Almar Latour became CEO of Dow Jones during the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, along with the ensuing economic fallout, U.S. election, and global debates about race.
“The first thing that struck me, and has stayed with me all this time, is the resilience of our employees,” Latour told INMA members in a live Webinar on Wednesday.
“Amid all of that, I think we were all reminded of our mission and what is core to us and where our essential value lies.”
Refocusing on mission and the customer
Latour, who is also the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, said this extraordinary time allowed the company to focus on its assets and craft a very tight mission from that: to be the definitive source of truth for decision-makers everywhere.
“What is the value we bring to our readers?” he said the team asked. “This crisis has forced that discussion and self-exploration, and forced us to connect with our readers and users and customers in new ways.”
This renewed embrace of the mission has rippled through everything they do, Latour added. Connecting with customers, getting their feedback, and making sure that data was used appropriately became more important than ever.
As an example, he shared an initiative he undertook himself, in which he held a virtual tour with more than 100 business leaders to get “unvarnished feedback” on what the Journal could do better in order to help them make decisions.
“Throughout the company we’re doing that in different ways, with more intense surveys, with more people reaching out to readers and bringing that information back in.”
Ultimately, this is a foundational approach that reminds them that their purpose is to live in service of their readers and stakeholders.
The “induced coma” of COVID-19
While the pandemic has had very real effects on many functions being temporarily frozen and financially, Latour said not to let the word coma suggest inaction.
“We’ve been more active than ever before,” he told INMA members. “We’ve been forced to be creative, to innovate and approach things in completely new ways.”
One example is the pivot from live to virtual events, which have become a significant business for The Wall Street Journal.
When it comes to what the “new normal” might look like post-COVID, Latour said that return to normalcy suggests some level of stability. Yet even before the pandemic, change was a constant thing.
“We are changing now, and we’re changing probably more rapidly, more concentrated, and more focused way right now. But I’d like to make sure that we keep that pace going because after this, there will be more change. Through the crisis, we’ve had a magnifying glass put on everything that perhaps wasn’t quite functioning as it should be.”
He added that his team doesn’t intend to slow down after the pandemic is over; in fact, they might move at an even faster pace to take advantage of the opportunities that come with constantly evolving.
The safety of team members was one of Latour’s top concerns through all this, and he applauded them for really stepping up to the plate.
“They’ve really given it their everything. It’s important to understand that fluidity between work and private life doesn’t tilt the balance completely to work. What can you do as a publisher, as a company, to make sure that the people that work at the company are balancing that.”
This has been a topic of open dialogue throughout the organisation, with priority given to adequate time off and ability to address personal and family needs.
The 2020 print and digital landscape at Dow Jones
Latour reported that during the past year the company has seen record numbers of new digital subscribers.
“We have more digital subscribers than ever before. We crossed, for the Journal, more than three million overall.”
For Dow Jones as a whole (which includes The Wall Street Journal as well as Barron’s, MarketWatch, and others) that number was four million total subscribers, according to internal numbers.
“We have digital revenue that now exceeds US$1 billion,” Latour shared. “That was a really big, landmark moment for Dow Jones and for The Wall Street Journal.”
He attributed that in part to the acceleration and increased focus on digital that the company undertook over the past nine months, while noting that this was built on a foundation that was already in place pre-COVID.
A key priority was building scale for a digital audience, which helped prepare them for the surge they saw after the pandemic hit. Another important factor is making sure they truly connect with that audience and serve the right content.
“It’s been a tremendous story to us, to see that surge in subscriptions,” Latour said.
He added they’ve set an aggressive goal of doubling that subscription base and believes that there is a potential new subscriber market of about 10 million in the U.S. alone.
While recurring subscriptions are a very important part of the Dow Jones business model, they are far from the only revenue streams. Diversification is vital, with B2B and advertising revenue being other important streams, Latour said: “That balance makes you resilient during times of crisis.”
Dow Jones has seen particular resilience in B2B advertising, which is an area the company is very strong in.
“I think it’s been very important for a lot of companies during this time, as they were digitising, to make sure that they connect with customers in new ways while their storefronts may be closed,” Latour said. “That’s where publishers like The Wall Street Journal come in, to help make that connection in a very relevant way.”
Relationships with large tech platforms
When it comes to the platform giants such as Google and Facebook, Dow Jones is committed to making sure that its valuable and expensive-to-produce content is appropriately recognised and valued, Latour said.
The platforms also present the opportunity to be introduced to new sets of readers, such as The Wall Street Journal found with Apple News.
“Our digital scale is at unprecedented, record levels on our owned and operated [platforms], but add to that our deliberate presence on platforms such as Apple News, and you see significant benefits from that.”
He attributed that to the market of 10 million people that Apple News offers, many of which are new to the Journal.
“It’s less pro and con,” Latour said of approaching how to work with the major platforms. “It’s more how do you engage, and how do you make that productive? But absolute bottom line, we invest a lot to produce high-quality information, and that should be recognised regardless of who we’re dealing with.”
Maintaining journalistic standards
“We have a very strong and rich tradition that we’re very proud of, which is that we have an independent newsroom, and an independent opinion section, that operate independently from one another but also independent from any business influence,” Latour said.
Editors and journalists are highly trained and experienced, as well as committed to the Dow Jones Code of Conduct. This ensures that there is no pre-determined narrative to the journalism produced.
Latour said he constantly asks CEOs and readers what they think of the coverage and how Dow Jones can improve upon it.
“What they say is, ‘Stick to the middle of the road.’ There are very few large publications that have not tilted one direction or another. Stay the course, stay in that centre. That’s why The Wall Street Journal is the most trusted newspaper in the U.S.”
Skills needed in today’s news media publishing executives
Listening is the most important, Latour believes.
“This has been a period of listening to the employee, listening to the customer, and making sure that we are always offering the very best service that we can offer. It’s really been a time to take feedback and process it, and get better that way.”
How does one bring that into an organisation with deliberation?
“When you listen, you really find out how you’re performing — what you’re doing right, what you’re not doing right, so you can take action,” Latour said. “Codify that, set that up as a permanent feedback loop. That will help you a great deal — it’s helped us a great deal.”
The future of media
“After change comes change,” Latour said. “We know that is going to be the way of media in this era. Don’t for a moment forget that. The ‘new normal’ will be a lot like the ‘old normal’ — continuity of a great urgency for change, for digitisation, and embracing that in full.”
In the end, it’s really about serving the readers in the best way possible.
“Go back to that question: What is your purpose?” Latour concluded. “Ours is to be the definitive source of truth for decision-makers everywhere. What’s yours?”