Digital Disruption and the Myth of Mainstream Media

With Alan Murray - CEO of Fortune Media


Episode description:

In talking about the news today, it’s tempting to focus on the bad actors, the amplifiers of nonsense and the peddlers of outrage. It’s worth remembering, though, they’re not the only players. There are journalists who adhere to standards and have managed to thrive despite the seismic disruption of the industry. Today’s guest is one of those.

Alan Murray, the CEO of Fortune media, was a long-time Washington columnist for the Wall Street Journal before becoming editor and eventually CEO of Fortune, one of the most storied brands in business journalism. But Fortune, too, has had its share of disruption. Its former corporate owner, Time Inc., once one of the world’s richest media companies, collapsed under the weight of digital competition; Fortune is now owned by a foreign billionaire, and its success in recent years has hinged on multiple lines of business, like events, not on old-fashioned reporting and writing.

Alan and Eric discuss the economic changes that bedevil the news industry and what they mean to society; we talk about media bias and the myth of the mainstream media; the critical need for news literacy; and democracy’s enduring reliance on quality journalism.

 

Topics

00:00
Introduction and Background
01:06
Early Start in Journalism
02:25
Challenges in the Media Industry
08:29
Changes in Media Consumption
11:53
Impact of Media on Society
15:40
The Myth of Mainstream Media
17:15
Media Bias and Business Reporting
20:37
The Role of Media Literacy
25:43
Regulation and Media Responsibility
27:09
Social Media and Journalistic Standards
31:41
Future Plans and the Need for Quality Journalism
44:38
The Importance of Business Reporting
57:12
Stepping Down as CEO and Future Endeavors
58:00
Building Trust and Rapport
Conclusion

 

Transcript

Eric Schurenberg (00:23.929)
Alan Murray, welcome to In Reality.

Alan Murray (00:29.122)
Thank you, Eric. Great to be with you.

Eric Schurenberg (00:31.801)
Let’s start by talking about the Alan Murray origin story, which, yeah, you go way back as a journalist, starting by some tellings at nine years old. But you were, you know, Phi Beta Kappa at Chapel Hill, masters from the London School of Economics. So you could have done anything, most of which

Alan Murray (00:37.352)
Oh my god.

Alan Murray (00:45.938)
Uh, it, yeah.

Eric Schurenberg (01:00.453)
would pay more than journalism. So why did this profession, this calling appeal to you?

Alan Murray (01:06.761)
Stupidity, I guess. I mean, the frustrating thing, I did start when I was nine years old, I had a little neighborhood newspaper that I printed on a jelly sheet copying machine. The frustrating thing about having started so early is that I wasn’t really old enough to make a smart, conscious decision.

about my career. And there was a period when I was in college when I thought, well, this isn’t right. And I sort of rebelled against my, all my instincts and said, maybe I’ll go to law school or do something else. But I, but I ended up, I always ended up coming back. And, and in retrospect, I think it’s just because it’s such, it’s because I like to learn. I like waking up every day and having something new on my plate. And journalism assures you of that.

It’s new all the time and it’s usually interesting. Like there are one or two times during my career where it got a little tedious. We can talk about those, but for the most part, it’s been interesting. The world’s a fascinating place and being charged with trying to understand it and explain it is a pretty fun job.

Eric Schurenberg (02:12.533)
Well, I agree with you. You reminded me that there was a moment in my career, actually while I was working at Fortune, where I decided that it was time to stop writing about rich people and become one. So, I went to Goldman Sachs and lasted about nine months there before I realized that Wall Street was not for me and that journalism was my true home. And luckily for me, Time Inc took me back.

Alan Murray (02:25.527)
Good move. I hope it worked, Eric.

Alan Murray (02:41.595)
Well, I have to say I cannot complain. You’re right. When you make a decision to become a journalist, you know you are going into a field that doesn’t compensate well. And that would, you know, for most of our career, Eric, or at least half of our careers, it has been challenged. It’s been going downhill at least since the turn of the millennium. So, but I have to say it’s taken very good care of me. I make a fine living. Thank you very much. And I never felt that impulse to be rich. I just wanted to be reasonably well off.

Eric Schurenberg (03:17.181)
Well, you do raise a good point about the state of the profession right now. There is a huge amount of turmoil in the industry now you are Leaving fortune and you’re leaving it profitable which Deserves congratulations because that is not a given at all in the media space today But it is safe to say that fortune is a different company There was when I worked there in the late 90s. It was advertising driven. It was part of a powerful media empire

Alan Murray (03:33.038)
Thank you.

Eric Schurenberg (03:45.865)
Time Incorporated, which no longer exists. And when we worked there, at least when I worked there, I had no idea that the media business model was about to crater. So I’d like, if you don’t mind to sort of, from the perch of Fortune CEO to talk about this decline, the sled ride that the media industry has been on, we can start.

Alan Murray (03:57.665)
Yeah.

Eric Schurenberg (04:14.249)
You joined Fortune, I think, in 2014, but let’s start with when Fortune was acquired by a time businessman, Tachyval Jiravanan, and became an independent media company. So how was the title different from those days at Time Inc, and how is it different now than it was in 2018 when you became CEO?

Alan Murray (04:26.963)
Yeah.

Alan Murray (04:35.274)
Well, let me go back a little further, Eric, because the Fortune story is, you know, every magazine and every print publication has suffered its version of the same story. The peak for advertising supported media was around 2000. And I can’t vouch for this number, but I was told by somebody who was at Fortune at the time, I was not, I was told by somebody who was there in 2000 that the magazine, the print magazine had $300 million in advertising. The number I can vouch for is this year’s number, which is going to be closer to 7 million. So, you know, a steady slide from 300 million to 7 million. And pretty much every print publication has a similar story because once the internet was often running, the need, the advertisers desire to reach their customer, which is what media provided them. It provided them a route to do that. They didn’t need print media to do that anymore. They could do it much more effectively and much less expensively through Google or Facebook or whatever. And so the business model for print publications fell apart pretty fast. And I really have spent the better part of the last two decades trying to figure out how you save media from that.

I spent asome time at the Stanford Business School in 2005, looking at exactly that question, why was it that business information services like Bloomberg or Forrester or Gartner were making lots of money, but the media companies were declining? And I spent close to a decade at the Wall Street Journal helping them address that, created the CEO Council there and created some verticals like the CFO Network.

So I’ve really spent the last two decades of my life trying to figure out how do you counteract this plummeting 10% a year, whatever it was of the business model for print magazines. And that, as you point out, that really became center stage when Fortune was acquired and became independent in 2018. It’s been five years now. And I’ve spent the last five years as CEO of Fortune.

Alan Murray (07:02.274)
doing everything I can to diversify revenue streams so that we can offset that anchor, that plummeting number that is print advertising. So today, I said print advertising will probably be seven or $8 million this year, but we have 125 million in revenue. So we have diversified.

We’ve grown revenues about 50% from the time of the spin-off five years ago. If you were in the tech business, you’d find that pretty disappointing. But as you know, Eric, in the media business, 50% over those five years is not bad. And we’ve been profitable for the last three years.

Eric Schurenberg (07:41.689)
Yeah, that is truly remarkable. And diversification is the story, I think, for media leadership these days. Fortune’s event business in particular is famous for being able to generate a lot of interest and a lot of advertising dollars.

Alan Murray (07:47.916)
Right?

Eric Schurenberg (08:10.757)
Information landscape now and how it’s changed is the effect of the business model on journalism. And is there anything you would say about how the change in the business model at Fortune affected the way Fortune does journalism?

Alan Murray (08:29.47)
Oh, it’s very different. It’s very different. And it’s not just the business model, it’s the change in the way people consume information. I mean, today, the vast majority of information that is consumed is consumed on a smartphone in tiny little bits. And as you know, because you were in the same world, I mean, reporters at Fortune, when I got there eight years ago or nine years ago, thought that…

Eric Schurenberg (08:37.683)
Hmm.

Alan Murray (08:55.234)
The highest goal was to write a 5,000 word story for a monthly magazine, you know, or sometimes even write one 5,000 word story every two months. It’s just not the way people consume information today. I mean, occasionally, you know, there was a story, a very long story in The Economist recently that I sat down and read for 30 minutes, but most people don’t have that kind of sit back time to consume media. And so they’re doing it while they’re waiting for the train or they’re doing it in small bites. And so the way you inform them is not with 5,000 or 6,000 or 7,000 word stories most of the time. It’s with 350 word bites of information. Now I’m strongly of the view, you know, there was a

Some of the legacy reporters said, oh, quality, what’s happening to the quality of journalism? That 5,000 word story is so much better than 350 words. I don’t completely buy that. I think you can inform. I write myself 350 words every day for the top of an email newsletter called the CEO daily. And I think over the course of time, I inform people pretty well. I give them a lot of information, but I don’t give them.

give it to them in a 5,000 word dump, I give it to them in 350 bits. So I spent a fair amount of time at Fortune trying to fight this notion that length was somehow a proxy for quality. I don’t think it is. One of the great modern media success stories in my view is Axios, which was founded on the principle of smart brevity, that busy people who don’t have time to read a lot of 5,000 word stories still want smart, reliable information and you can give it to them in a way that suits their reading habits. But so it’s a very different world, a very different world, but doesn’t have to be a, in many cases it is, but it doesn’t have to mean less quality to the information.

Eric Schurenberg (11:11.45)
The Axios model is basically news delivered in bullet points with a strong format. But another way that the pivot to digital transmission and shorter stories manifests itself is in leaning more towards opinion or analysis versus straight reporting.

Eric Schurenberg (11:39.457)
An internet beast to feed 24 hours a day, you may default also if you have less revenue to pay your reporters, you may default more towards people commenting on the news rather than going out and digging it up.

Alan Murray (11:53.198)
That’s right. And it’s a paradox, Eric, because I agree with that. It’s a paradox because to build a successful business model in today’s media, it used to be in 2000, when fortune was getting $300 million a year in print advertising, you were the way that advertisers reach their audience and they were willing to let you do all sorts of things that you wanted to do as long as they could get to that. They didn’t care that much about the information as long as they got the audience. We’re in a very different world today where you really have to go one of two routes to create a successful business model. One is have a very large audience, which you chase by writing stories that… people are hungry to read. And we all know the effect of that.

You see it on platforms like Facebook. But, and so the reason opinion has become popular is because people gravitate to it. They’re more likely to click on the headline if it’s provocative, you know, if it shakes them up or if it’s something they agree with. And so it has worked to get the large audiences that you need if you’re gonna be in advertising supportive business, because the advertising rates have gotten so low because it’s so much cheaper to get the audience on a Google or a Facebook. So that’s one form. And then the other form is to say, you know, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to chase the mass audience because it’s kind of a fool’s game anyway. At the end of the day, it’s always going to be cheaper to reach the audience on Google and Facebook than it is on any media property. So we’re going to ask our readers to pay us. And so you’ve seen the rise of subscription walls that have been successful in some cases. The New York Times, I think, has been very successful. We are in the early stages. We’ll have about $5 million of subscription revenue this year. Hope to have $10 million next year. So it’s building. One of the great examples is the information, which is, I’m sure you read, it covers the tech industry. It costs like $400, $500 a year. I don’t remember the exact price.

Alan Murray (14:11.034)
Um, but people feel they need that information. And so they’re willing to pay for it. Two things about that business model that are somewhat disturbing. Uh, one is that it’s, it’s not as democratic as the old model, uh, that only the people who pay get quality information. And two is it’s changed. It’s changed the goal of media organizations. And I believe you can see this pretty clearly in the New York Times.

Instead of, whereas the advertising model sort of supported this notion of all the news that’s fit to print, you’re trying to reach the largest possible audience with a wide range of information and views. When you have a subscriber base, you tend to cater to your subscribers, cater to the people who are paying you money. And so for a publication like the New York Times, that tends to be the sort of liberal intelligentsia.

And so you see the paper naturally gravitating towards more of a bias towards the liberal intelligentsia. And you can see that in lots of other paid publications as well. Now, I mean, that’s business, right? You cater to your consumers. Who wouldn’t do that? But I think what has been lost is a media that’s designed to inform a diverse public.

And it’s part of the deterioration of the information ecosystem and is one of the reasons, not the only reason, but one of the reasons we have such a polarized society. Because people get the news and the information that they want, as opposed to having a Walter Cronkite deciding what is the information they need.

Eric Schurenberg (16:00.218)
We saw in the Fox News case, the lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems, that there the impulse to give the readers audience what they wanted outweighed giving the audience the truth, even as the institution saw it, which was every news organization, as you mentioned, is…

has a gravitational pull to understand what their audience wants to read. But that really crossed the line, in my opinion. Now, Alan, you have twice… Go ahead. Yeah, go ahead. Yeah, please.

Alan Murray (16:35.966)
Yeah. Can I just say, can I quickly do that? It’s not just Fox. I mean, that’s Facebook, right? That’s the story of Facebook. I mean, you know, by the middle of the last decade, people, we knew a majority of people were getting their news from Facebook. Facebook didn’t care clearly until way too late. Didn’t care about the quality of that information or even the accuracy of that information. So, so yes, Fox was a leader, but Fox was not alone.

Eric Schurenberg (16:47.075)
Hmm.

Eric Schurenberg (17:01.745)
Mm.

Eric Schurenberg (17:07.097)
Fox was, of those two, Fox was the only one that claimed to deliver fair and balanced news. And it had roots in journalism. But it struck me that you have twice alluded to an article in The Economist in the recent weeks by James Bennett. The article is much commented on in our profession right now. And just to ground the listeners, Bennett was a

Alan Murray (17:13.078)
That’s true.

Eric Schurenberg (17:36.809)
distinguished journalist and the editor of the Times editorial page. He was forced to resign after running an op-ed piece written by a conservative senator from Arkansas advocating the use of federal troops to keep peace in the wake of the George Floyd murder. Bennett’s article focuses singularly on the politicization of the newsroom, the capture of the Times reporting and writing narratives. That, I think, is one of the key takeaways from that story. But maybe not the only one. What appealed to you about that article?

Alan Murray (18:15.126)
Yeah, well, look, I mean, and the reason I didn’t mention it at the outset, Bennett is a man with an axe to grind. No question about it. He was fired by the New York Times. So he’s writing about, you know, he is, he is the classic disgruntled former employee that we always hear about in our business. Yet I have to say I read, and it was a very long story. So it was a counter example to the bite size news that I was talking about earlier.

Eric Schurenberg (18:31.697)
Yes.

Eric Schurenberg (18:40.327)
Yes.

Ha ha ha.

Alan Murray (18:44.674)
But I read the whole thing and I was in agreement with most of it. The window that you and I have on the New York Times that he had less of, he only referred to it a couple of times, is what’s happened to their business reporting. I mean, I read, I should say, I read the New York Times every morning. I have my whole life. I still do. The reason I do is because unlike the Fox News, which you referred to earlier, they are granted in facts. They do have reporting standards. They do…

correct errors, they do try to get the other side of the story, all those things that we learn to do as journalists. So I feel like there is valuable information that I can rely on by reading the Times. But particularly in the area that you and I are most familiar with in business, the slant of those stories has become so profound. I mean, I feel like, look, I’m a believer in capitalism. I believe that sure, there are lots of examples of corruption and greed gone wild and short term antics. But I believe capitalism has delivered more good to the world over the last couple hundred years than anything else. If you look at the state of poverty today versus the state of poverty in the world three decades ago, it’s a profound difference. And the reason it’s different is because of the adoption of capitalist methods in China and other parts of the world. So I’m.

I’m a believer in capitalism. And when I read the New York Times, it’s like they think anyone who is making money or chasing profits is by definition bad. So it’s kind of a worldview or a way they look at the world that I object to, whereas their reporting methods are still very solid and reliable. And I think that’s kind of what

Eric Schurenberg (20:36.541)
Mm-hmm.

Alan Murray (20:40.054)
Bennett was getting at, although he was looking more at the political realm than the business coverage.

Eric Schurenberg (20:46.641)
Well, let’s talk about that political realm. It’s not unknown to you. You were DC bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, NCNBC, politics and business columnist for the journal. Obviously, a belief that journalism in general, the New York Times being kind of a bellwether, is now biased and unreliable and slanted towards progressive narratives is harmful.

or at least divisive politically, do you think that there is merit to the argument that news reporting and mainstream media in general has tilted to the left and that it is a source of division rather than unity?

Alan Murray (21:37.142)
You know, the problem comes with this phrase, mainstream media. When I started my career, there was a mainstream media, right? There were like three television networks, a couple newspapers that mattered, two wire services run by a fairly small group of people who probably spent way too much time having lunch and drinks after work together. So there was, there was a kind of a uniform.

worldview that was imposed on all of us because they had something of a monopoly on the information that we received. But when people tell, first of all, when people today say mainstream media, I don’t know what they’re talking about. Are they somehow excluding Fox News, which is by far the most successful cable channel? How can Fox News not be mainstream? It’s the biggest cable channel out there. What are they talking about? And when you look at radio, much the same.

you know, or podcasting, podcasting is a big part of the media environment. Is that not, is it not mainstream because it’s conservative? So it’s not clear to me that there is, there are more people listening to liberal media than there are listening to conservative media. And therefore the notion that there is a liberal bias, uh, doesn’t resonate with me. I think what’s going on is people are, people have…

We have entered into a very, very competitive news information environment. And unlike when I started my career today, people are free to get whatever information they want and that’s what they’re doing. And if they, if they prefer a conservative slant on their news, there are tons of ways they can get it. And if they prefer a liberal slant on their news, there are obviously plenty of ways they can get that. What, what, what bothers me is that.

With that deterioration of what was the mainstream media, there’s also been a deterioration in standards that you already alluded to. When I started my career, there were at least a set of practices that were pretty common among the people who were quote journalists, close quote. You did correct errors if somebody pointed out them. You did have a responsibility to try and find other sides of the story, rather than the one that was brought to you. You did have a responsibility to check the information before you published it. You had a responsibility. We all were told from the beginning of our careers that if you were gonna write something negative about somebody or some company, you had an obligation to go to them and let them know and hear their side of the story. And as you well know, that’s…

find in many corners of the media today, and this is not the New York Times, but in many other corners of the media today, that’s all been abandoned. I mean, I remember, and this was, geez, this is now 15 years ago. The first time I heard this, I was at the Wall Street Journal and we had created this little video streaming service at the Wall Street Journal News Desk. We were doing eight hours a day of live video from the Wall Street Journal on a shoestring budget. I mean, it was a tiny little rump group of people, and it was great fun. And Gawker, one day I’m in the office and I open up my computer and there’s a story from Gawker and it says, the Wall Street Journal is now streaming eight hours a day of live video, but in typical old media fashion, they’re employing 150 people to do it. Well, I think we had 19 people at the time. So I picked up the phone and called the reporter and said,

Eric Schurenberg (24:55.069)
Uh-huh.

Alan Murray (25:24.654)
I’m glad you’re paying attention, but we don’t have 150 people. We have 19 people.” This reporter said, oh, thank you for calling. That’s great. I’ll go post it right now. I said, yeah, but wait a minute. I’ve been sitting in my office for the last three days. Why didn’t you call me before you wrote the story? This young reporter says,

Oh, this is the way journalism works now. We post something and if you give us new information, we’ll go out and add it to the story. And I said, oh really? This is the way journalism works now. And that was 12, 15 years ago. Well, I laughed at the time, but in some very real sense, it does work that way. And then there’s another group of information providers who don’t care…

Eric Schurenberg (25:47.84)
Oh, this is the way journalism works now.

Alan Murray (26:13.234)
…if it’s right or wrong. If it gets their audience excited and gets them views, they’ll do it. So we’ve just lost any sense of standards in the news business. Now, I do think there is a bit, because of the Fox News phenomena that you described, I do think the press that caters to the liberal intelligentsia is more serious about facts than the press that caters to the right. And so there is a bit of a gap that’s opened in that way. But calling that group the Main Street Media today makes no sense. What makes them mainstream? What they’re, you know, why is Fox not a mainstream media? I don’t understand that terminology.

Eric Schurenberg (27:00.798)
Yeah, yeah, that is a good point. And I feel properly corrected there. That’s a good point. You know, when I talk to employees about media literacy, part of the discussion is always about, you know, how the industry has changed and how that affects what now goes out into the information ecosystem. And so, you know, objectivity versus advocacy is part of it. Programmatic advertising, which makes it profitable to give false news because the, you know, the algorithm that drives programmatic advertising doesn’t care. Other things factor in. One of the factors about social media, in addition to competing for advertising dollars very successfully against traditional publishers, is that it promotes narcissism, which is, you know, I think well-documented psychologically, but in the case of journalists, it promotes a focus on personal brand versus a journalistic institution and the traditions. What was Fortune’s policy or is Fortune’s policy on social media for its journalists and how they may participate?

Alan Murray (28:09.646)
It’s true.

Alan Murray (28:20.714)
Yeah, well, we, I think all respectable news organizations have to have some degree of control over what their reporters do on social media because you can quickly undermine your credibility with social media accounts. We have, like every other organization, we have lots of people on social media, but they know not to post political views. They know not to post ad hominem attacks. They generally try and stick to the stuff that we, you know, try and keep the same standards that we impose on our reporting on their social media accounts. It’s not true at all organizations. In the James Bennett story you referred to, that was one of his gripes against the New York Times. There’s a wonderful book out by Marty Barron, the former editor of the Washington Post, who tells some of the same stories about his reporters trying to rein them in and they felt that they should be allowed to let their banners fly on social media. I don’t know, Eric, I do feel a little, sometimes in these conversations, I feel a little bit like we’ve all become curmudgeons. It’s just a very different world out there. But I also feel like you started this question by asking about media literacy. You know, the problem with what we’re talking about is that it’s consumer driven.

Eric Schurenberg (29:26.717)
Yeah.

Eric Schurenberg (29:41.69)
Mm-hmm.

Alan Murray (29:48.01)
It wasn’t consumer driven when I started my career. It was Walter Cronkite and 50 other people told you what you needed to know today. Today it’s driven by the consumer. You get the information that you want. It’s very hard to fight that in principle, but it does mean if the consumer is going to be the person who decides, then that consumer does need to be literate. They need to understand that, you know, you and I, because we’ve been in this business for a long time.

There’s like a an internal checklist that we go to whenever we read a story. Right. And it’s and it’s kind of like this. It’s like, OK, where was this story published? Is it a is it a publication that has credibility? Is it a publication that corrects its own? It corrects its errors, because that’s a very important indicator of whether you’re dealing with a real journalistic outfit. Then it’s then it’s and is it a publication that will tell both sides of a story or is it always pushing one side of the story? And then within the story itself you say is there any indication the issue you and I just talked about, is there any indication that this reporter writing this story reached out to the people who he’s blasting to hear their side of the story? Is there any indication that he or she attempted to get the other side of the story?

Yeah, and it’s internalized for people who’ve been journalists their whole lives. We just do this automatically. But I think we live in a we live in a world where everybody’s going to have to do this. And by the way, AI is only going to make the problem worse because you’re not just talking about is the person who wrote this trying to get to the truth. You’re also talking about did a person write this at all? Or was it just generated by some bot that’s trying to incite you or excite you or misinform you or mislead you? And so.

I do think news literacy is going to be critical in the society of the future. We’re not going back to the Walter Cronkite days.

Eric Schurenberg (31:49.243)
I think that is, I think that’s really true, which raises a question about how we inculcate media literacy in the population. There are organizations that foster.

media literacy among students. And there are about 18 states that have media literacy as part of the required curriculum, or at least support the notion. But I don’t think or I can’t think off the top of my head that similar efforts exist for adults, and adults vote. And it’s important, I think, to bring that on to people at that level. Also, I would also say that probably media literacy, like any skill, is something that you need to refresh from time to time. It should be kind of an ongoing thing.

Alan Murray (32:41.834)
Yeah, yeah. Well, look, we know we, we know we live in a world where lifelong education is essential for everybody. You’re not going to make it at the, given the pace of change, uh, you’re not going to make it in the next five years or 10 years, if you aren’t prepared to, to expand, learn. And, and as I said, it is going to become more important because of generative AI. Like, how do I know if something I’m reading was even produced by a person or it’s some hallucination by an algorithm? Uh,

Eric Schurenberg (32:59.048)
Mm.

Alan Murray (33:11.574)
And, you know, there’s people who I think you and I both know who run an organization called NewsGuard that have attempted to create like a good housekeeping seal of approval. I think at some point the technology has to help on this as well. That checklist of things that you and I go through when we read a story, there’s no reason given the state of technology today that a lot of that couldn’t be done by technology…

…and a little warning sign, say, hey, by the way, there’s no indication that the person who wrote this story tried to find out the other side of the story, or there’s no indication that they contacted the person that they’re blasting here, or no indication that this publication has ever published a correction and is willing to fix its errors. Things like that, I think there is a, there can be technology tools that can help inculcate the kind of news literacy that you’re talking about.

Eric Schurenberg (34:09.045)
That would be beneficial. I’m reminded though that for a while on Twitter, certainly before its days as its reincarnation as X, that you could get a warning about a tweet that had dubious information in it. I think it was this information is disputed or something like that was the warning. It did not seem to necessarily stem the tide of disinformation. And of course, it came under attack as being slanted and censorship.

Alan Murray (34:45.374)
Yeah, it may not, but I think it helps. Look, I am very happy when my telephone tells me that an incoming call is potential spam. Very happy. And it may be, it may not be, but I find that a useful tool and there ought to be similar. And I, and I always paid attention to those Twitter messages. So maybe not everyone else does, but, but I found that a valuable tool as well. So I hope we get better and better at those sorts of things.

Eric Schurenberg (34:55.938)
Yes.

Alan Murray (35:14.427)
It’s just really important.

Eric Schurenberg (35:17.209)
In one of your CEO daily newsletters, the fact that you do this daily, I think is another incredible tribute to your heartiness or your energy, the indefatigability, was a survey that mentioned that CEOs said that they predict the most disruptive factor for business in 24 would be the US presidential election.

Alan Murray (35:45.056)
Yeah.

Eric Schurenberg (35:46.541)
We can be sure that campaign will be divisive. The language already on both sides is pretty apocalyptic. Do business leaders that you talk to worry about the effect on workplace cohesion of hyper-partisan media and the effect it’ll have on deepening divides within their workforce?

Alan Murray (36:09.51)
Oh, I think they worry about it a lot. Look, from time to time, I get admonitions from readers of my CEO, Daley, who say, stay out of politics. You shouldn’t do politics. I said, you cannot cover business without covering politics. As you said, there are now surveys of CEOs that show CEOs think politics is one of the biggest risks, if not the biggest risk they face in 2024. And that’s in part because every company is regulated in some way. And so which party holds the regulatory levers makes a big difference to business. There’s no escaping that. But it’s also because businesses today, the most powerful stakeholder that businesses have today is their own employees. And their own employees get caught up in these debates and it’s very difficult for companies to deal with. And what’s interesting, Eric, as you know…

…I spent a lot of time over the last 10 years focusing on the rise of stakeholder capitalism as more and more companies have made commitments to dealing with climate problems or made commitments with dealing, you know, increasing their commitments to diversity and equity and inclusion. And some of the most forward thinking of them have gone beyond doing that for their own companies and thought about how can we contribute to…

Eric Schurenberg (37:13.181)
Yes.

Alan Murray (37:31.594)
…improving the escalator of mobility in society so the people left behind have a better opportunity to get good jobs at our companies. There’s just been a lot of focus on that, a rising focus on that over the course of the last 10 years and it’s been captured in this really bad acronym ESG, which has gotten caught up in a political backlash and now people are not using the acronym anymore but still the fundamental move towards more attention to people and planet continues. There’s lots of evidence of that. Now, why was I pointing that out? You were asking about diversity.

Eric Schurenberg (38:01.662)
Hmm.

Eric Schurenberg (38:11.241)
Well, I’m glad you brought it up though, Alan, because it was part of the same survey that suggested that some companies are either pausing or pulling back on their ESG commitment.

Alan Murray (38:20.646)
Oh, yeah. So here’s, here’s the, this is the point that I, I wanted to make. And I’ve had this conversation with many top business leaders, um, in a world where companies say, Hey, I have to pay attention to the climate because in the longterm, my company depends on it. If the, if, if the planet is burning, I will not have a successful company 50 years from now or a hundred years from now. Or

Hey, I have to pay attention to mobility in society because if the society tears apart on grounds of inequality or tension between groups, my company won’t succeed. Society won’t succeed in my company won’t succeed. But then when you ask them about our politics, which I believe in the United States are clearly dysfunctional. We can talk about why I believe that so strongly. If you ask them about that.

The go-to response is, oh, no, please. I don’t want to have anything to do with politics. Keep me away from that. And I said, well, wait a minute. How can you say that you have a responsibility to address the existential threat of climate and not a responsibility to address the equally existential threat and perhaps more imminent threat of our dysfunctional political system? And I feel like some CEOs are beginning

focus on it a little more, but it’s difficult. It’s difficult because they don’t wanna, they certainly don’t wanna align with one party. They tend to be centrist for the most part. In the old days, as you know, they tended to be, they tended to define the conservative end of the spectrum, but the conservative end of the spectrum has gone someplace else. And so today, what you find is most CEOs call themselves independent and actually exist somewhere in the center of the spectrum, and don’t feel particularly comfortable or affiliated with either.

Eric Schurenberg (40:15.825)
Well, you have raised a very good question. And what can business leaders do about the dysfunctional politics of the US? They have employees who are presumably occupy both ends of the political spectrum. There is considerable downside to sticking your neck out on a lot of issues such as the war in Gaza. What should business leaders who care about this fact do?

Alan Murray (40:46.099)
Yeah, it’s a great question and I understand why they’re gun shy about it. But first of all, encourage people to engage. I mean, part of the problem at the moment is that the important decisions in our political life are made by small minorities of people, the partisans who vote in primaries. So, you know, one is give people the time off and encourage them to vote and particularly to vote in primaries. So that’s a start.

Eric Schurenberg (41:04.127)
Mmm.

Alan Murray (41:15.099)
Second, I think you’ve seen some businesses, I wish more businesses would get involved in campaigns to establish non-partisan redistricting because, you know, data tools over the course of the last 50 years, starting around 1980, have made it possible to draw districts that are only going to elect members from one party and so…

…They’re the only election that matters is the primary election. And it’s led to a generation of politicians who never have to talk to anybody from the other side. They don’t have to learn how to build coalitions because that’s not what is needed to win elections. Then the thing I’m most interested in, Eric, and I don’t know how much attention you paid to this. There’s this rank choice, final five, open primary little on is really as little at this point push going on, but it was used in Alaska and had really interesting effects. Sarah Palin, who was the darling of kind of the extreme right, lost. And I’m told by people in Alaska, she’s realized that under this new voting system, she can’t just appeal to this small group of people on the extreme right. She has to, you’ve actually…

…politicians in Alaska have said they’ve actually gone back to the old school practice of knocking on every door because even if you’re not someone’s first choice, you could be their second choice and third choice and in ranked choice voting, that can get you elected. And so all of a sudden, these politicians who have built their careers pandering to an extreme, now have to talk to everybody and they have to think about how to tell their story to everybody. And so I think there’s something there and it’s, you know, the current politicians don’t like it because the current politicians all got elected by the current system. But, but, but I hope to see that spread because everything I’ve heard about the Alaska experiment is it is making politics better.

Eric Schurenberg (43:19.373)
I believe it’s also practiced in Maine. And if I’m not mistaken, both states are notable for having centrist senators.

Alan Murray (43:28.982)
Yeah. And, and, uh, look, I am not a, I am not a partisan. If you looked at my presidential voting record over the course of my career, it would look like a broken electrocardiogram. I mean, I veered from one to the other. I think the only thing consistent in my voting record was I almost never voted for a second term for any president. Uh, I was always ready to move on to somebody else. Uh, so, so I, I am not a partisan, but I do strongly believe that politics, uh, the late

Eric Schurenberg (43:40.478)
Ha ha ha.

Alan Murray (43:57.526)
Richard Darman, who was a Republican government holder. He should have been secretary of state or treasury, but he never made it that far because of some personality issues. But he once said to me, you know, politics should be played like golf. Said if you keep the ball, generally speaking,

If you keep the ball somewhere in the middle, you’re better off than if you go to the edges. I thought that was a good way, you know, it’s not perfect, but yeah, the center is usually a better place to be in terms of certain society.

Eric Schurenberg (44:34.286)
Let me ask you about a controversial figure that you cannot fail to have covered as a business editor, and that’s Elon Musk. For the purposes of this podcast, the relevant issue with him is his embrace of free speech, absolutism, and the transformation of X. On X, as Musk has now directed it, there is no distinction between say, Fortune’s most credible, deeply researched work and the fabulism of Alex Jones or anti-vaxxers or climate deniers or people who can cause real harm. This is okay with U.S. regulators. It’s landed him in hot water in Europe. So I have a question for you as a guy who spent his whole career under the protection of the First Amendment. Should we regulate information on social media that you had mentioned before a kind of nutrition warning that might apply to journalistically created news. How about social media?

Alan Murray (45:38.922)
Well, I’m not crazy about regulating media. I don’t think that’s a good idea in general. I mean, what the founders of our great country were concerned about was exactly that, government exercising too much control over the media. And that’s why Thomas Jefferson, even though he was often pilloried in the media, believed that the free press might even be more important than a free government. It’s probably taken it a step too far, but I understand what he’s saying. So I’m not a fan of regulation, but there are a couple of things, not to get into an arcane regulatory conversation, but section 230 of the telecom act of 1996 or seven, whenever it was passed, which gave the platforms a pass from liability, I think was a mistake. Why, why would the editor who can, who programs,

the front page of a newspaper be held to a higher standard than Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg who are letting their algorithms program a much more powerful tool, which is Facebook or Twitter. So I do think that sort of free pass and freedom from liability, you know, if you, I mean, you look at something like the judgment case against Rudy Giuliani, if you print stuff that you know to be,

false or with willing disregard for the truth, you ought to be held responsible for it. So I think we’ve made a big mistake and let the social media companies go way too far on that. And I’d love to see a smart effort to pull that back.

Eric Schurenberg (47:16.883)
Hmm.

Eric Schurenberg (47:23.098)
As I asked that question, I thought regulating social media sounds like yesterday’s problem, but now we should be talking about regulating AI, which is something that AI laboratory CEOs have asked for and everyone is arguing about. What are your thoughts there about how do we moderate the growth of AI for…

Alan Murray (47:34.85)
Well, right.

Eric Schurenberg (47:50.033)
Safety and health of the society.

Alan Murray (47:53.022)
My thoughts on AI are similar to my thoughts on Elon Musk. I mean, I should have said at the at the outset of my last answer, but I mean, Elon Musk is what Elon Musk is. Elon Musk is how society makes progress. You know, it’s incredible. He drove the elect the car elective. You know, Mary, Mary Barra made a bold bet on electrification, but she only did it because Elon Musk had already captured the stock market with Tesla and the fact that he wants to take us to explore planets

Eric Schurenberg (47:55.157)
Thanks for watching!

Alan Murray (48:23.394)
Electrify the world. I mean, he’s a visionary who I celebrate that, but he’s also a jerk. So, you know, he’s a visionary jerk and that has positive and negative consequences. AI is very similar. You know, what I’ve seen in the last year about the powerful things that can be done by generative AI is positive things is mind blowing. And we had an event we sponsored in California last week, saw Khan of Khan Academy, who’s one of the great innovators in the education space. There are far too few great innovators in the education space, but he’s building a tutor. It’s called Khan Mee-go, a tutor for kids who, you know, that will, they can talk like Thomas Jefferson, or so you can have a conversation with Thomas Jefferson and say, tell me what you were thinking when you did this. And

And it’s potentially very powerful and more importantly democratizes the education experience. I mean, your kids and my kids have always had, you know, great teachers who have done that sort of thing. But we all know that the great inequality and unevenness of the education system. So that’s just one example. Health care, drug discovery. I mean, what I’ve been told by people who know is that you could have 80, 90.

100% improvement in the efficiency of and the speed of drug discovery, which has massive positive implications for our health. So there’s so many good things that will come from this technology. And yet, you know, I always end up asking the same question at these events. What about the hallucinations? I mean, when you and I entered journalism, if a young reporter,

People sometimes say the generative AI is like a person just out of school or two years out of school can do whatever they do. Well, if a young reporter on your staff or my staff submitted a story in which they made up the name of a book, just made it up out of thin air or made up facts, what we call, euphemistically call hallucinations, they would have been fired on the spot.

Alan Murray (50:41.778)
Open AI did, there was a famous story on the front page of the New York times about this. If a law clerk did that, they’d lose their job on the spot. So how can it be okay that open AI and other chat bots hallucinate in this way? And you know, uh, Mark Andreessen, who’s another brilliant, uh, a brilliant innovator, but I heard him on a podcast say, well, hallucination is just another word for creativity.

Wait a minute. We want creativity. We don’t want people making shit up. So, and you know a year ago people said, oh this problem will be solved. Well here we are a year later. It’s not solved. It seems to be inherent in the way the technology works. Worries me a lot.

Eric Schurenberg (51:16.952)
Ha ha

Eric Schurenberg (51:30.229)
Yeah, all right. Let’s go back to the nine-year-old who thought that it would be great to create a little neighborhood newspaper and his older reincarnation who chose a career in journalism. What would you tell a young person today about a career in this field that is so full of uncertainty?

Alan Murray (51:54.594)
And I have that conversation fairly often. I tell them two things. One is, you know, if this is your passion, by all means do it. The world needs people who want to be part of the search for truth. And that’s what I think we are, Eric, part of the search for truth. Obviously, not all journalists are doing that, but that’s what we should be doing. But the other thing I tell them, and this is, you know,

We’ve been through two and a half decades of this extraordinarily, extraordinary collapse of our business model and the number of people who are, this gets back to whatever mainstream media means, but the number of people employed by the mainstream media is half of what it was then, or less, maybe a quarter of what it was if you consider all the local papers that have either collapsed or shrunken to mere, uh, shadows of their former selves. Yet in spite of that, all the good journalists I know have good jobs. And they’re not all in journalism. I mean, many of them are in corporate jobs or they’ve started their own companies. I think the tools that we use in the search for truth are tools that have only become more important in society over time. And I think AI will make more, you know, even more important, you know, for AI to work.

What you need is not more coders. What you need is more people who know how to write prompts, who know how to write the right, know how to ask the right questions. Well, what did journalists do? We ask questions. So I think the skills of if, if your passion is journalism, by all means, go ahead and give it a try. Because even if you decide you can’t make a decent living in it, the skills that you employ and learn are going to be useful to you in many, many other.

Eric Schurenberg (53:47.453)
All right, good. Alan, you have announced that you’ll be moving on from Fortune in April. Can you tell us what’s next for you?

Alan Murray (53:57.398)
Well, a couple of things. One is, uh, I announced that I would be stepping down as CEO. I may re maintain some affiliation with fortune. I love the community that I’ve built around the CEO daily might keep doing that, that for a while. Um, but I’m having a lot of conversations with a lot of people. I don’t intend to retire. I think I have another good 10 years in front of me. Um, uh, and, uh,

I guess I’m focusing on two needs that I see out there that I think I’m, if not uniquely, at least pretty well qualified to address. One is that like every other conversation, the business conversation has become polarized. You have one group of journalists who are essentially catering to the investment markets. You have CNBC, Bloomberg.

Wall Street Journal, their main audience is people who invest. So it’s so shareholder return is built into their way of thinking about the world. And then you have another group of journalists who, uh, who fit into this model that I mentioned earlier, the New York times who think that anybody who makes a profit is evil. And so they’re out there looking for examples of corruption and they define corruption as somebody making money off of running a prison. For instance, if you make money off of running a prison, that’s an evil thing. There’s so many examples that I could talk about. I think what’s missing is that we are at the cusp of a real revolution in business contributions to solving big social and particularly environmental problems.

I mean, if you look at COP 28 this year, and what was going on at COP 28. The commitments that companies have made to things like hydrogen, which is not economic, but they’re saying this has to be part of our future. Let’s develop hydrogen fuels. You take a company like Walmart, which has engaged 4,000 of its suppliers and has said together, we are going to take a gigaton of carbon out of the environment. That’s essentially. they would never say this, but that’s essentially a regulatory program. A lot of those 4,000 suppliers need access to Walmart and they’re only going to get it if they show that they’re willing to decarbonize. So you have a lot of amazing things going on in the world of business to address climate change, to address social inequity.

And they don’t get that much coverage because we’re set up to either cover return to shareholders or cover corruption. So I think there’s an opportunity for, there’s a need for media in that space. And I’m looking at that. And then the second thing that’s become clear to me, Eric, I’m sorry to be so long-winded about this and all my answers, I talk too much, but the second thing that’s become clear to me is that the need for continuing education that you and I were talking about earlier is particularly intense for the people at the very top of big organizations.

I mean, CEOs needed more than you look at what they’ve dealt with in just the first five years. It’s like everybody goes home because of a pandemic. How do I manage everybody at home? And then the pandemic ends. How do I get people to come back? Russia invades Ukraine. What am I supposed to do? Their own employees explode taking sides between Hamas and Israel. What am I supposed to do? Generative AI, which was a phrase they had not heard of 13 months ago, is suddenly transforming their business. What do I do?

Eric Schurenberg (57:09.193)
Hmm.

Alan Murray (57:38.038)
So I think there’s a need for continuing education at the highest levels that’s not being adequately addressed. The universities tend to be way behind on it and besides CEOs don’t have time to go back to Harvard for six weeks. And so I’m talking to some people about creating something in that space. Those are the two areas where I feel I still have something to give.

Eric Schurenberg (58:03.1)
I can’t wait to find out what it is. Both of those sound really, really important, and I’m glad that the CEO Daily looks like it might continue under your guidance. That’s very good to hear. All right. Alan, this was fabulous. Thank you so much for taking the time. Really interesting conversation.

Alan Murray (58:12.398)
For a while at least, I think so. Yeah.

Alan Murray (58:21.102)
Thank you, Eric. It’s always great to talk to you and thanks for all the things you’ve done to improve the state of journalism and business journalism in particular.

Eric Schurenberg (58:28.766)
Thank you.

 

This episode was produced by Sound Sapien

soundsapien.com


Created & produced by: Podcast Partners / Published: Jan 4 2024


Share this episode:

All episodes are streaming on these platforms: