to the seventh floor, which is where the 6-foot-4 Latour, wearing a black sport coat but no tie, met me.
"We’ve created a single global newsroom, and this is the beating heart,” he says, pointing to the expansive maze of desks where hundreds of reporters, editors, and now, thanks in large part to Latour’s reorganization, graphic designers, data scientists, and software engineers sit. “We have mini-replicas of this in Hong Kong and London, so it’s a 24/7 operation.”
Two days earlier the company launched redesigned Asian and European versions of the print paper that mirror the American one. A mammoth video board that hangs above the Hub, as the nerve center of the newsroom is called, displays a live feed of WSJ.com and the preliminary design of pages for tomorrow’s dead tree edition. Save for a few exceptions, the workspaces are entirely open, including a “hot spot” section where employees plug their laptops into a different desk depending on the project they’re working on at the time. In case they need privacy or a break from their coworkers, there’s a modern incarnation of a phone booth where they can work in blissful silence.
This proximity, however forced it may be, encourages collaboration and the sharing of information, which haven’t always been strengths at the Journal, Latour says. He’s sitting at the conference table in his office, which has floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the newsroom. It’s a utilitarian space with almost no personal touches—because he travels so much, he says he’d rather people feel comfortable using it for meetings.
Latour is a long way from the village of Welten in the Netherlands, where he was born the son of teachers and raised by his mother after his parents divorced. Coming of age in Cold War Europe, he harbored a fascination with the power and influence wielded by the United States. Toward the end of high school, he got a job doing color correction in the photo lab of a regional Dutch newspaper, which just happened to be where the Journal printed its European edition at the time. He arrived in America as an exchange student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1990, and after his first year, decided to stay.
“I had a professor who said, ‘You’re a professional journalist when you get your first paycheck,’” Latour recalls. “I made it my goal that year to have a paycheck, and I got that.”
It came from the Tribune-Review, a Pennsylvania newspaper for which he wrote a story on a student protest in the state capital. Still, Latour wasn’t entirely sure that his future lay in journalism. When he enrolled in graduate school at AU, he was a student in the School of International Service. An internship at the European Parliament convinced him that a life of diplomacy wasn’t for him, so he switched to the School of Communication, where he landed another internship, at the Wall Street Journal.
“We worked on little green computer terminals with their own messaging system,” he says. “Editing would often be done on printouts on dot-matrix printers. The story that got me hired was a lengthy one on the media industry in Europe. I remember printing out this big stack of papers, then I showed it to the editor. He rolled it out, scrolled through it, and when he got to the end he said, ‘If you want to stay in journalism you can really have a career in it.’”
The Journal hired him in 1995 as a news assistant in its Washington bureau, then run by Alan Murray. At first the rookie was shoveled the grunt work that the “real” reporters thumbed their noses at. Among his assignments: counting the number of applause lines President Clinton drew during a State of the Union address.
But Latour’s talents emerged quickly, leading to meatier assignments. After about 18 months he moved to the paper’s Brussels headquarters to write for the Central European Economic Review. A year later, he was assigned to Stockholm, where he covered everything from the oil industry to the Nobel Prize to playing ice golf in the Arctic Circle. He also began reporting on subjects like mobile technology and the Internet, introducing companies like Nokia and Ericsson to Journal readers. After a stint in London, he moved to the technology bureau in New York, where he broke the story of the indictment of WorldCom’s CEO. He was quickly promoted to bureau chief—the youngest at the Journal at that time—before his path once again crossed his mentor’s.
“When I was asked to take over the digital operations of the Journal [in 2007],I needed a managing editor for the website,” Murray says. “I was a fan of Almar’s, so I walked into his office and said, ‘If you ran the Wall Street Journal website, what would you do?’ For the next 30 minutes he laid out for me exactly what needed to be done. It was as if he had a strategy paper in his head. I knew he was a good manager and extremely competent, but what blew me away was his ability to lay out a vision for the website without any preparation. I walked into his office out of the blue, and I walked out convinced that he was the guy that I wanted.”
Latour was appointed managing editor of WSJ.com at age 36. He hired the site’s first photo editor, ramped up its interactivity, and oversaw a complete redesign that debuted on September 16, 2008—one day after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. The coverage included a prominent photo of a trader in despair and a graphic detailing the stock market spiral. Neither could have run prior to the redesign. He went on to lead the Journal in Asia, before Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker appointed him executive editor of the Journal, Dow Jones, and Market Watch in December 2012.
“Almar is a Dow Jones veteran who has played a crucial role in creating the modern Journal,” Baker said in a memo to the staff. “His initial task in his new role will be to lead the integration of Newswires [another Dow Jones entity] and the Journal, a mission he has already accomplished with skill and dispatch in Asia.”
Soon he’d add a North America feather to his continental cap. But Latour, who has a passion for the “architecture” of the industry, was just getting started.
As Latour strolls through the sparsely populated halls (a newsroom at 10 a.m. is not usually a beehive of activity) clutching a disposable cup of coffee, he greets almost everyone by name. When you’ve spent nearly your entire adult life working for a single company, getting to know colleagues beyond a professional level is one of the perks.
Perhaps that’s a reason Latour was the perfect man to lead the Journal’s transformation.
“He understood the digital world, but he had earned his chops so he had the respect of the journalists,” Murray says. “They knew he was a great reporter, they knew he could do the kind of work that they were accustomed to doing, but he also understood how they had to change to succeed in the digital world.”
Latour saw his job as threefold. First, he aimed to create a newsroom that was primarily digital. This essentially flipped the journalistic model that had been the norm at the Journal for more than a century.
“At one point most people read the Wall Street Journal on a mobile device,” he says. “It’s easy to say print is dead, but I think print has become one platform instead of the platform. It’s not going to be the largest platform in terms of readership and daily interaction. That’s already vanished.”
Signs of this are everywhere in the newsroom. Aside from the large screen above the Hub, four others on a prominent wall display real-time metrics from WSJ.com. The number of people logged on, how much time they’re spending on the site, which links they’re clicking on, whether they’re a subscriber . . . nothing’s a mystery. In addition, unifying the newsroom into a single, albeit massively large, global unit has created new work flows that (generally) emphasize digital in the mornings, when more people are online. The rhythm of a newsroom used to crescendo as the day progressed, peaking when the next day’s paper was put to bed. No longer. Now, it’s about the now.
Next, Latour wanted to globalize. That a world-class news organization was operating essentially in silos just a few years ago sounds strange, but in many cases at the Journal, that was the case. The paper had separate mergers and acquisitions reporting groups in Hong Kong, London, and New York before Latour unified them. So while not all of its 1,800 editorial staffers work in the same hemisphere, organizationally, now they’re all part of the same team.
“That’s something unique we can offer that we haven’t fully leveraged before,” Latour says. “In the past, if you were a foreign correspondent, writing an article would be like writing a letter home to a good friend and saying, ‘Here’s what it’s like in the Czech Republic.’ Whereas now what’s happening in Tokyo might be very much part of the story here in the US.”
The reorganization didn’t come without a price. In June, Editor-in-Chief Baker announced the elimination of a few dozen positions (hundreds of people shifted jobs and new positions will be created, Latour says), the closing of bureaus in Prague and Helsinki, the elimination of the small-business coverage group, and the death of several blogs.
“Having analyzed the workings of the newsroom, I thought there were certain things we could step back from or diminish without readers noticing,” Latour says. “In general, media companies, when you switch from an analog world to a digital world, one of the things you have to accept is that the cost structure changes. There are benefits—distribution costs go way down—but the revenue dynamic is different, and different skill sets are needed.”
Which leads to Latour’s third charge: stressing specialization. Reporters come to the Journal from all different walks of life. Some were trained as journalists, others have a background in business or finance, a few are simply deep thinkers and terrific writers. Today you’ll find more than one Journal scribe working alongside a PhD or a person with a degree in computer science.
“If you think of journalists as experts rather than just reporting day-to-day events, data and data analysis are becoming part of our storytelling,” he says. “We’re building algorithms for sweeping through huge swaths of information and coming to new conclusions that we couldn’t come to before. Data is not just important. A serious media company can’t fully function without it.”
To promote that idea, the paper flew in people from all over the world to work with data scientists for an internal “datathon.”
“We locked them up for a couple of days, and we came out with stuff that just didn’t exist before,” Latour says. “We had a Middle East reporter who did analysis on hacking efforts by Iran. You can report on that, and you’re quoting people—that’s one thing. But they took data sets that were publicly available but very impenetrable and did some really sophisticated analysis on it. They reverse engineered some of the data sets and drew some conclusions, then created a timeline of actual hacking attempts into US companies, and then mapped the timeline to negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue. To me that’s new because it has so many dimensions to it. That’s what we’re trying to unlock. In the past you would do that for one effort, for one story. Now you can create a mini-universe in which there are many stories.”
Another time, a Journal team examined the accuracy of central bank officials’ predictions about the economy. A relatively unknown woman came out on top. That ace prognosticator, Janet Yellen, went on to become Fed chief. If only picking winning stocks was so easy.
At its core, the Wall Street Journal remains the Wall Street Journal. If you’re looking for analysis of marquee offerings from the world’s biggest hedge funds or you’re wondering how the dollar is faring against the euro, there’s no better source. When Yellen made her big announcement (“Fed Delays Rate Liftoff,” which really wasn’t so big), the paper ran four stories in the print edition and several others on its various platforms.
But the Journal also is attracting a new generation of readers through whimsical articles (“I’ll Be Darned, Wearing Socks With Sandals Is No Faux Pas”); pop culture coverage (its “Speakeasy” blog is wildly popular); its flashy, fashion-heavy monthly magazine; and new ways of telling the “same old” financial stories that its most loyal readers demand. The paper won its first Pulitzer in eight years for a 2015 series exposing abuses in the Medicare system. In a Journal story about the prize, Investigations Editor Michael Siconolfi cited the work of, among others, six members of the paper’s graphics teams, and Latour points to data mining as a key to the series as well.
“We’re in a leadership position in print, we were and still are in a leadership position in digital subscriptions, so the question is, how do you retain that?” Latour says.
Another tough question lobbed by a reporter and editor who’s made a career of posing them. Almar Latour just might have the answer to this one.