So many people in our industry want to know what lies ahead and how to navigate their careers in a changing environment. My answer is to keep learning and growing, and your path ahead will naturally develop.
A few of my colleagues suggested I share this podcast episode about my career and the work I’ve done helping media companies change and grow. It was produced by M.B.A. students at Yale and can be listened to here: https://yalesom.libsyn.com/louise-story.
Here’s the transcript:
Welcome to Career Conversations, a podcast from the Yale School of Management. Each episode of Career Conversations is a candid conversation between a student here at SOM and a member of the Yale community who is doing something that we’re curious about. It’s kind of like an informational interview, except you get to listen in. I’m Amy Kundrat, an executive MBA student in the class of 2021. And I’m Emily Kling, a full-time MBA student, also in the class of 2021.
Q: Louise, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Could you please introduce yourself to our listeners and tell us what you do?
I’m Louise Story. I’m a graduate of Yale College and Yale School of Management. I’m a long time journalist. Right now, my job is Chief News Strategist and the Chief Product and Technology Officer for the Wall Street Journal.
Q: I’m curious what qualities you feel are most needed to do your job?
The number one quality to do my job is an interest in learning, because I work across so many different areas that it’s important that I’m interested in different ways of working, that I’m interested in communicating and supporting the views of my team members from all different disciplines and the commonality of what I’m doing across the different areas I manage is I’m helping us accelerate our growth and change what we’re doing. To do that and make the right choices, you have to be interested in learning new things, thinking about what makes sense, thinking outside the box and testing things and moving forward.
Q: Great. I’d love to know more about what your role entails and perhaps what a typical day in the life of Louise Story is.
Sure. My role goes across the Wall Street Journal. Within the newsroom as Chief News Strategist, I’m looking at our coverage, our beats, what types of stories we write or do video or audio on. Everything from the ways we tell stories to the topics. I’m involved in a rotation of senior editors who come in and run the paper on Sundays. On those days, I’m helping to determine what the biggest news of the day is and how we cover those things. And so really, that part of my job is thinking strategically and helping us use audience data as well as editors’ judgment to make news calls and especially strategic ongoing news decisions about where we put our news resources in terms of coverage areas and beats and big stories that we spend time on. Across the rest of the company and including news, I’m also responsible for our product and technology. What this means is managing the teams that build and operate our platforms, our mobile apps — which are iPhone, iPad, Android — our website, with an eye both on desktop and mobile, and making the right product experience for our audiences.
We think about our non-subscribers, our subscribers. We think about how they come in, where they come in, what features they value. We prioritize roadmaps. We manage everything from the customer experience through the content. So, for example, the experience around the paywall, the experience around the onboarding and subscription journey. Thinking about things like privacy disclosures, those are parts of the teams. We also think about the article page and what components are on the article page and what is used to tell a great story. The CMS: we’re in the process of building a new content management system.
And then we think about practices. A lot of our product is not just what we build, it’s how we use it. So I spent a lot of time with the teams, not only on, “Do we build a new article template or not?” but also “How is our U.S. News department using this template?” And there’s probably 20 different ways you could use the same template. How are they telling the story and how are we using these things? We do all of this with a strong eye on data. So I also run our data science team and our optimization and testing teams. We’re doing a lot of higher level data science work about what works for different audience groups and we also have been distributing all kinds of new metrics around the company and the newsroom in particular, building different data dashboards with that.
We do a lot around community. I have community teams that I work with, who do everything from moderating our comment sections to creating things like reader feedback forms and live Q&A’s. We built live Q&A tools where we can have live conversations with our audiences, and then we feed some of their thoughts back to our journalists.
So it’s a really broad scope. There are 19 teams in the Digital Experience and Strategy unit, which is what the group is called that I run. It’s a really fun place to work and group to work in, because we have all different types of talent that you would in a news organization today. There are reporters, there are editors, there are community specialists, there are data scientists. There are front-end, back-end engineers, product designers, really every different discipline… testing, prototyping. Every different discipline you would need, we have. We think about everything from the ad serving to the storytelling.
Q: How does your experience as a journalist inform the products that you and the teams are building?
I think the number one way that my experience as a journalist informs my work is by helping me understand and learn about new things and piece together the dots. So a lot of what you have to do in change and innovation, which is what we’re doing everyday, we’re changing the model. I’m at a company that’s very much knee-deep in a transformation and becoming a completely digital company. A lot of what you have to do is break down silos and come up with new things to do that draw on different disciplines. My nearly 20 years spent as a reporter really taught me the discipline of understanding a lot of different pieces of information and seeing the through line and figuring out what direction was supported by the facts that I was looking at.
So that’s the number way that’s been helpful. Business school thinking has also been very helpful. In terms of other ways it’s helpful, when I manage, for example, our Editorial Tools team — where we make tools where journalists can do things like make their own graphics — I do know how intense and busy you are as a reporter and how we have to think in our tools and making things that will work easily for them. And I do understand what it is people are trying to do in their storytelling. That’s very helpful in the role. It’s also helpful as I think about different things we should do in news and our content strategy, to have spent so many years as a reporter.
Q: I’m curious about the software development life cycle which, like the news cycle, is pretty relentless. How does the Journal stay on top of the pressure to constantly develop new features and enhancements? How do you prioritize those?
One of the biggest things that we’ve recently focused on is really bringing all of our key stakeholders together to identify what’s going to move the needle with our audiences towards our goals. I’ve been working at the Journal a couple of years and I’ve seen a major progression. We have common goals now that are shared across the whole company. To someone who’s not in the media, it might not be obvious or intuitive that traditional media companies are built of silos and divided units. That is for good reason. You don’t want commercial pressures necessarily to overly affect news coverage. Especially, for example, you don’t want, whether or not an advertiser may take out an ad to affect what a news story would be. They have to be independent. But because of that, as technology has come more into news companies, there’s been a journey for many news companies to go on to recognize that you all do have to row in the same direction and, to a good degree, around what you’re trying to do in your product.
We have quarterly meetings that I lead with the parties around the Wall Street Journal who are the leaders of what we’re doing, including our Editor-in-Chief, our Chief Membership and Marketing Officer, our Chief Revenue Officer, the head of Opinion. I and deputies from my team put together a pretty comprehensive pre-read deck with them. That’s very data-driven, lays out what we’re seeing happening and recommends what things we should do, what things we should put aside that will drive towards the goals. Then we have a conversation where we discuss that. I try to strike a balance between getting clear direction from the top, but not chapter and verse from the top, because there are extremely talented people on all of my teams who want to iterate, experiment, test out things and come up with the details of the solution.
This is also another transition for a traditional news company: to empower teams to figure things out, as opposed to having things only come from the top. In a traditional newsroom culture, it’s somewhat hierarchical. That’s not how technology and product development works at many places. A lot of the people we have working in these teams are able to iterate and find the answers. So I try to strike the balance between clear guidance from the top on our goals and the main areas they’re interested in, and then the actual answers and things that drive us to those goals coming from the work of the team.
Q: Do you feel that journalists need to be more tech-savvy now that there’s sort of a breakdown of the silos coupled with an increased technological — I don’t want to say dependency — nature to news and journalism in general?
To a degree, all journalists have to be more tech-savvy because the way we file stories in a lot of news organizations has changed with content management systems that, in many places, reporters use to different degrees to lay out their stories and so on. That is a level of tech-savvy that has been increased. But beyond what occurs for the vast majority and all reporters, there’s also pockets of new talent and disciplines that are essential to the news gathering and presentation process. For example, we’ve had, in my team, some specialists in natural language processing, for example, who have done some things at the forefront of computational journalism. We’ve done projects that have been in high-profile articles where, for example, we test out and duplicate aspects of what’s happening in different technology algorithms to be able to write about what’s going on in those algorithms. That’s reporting. It’s a different form of reporting. It’s testing with our technology to see what’s going on and coming to conclusions. It’s not calling around on the phone to someone, but it is reporting. There’s many examples like that, where there’s different skills that can help us in our reporting. Then in our storytelling, most digital graphics that you see in news sites are built by people who are developers. Digital graphics can actually be entirely new user interfaces and ways of storytelling. They’re often coded right into our platforms. So that’s a different talent set. If you’re just putting out a newspaper, for example, you wouldn’t need a graphic designer who could necessarily code, right? There are a lot of ways in which it’s changing and I haven’t even touched on, of course, video and audio, which are different skill sets. So yes, the changing skill sets that journalists have is a big thing in our industry and that will continue.
Q: What are some new products that you’re working on now, or that you’ve recently launched that you can talk about and share with us?
There’s a bunch of cool stuff. One thing we launched in June is a digital magazine that is aimed at people under 35. We didn’t label it that way, but it’s called WSJ. Noted. It’s essentially a combination of original reporting, a community group we formed called WSJ. Noted Advisors, which you can see on LinkedIn. I think it’s about 47,000 people there who want to be connected to our journalism. We have regular meetings with them about it. We do original stories. We also repackage other stories from the Journal that we think would be interesting to this audience. It’s all around iterating and seeing what’s working in our data and looking at what’s working with our younger subscribers. In particular, we have an eye on the people who are subscribers in our college pack.
The Wall Street Journal has one of the largest university subscription programs in the country. We can see what things that they’re spending more time on than other subscribers. We’re interested in engaging with them more, but also, I think, it’s a way that we’re learning about the future because someone who’s 20 years old right now, is someone who will be 30 and will be 40. There’s someone who, if they’re interested in business finance and economics and other things that are central to the Wall Street Journal, we’d like to have as a lifelong subscriber.
Some other things we’ve launched, a few others just to rattle off… I mentioned earlier the live Q&A tool. We did a lot of research last summer, 2019, about what people were interested in for the election. One of the things we heard from a lot of people is they wanted to be part of our journalism. So we created something that’s on our platforms that combines live video with real-time commenting so that people in the audience could ask our journalists questions, they could ask our news subjects questions, and we could take that feedback and also bring it into our news discussion process. We finished building that in February. Little did we know that there would be this pandemic. It turned out, with the pandemic, that ways to get together virtually with your audience has been critical because, for all media companies, in-person events have largely been put on hold. We’ve successfully moved live events into the virtual space. We’ve done a lot with them in this live Q&A tool that we had built really with an eye on product engagement, but it’s also something that’s now been helpful in our events. That’s another thing that we’ve created.
Q: You sort of touched a bit on this in your last answers, but I want to hear more about your thoughts on the future of journalism. When we were doing research, we found that you’ve worked for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, WNYC, the Boston Globe. Those are just some of them, and they’re some of the most respected and most circulated publications. So having all those experiences under your belt, do you have a sense of how they might be changing, how they might be evolving, how maybe they’ve already started to? Any thoughts on that would be really wonderful to hear about.
Sure. In fact, I was at the New York Times for nearly 12 years before I came to the Wall Street Journal. In fact, in sort of what ended up being a pivot point in my career, while I was at the Times, I worked in a group of journalists who put out what has become known as the Innovation Report, which was really a digital blueprint for the Times to follow. It came out in 2014, and it was widely read across the industry and talked about ways in which practices at the Times needed to change. So I did start thinking a lot about these issues then. In addition, my first beat as a reporter was on media and advertising. So I actually covered our industry as a reporter. So I have thought about it all along and especially so, because I did my MBA.
People talk about the transition between print and digital. But I really think the transition is from one-way, mass media, to audience-focused, audience-interactive, audience-informed journalism. So what you have in digital that you didn’t have in print, and you didn’t have in legacy TV, or legacy broadcast radio is that in digital, you get information on what people are actually reading. You get data on what they click on, what they spend a long time on, where they come from, where they go to. We didn’t get any of that information in printed newspapers. You never really knew who read what and what things were never read by anyone. So as we get that information, then you start saying, “How do we use that information to make sure that we’re doing content that they really value?”
The other thing that’s changed with the Internet is that it’s much easier for a news consumer out there to change their media source. Before the Internet, people had newspapers that could be delivered, magazines that could be delivered, and their TV stations. Now, I live in New York, but it’s not a problem that, for example, the LATimes — I don’t know if it’s delivered in New York or not, but let’s say it’s not — I can get it online. And it’s the same for all these publications. News consumers can be far more fickle than they used to be. So it’s incumbent on us to really understand what they value, what they’re actually interested in, how is our information helpful and necessary to them. In doing so, that makes our industry a much more audience-focused industry. That’s why product and product management has become much more important in the news business, because that’s really why, in classical marketing and product thinking you think about “What’s the value here? What’s the question we’re answering. What’s the need we’re solving for?” For a lot of people out there, it’s not just enough anymore that news brand X, Y, Z thinks you need to know something. People think they need to know what they want to know about what they’re looking for. That’s a fundamental mind shift for traditional news outlets.
Q: What are some of the digital changes you’re hoping to create at the Wall Street Journal, thinking about things that are audience or consumer centric. Do you have any that you’re able to share?
One thing is, you know, we’re already seeing a really exciting transformation in the newsroom where reporters and editors all over are seeing the value in paying more attention to what people are looking for. The thing I’m going to mention is something that many other media companies have done, and the Journal had done some in the past… but in a more concerted way, now we are looking regularly at what people are searching for in Google, and that gives us an indication that “Oh, on this story, which we’re covering, if we do a specific story where we answer this question everyone’s searching for, it will help us provide value on that.” We’ve done a number of stories — which we like to call news explainers — where on a big news story, we have the news story that tells you what happened, why it happened.
We also have more of an evergreen explainer where it’s chunked up with topic headings and you can go through and you can break that out. We’re finding that those evergreen explainers are maybe relevant for two to three weeks, whereas the fleeting news stories when something has happened, people don’t want to read after a day. So we update those evergreen news stories when anything changes and we keep showing them and they become like living guides. That’s another mentality shift, right? Because newspapers, you know, in the past were thrown in the trash the next day, but online, everything lives there for good. So we have to think about ourselves much more as a library, as an ongoing resource, in addition to covering the fleeting news.
Q: Speaking of news items being sort of in the Internet ether for good, when we were researching you, we found a few videos of you from like 2010, 2011, talking about the 2008 financial crisis, which were super cool to watch and had that kind of older, decades-past look. The banners on the bottom just felt of a different decade. So, one, what is it like to have new stories out there in the ether that just kind of exist on the Internet sort of forever and two, do you remember reporting on those issues? What was that like? Presumably it was post business school. How did your time at SOM inform that kind of reporting?
Reporting on the 2008 financial crisis was so interesting. I had been covering advertising in the media and had said to the business editor at the New York times, “You know, I can help write on Wall Street. I have my MBA, I studied finance.” The answer in 2006 and 2007 was kind of like, “Yeah, we’re all covered there.” But then the day after Bear Stearns collapsed in March 2008, the business editor came over and said, “Actually, I think we’re going to add another person to the Wall Street group.” So I moved in that beat again the day after Bear Stearns collapsed. They told me to cover Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. And so I went and I was meeting with Dick Fuld and John Thain, and they were saying “Everything’s fine, look the other way, keep walking, keep walking.” Of course, both of those companies were gone within six months. So that was interesting.
Then I went on to cover Bank of America and Goldman and others. I really could not have so easily jumped into that beat at the middle of that crisis with no sources if I had not done my MBA. Just having done it and taken classes on finance and on accounting and how the markets worked and gave me the confidence and terminology to be able to jump in like that. So that was really helpful. In some ways, the fact that I came in with no sources meant I was pretty skeptical from the start. I was one of the more skeptical reporters in the industry as it was going on. And I wrote a number of big investigations — several of them with a colleague named Gretchen Morgenson, who is a great veteran financial journalist — saying “How did this happen? What went wrong? What was the role of the banks? What were the incentives that made this happen?” Not having any allegiances in the industry allowed me to really question things. Whereas some other reporters, even after Bear Stearns collapsed in the summer of 2008, they were writing that it was kind of all okay and so on. I was more skeptical just being a fresh set of eyes. That was a really interesting thing to cover. I’ll never forget covering that. I learned a lot there and I think I made a big public impact there. I think it’s great that our work lives online for good. I get asked about many different projects that I’ve written over time, because people do see them when they look me up and that’s great as a journalist to have it living that way.
Q: So speaking of skepticism, I’m going to toss out a phrase that might make us all bristle, but that I think we’re all familiar with, which is “fake news.” What do you make of it? Is it something that you or the Journal are concerned about?
Well, the Journal has the highest trust rating of any major news brand. The Journal is trusted on the right and the left, and that’s really important and special. We take a lot of steps in everything we do to think about “Are we being clear? Are we being transparent? Are we making sure we don’t take sides on anything?” That’s a major focus of the Journal, and that’s why the trust in the Journal is so high. Which is really important, to be trusted by an audience. I mean, if you want people to read your information or watch your information, and certainly if you want them to pay for it, they’ve got to trust it. So that’s essential.
Q: You mentioned leading by values. Obviously that’s something that we all feel very strongly about here at SOM. So perhaps we can step back even one step further. I’d love to know why you decided to first come to SOM.
I knew I wanted to be a journalist since I was a freshman in college at Yale. I wrote for the Yale Daily News. It was really my major. I spent all my time doing that and I interned for a number of different publications in college. One of my internships was in the business news section at the Boston Globe. I realized there were a lot of really great reporters there, but not many had studied business. I heard about this program at SOM called the Silver Scholar Program when I was a senior. I just thought, why not apply if I could learn about the way business works and the way finance works, if I could learn accounting, I’m going to do even better reporting. I knew I wanted to be able to dig deeply, ask tough questions where they need to be asked. I really went to business school to be able to do incisive and impactful reporting. I didn’t know when I was in business school that the education I was receiving would also help me as a strategic leader in the media industry. But in fact, it’s been essential as I’ve moved out of reporting and into media leadership roles.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who want to have a career in journalism?
I do think that if someone wants to work in the media, it’s important to spend a bit of time as a reporter, even if that’s not the only thing you’re going to do. Now that I’m in these roles that are more strategic and looking at product and technology, sometimes people ask me about the path to this job. There are a lot of roles in the media now — because we’re in such transformation — where people can work in journalism and not be a reporter and be involved in strategy. But I think you’d be missing something if you didn’t spend a few years also out pounding the pavement, reporting the news. It’s just so central to what we do. News is our product. So I think to take on a lot of roles in the media, to have spent time as a reporter is an important step in it.
Q: That makes me think about mentorship and the importance of mentorship, in any career, but certainly in a journalism career. I would imagine it’s highly competitive. Have you had any mentors help you along the way? Have you been a mentor to others? Do you think mentorship is important in journalism?
I definitely think it’s important and I’ve been really lucky to have some role models and mentors every step of the way. When I was at Yale in college, for example, I took a journalism class by a journalist named Steve Brill who has been a great advisor at the Yale School of Management. Barry Nalebuff was a great mentor to me and continues to be an amazing mentor. In my jobs, I mentioned that I did a lot of work on the financial crisis working with Gretchen Morgenson. She’s been a role model and mentor. Sylvia Nasar, who wrote “A Beautiful Mind” and was a great journalist, was one of my professors at the Columbia Journalism School where I attended and has mentored me so much. So it’s been essential to the things that I’ve done and I’m at that point in my career — you know, I’ve only moved in recent years to more managerial leadership roles — but I have really been taking a lot more phone calls when people reach out and say, “I just want to talk something through,” just to be helpful. What I’ve been telling people when they reach out to have a call about where they might go in their career is to go ahead and put on their calendar, six months from, now a reminder to send me a note and tell me how they’re doing, because I am busy. I do have a lot on my plate with my job, but I want to help other people in the industry. Especially women, because I’ve had a lot of women help me. So I tell them that so they won’t feel like they shouldn’t reach out and bother me again. It’s not a bother, it’s important. Yeah, I do value it a lot.
Q: What do you look for when you’re hiring for your team? Either on the news side or the product side?
Number one, I look for people who are very open-minded. You can see in someone’s resume and work experience whether they’ve done the same thing forever, or whether they’ve really mastered lots of different things, which shows that they’re curious and they like to take on new things. I really think — in a time when our industry is in such change — people who are continuing to learn throughout their career will thrive and will bring a lot to their role, even beyond the exact role they’re doing. So I look for people who it’s clear have not wanted to plateau, have not wanted to do the same thing forever, but are not just dabbling and trying things out, but actually really doing different things well at a high level. That’s one thing. There’s other factors. I ask a lot about communication skills and I ask for examples on how they communicate between teams, because we have a very matrixed organization and communication is essential, since you’re working with a lot of different parties. I ask about that. Those would be some of the main things. And of course, you know, we run tests to check the technical skills.
Q: Louise, this is a bit of a non-sequitur, so I apologize, but I’m wondering if you have any anecdotes or memories that you wouldn’t mind sharing with us — either a story you worked on that was really impactful for you, or when you first stepped into this role. It’s totally open-ended, but anything that you sort of think about with some regularity?
One of the most impactful stories that I’ve done was part of a series at the Times called the “Towers of Secrecy” series, where I wanted to understand how much questionable money has been used to buy high-end real estate. I took one luxury condo complex as an example, and really drilled into the ownership behind all the different LLCs in there and found a lot of really interesting stories, which ran as a series. One part of it was a big investigation into a young Malaysian businessman who was associated with the Prime Minister of Malaysia. I went to Malaysia for that investigation and worked on it for more than a year. That piece ended up leading to investigations at the Department of Justice here and in Malaysia and all over the world and became the biggest kleptocracy case the United States ever brought. It was something like six billion dollars were stolen by the Prime Minister of Malaysia and his family. He’s now been found guilty on those charges. He was taken out of government. Goldman Sachs also allegedly played a role and agreed to a very large settlement of many billions of dollars. It even touched, not only real estate, but also Hollywood. This was money that funded the making of the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street.” It was a fascinating story and I really followed the money trail all over the world. I’ll tell you what: with that story — and actually with more than a few projects that I’ve done — I have had early doubters, you know, even sometimes among my managers, and I’ve really had to have conviction and stick to my guns on what was going to be important. You know, there were some questions as I was putting month after month into this investigation about whether it was a good use of time to be focusing on this, what might end up being a corruption case from a country around the world without the biggest population and so on. But I could see the threads across all these U.S. industries and could see that this was not only huge in size, but that also it had lessons we could all learn about our financial system. So when I think back over moments and memories both in my reporting career, as well as my managerial and strategic leadership career, I do think of moments where I had to make my case to my colleagues or my bosses, and maybe they were doubtful, and I managed to persuade them and it panned out. If you think that sounds interesting, that Malaysia case, by the way, I wrote and executive produced a feature-length documentary called “The Kleptocrats,” which is on Amazon and Apple. You could watch it. It’s a good view.