Interview: Gerard Baker, Editor, The Wall Street Journal

Photo Courtesy: Deadlineclub.org

“When I went to New York in 1986, I just completely fell in love with the place and I became determined to go and live in the city”.

On the night of 18th June 1970, when most eight-year-olds were fast asleep, the young Gerard Baker was wide awake watching the live results of that year’s general election in the UK. He was, in his own words, “a bit of an odd creature in that respect”, with an advanced interest in and understanding of history, politics and current affairs.

Born and raised in Britain, a combination of intellectual curiosity and a drive to be the best at school meant that Gerry secured a position to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, where he developed his fascination with markets and finance.

Thinking the best outlet for his interests would be banking, his first jobs after university were working as an economic analyst at the Bank of England and Lloyds.

Like much of his generation of students, Gerry lent towards the left of the political spectrum at Oxford. It was a time when the ideals of socialism remained widely popular and the advantages and disadvantages of the two competing political systems were still widely debated.

He was elected as a Labour vice-president of his students’ union and graduated with First-Class Honours in 1986. Any enthusiasm for socialism was quickly eradicated when Gerry took a trip to the Soviet Union, followed shortly by another to New York, which for him confirmed the merits of Western capitalism and further encouraged his lifelong interest in American politics and culture

The Wall Street Journal is America’s best-selling newspaper with a daily circulation of more than two million copies. It was established in 1889 when the founders of Dow Jones & Co, Charles Dow and Edward Jones, converted the Customers’ Afternoon Letter into an independent source of financial information for New Yorkers.

After News Corp took over Dow Jones in 2007, the Journal has done something very rare in the recent history of newspapers in the West, it has increased circulation. Lead by its new editor, Robert Thomson, the Journal diversified into in-depth coverage of politics, foreign affairs, arts and sports, all the while maintaining a broadly impartial and intelligent tone that has made it one of the most trusted news sources in the world.

Whilst most major newspapers both in the UK and the US have experienced a sharp decline in print circulation over the last ten years, the Journal has held onto its core readership whilst expanding into new areas. Despite its success, Gerry is not complacent about the decline of print media and spends most of his time working on the WSJ’s many digital outlets.

Gerry worked at the BBC from 1988 and 1993, mostly as a producer. Between 1994 and 2004, he worked for the Financial Times, initially in its Tokyo bureau before moving to Washington as chief of the bureau.

He served as the US editor and assistant editor of the Times of London before being appointed deputy editor of the Journal and the Dow Jones newswires in 2009. He took over as editor in January 2013.

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You had a range of interests while you were growing up, how did you work out what you wanted to do?

When I was at university I didn’t have a very strong idea of what I wanted to do, although I had a vague idea that I wanted to go into politics because I had been quite involved in student politics. From a ridiculously early age I remember being fascinated by modern history and the day-to-day unfolding of history, politicians and great events.

I had no desire to go into investment banking or anything mainstream, I looked at the Bank of England because it was at the policy end of the financial system and I was fascinated with policy, partly as a result of studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics. I was there barely longer than a year, I hated the place to be honest, but what attracted me to it was that I would be analysing these great financial and economic events.

From there I went to Lloyds Bank where I was an economist analysing Latin America. I was looking for the intellectual reward that I got when analysing politics and economics at university so there was a logical step into journalism although I had never really seen it in advance.

By my mid-twenties I was disillusioned with politics, I really didn’t like working in the financial sector and I was casting around for something else to do. I saw an advertisement in the Economist, for a television company looking for someone with a background in politics and economics to be a researcher. I applied and got the job.

In the 2011 discussion you had at the Hoover Institute, while you were deputy editor of the Journal, you described yourself as having had a “Damascene revelation” when you visited the Soviet Union and the United States. Could you outline how your view of the world changed as you went through university and then coming out of it?

My views did change pretty radically, I was definitely on the left, although I was never a hard lefty. I was elected as a Labour vice-president of the student union and I had some fairly predictable left-of-centre student views. Over the ten years after I left university my view evolved steadily and a number of factors were responsible for that.

Having opposed, and I would say, almost despised Thatcher in 1979, there were a series of landmarks in her administration, from the miners’ strike to deregulation that steadily changed my views about the shortcomings of markets and the advantages of government intervention. I had never been a communist, or even close, but like most of the European left, certainly the British left, I viewed myself as somewhere between American capitalism and Soviet communism.

That’s probably too strong, I wasn’t strictly neutral in that I was aware of how flawed, and ultimately evil, certain aspects of Soviet communism were but I was one of many people who thought there were good things about communism and good things about capitalism and we shouldn’t see things in black and white.

In 1986 I did one of those government organised tourist parties to Moscow and what was then Leningrad. I was only in the Soviet Union for a week, I wouldn’t claim that I studied it in any great depth, but the most striking thing I remember was just the drab uniformity of the place. I grew up in London in the 1970s, and although it was a long way from being the great global metropolis it is now, there was still a certain amount of vibrancy and it was an exciting city to go to.

Moscow and Leningrad were just these monolithically grey, dull, lifeless places. To cap that by going to New York three or four months later, with all its colour and diversity, whatever remaining doubts I might have had about the relative virtues of the capitalist system versus the communist system were removed.

Did you direct yourself towards living in the States after 1986?

I never imagined I would live in the States, even in my twenties, but when I went to New York in 1986, I just completely fell in love with the place and I became determined to go and live in the city. I joined the BBC in 1988 and very quickly found a way to apply for a job in New York and very fortunately got one.

Living in New York confirmed everything I had thought on my first visit there, I had an amazing time and I knew then I wanted to live an extended part of my life there. I had been interested for a long time in American elections, I had a fascination with elections everywhere, but I remember following the 1980 election when Reagan was elected very closely.

I love the way elections in a vibrant democracy give you an insight into the geography and culture of a country and I enjoyed following the 1988 election as well. When I joined the Financial Times in 1994 I told them, “look I really want to be in America” and they offered me the job in Tokyo but with a view to an American opportunity in the future.

Most of the major papers in the Western world have experienced a very sharp decline in print sales over the last decade, how has the Wall Street Journal been able to grow its following at a time when most other papers are consigning themselves to quite marked decline in print?

I think there are a number of factors. Firstly I should say that credit is due to a number of other people, namely my predecessor, Robert Thomson as well as Rupert Murdoch. One important factor in our success is that a lot of people need to read the Journal because it provides detailed business information.

So we have a solid base there which is certainly not invulnerable but there is a core that a lot of other newspapers don’t have. The second factor is that when News Corp took over, and Robert Thomson gets all the credit for this, the aim was very much to hold onto that base but also to build out and become a broader newspaper with more politics, general news, arts, culture, lifestyle and sport without diminishing the business news.

Another development, which is related to those two points, is that the US market is evolving very rapidly away from the big city model towards national papers. Unlike the UK, where you have around 12 national papers, in the States you have the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Houston Chronicle, San Diego Tribune, there are hundreds of them, each covering their own patch.

What the digital revolution has done is really sweep away the rationale for that because no one needed to read the Denver Post’s Washington coverage because they could, frankly, read higher quality coverage from a more national organisation.

I think what’s happening is the US newspaper market is evolving into a much more European or Japanese market and we and the New York Times and some of the other bigger papers are evolving into national newspapers. So one of the reasons why we are doing well is the business is consolidating around the big papers and we’re one of them.

What do you think is going to save news organisations in the long run? Is it assumed that there will have to be online subscriptions for the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, or is it more a case of waiting and seeing how the shift to digital pans out over the next decade?

We can see, looking at print numbers and the habits of younger people, that the digital opportunity is steadily eroding traditional modes of media. I think it is fair that we assume steady print decline, but I would say one cautionary word on that as it is still the case in the US that more than 50 million printed newspapers are sold every day.

Even if that market shrinks at between five to eight per cent a year, that’s still a lot of newspapers that are going to be sold and as big as we are, we are selling less than three per cent of newspapers sold in the United States. We could take more market share, even as the market declines, in the print field but an increasing amount of our efforts are devoted to working on the digital product and getting it right on its various models.

It’s odd because I find we talk about Wsj.com as the “traditional” platform, now that mobile and tablet outlets are becoming the growth areas. The medium-term aim for us is to maximise our digital subscriptions, maximise digital advertising revenue and find ways to expand profitably in the digital field.

How much of the business side of running the Wall Street Journal do you get involved in, versus the editorial side?

I spend a lot of time strategising over how to develop the many platforms that the Journal is now available on. On a day-to-day basis I’m looking at the online editions, the iPad edition, mobile edition, making sure we are doing the right stories, talking to my digital editors about what we are doing with social media, video and blogs.

Part of my day is spent putting out a printed newspaper in the evening but most of my day, when you are not dealing with the rubbish that you have to deal with as the manager of a large organisation, I am thinking about digital content.

Something we can struggle with as traditional journalists is the temptation simply to adapt traditional print journalism for the online side and that is a big danger. When you’re doing digital content you really have to start tabula rasa, without any preconception about how things may look on paper.

It’s an extraordinary journey from a dissatisfied economic analyst to a trainee journalist at the BBC all the way to editing America’s most widely circulated newspaper. How do you account for your own success?

I think I have an intellectual capability, I’m no Stephen Hawking, but I can problem solve, work with numbers, articulate words and grasp complex problems. I think what is specific to me is from a really early age I have loved history, loved the news and loved watching the news. One of my earliest memories is staying up to watch the 1970 general election result, I was eight.

I have an eight-year-old now who is very bright and switched on but would not dream of staying up to watch election results. I was quite an odd creature in that respect but I have just imbibed this stuff from a really early age. I just loved the news business and I think that has equipped me really well because I have just absorbed it.

I think another thing is, and I am sorry to engage in management pschyo-babble, but I am fairly driven and ambitious. Again from a really early age I wanted to be top of the class at school, and then at university, but I was also driven to get into positions of leadership.

I was president of my JCR at college and then I was vice-president of the students’ union so I think I was just one of those people, and I say this, I hope, in a self-aware way, who is driven and ambitious. I don’t think I’m ruthless, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, I try to make sure that I have time to fulfill other responsibilities which social human beings should be doing.

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