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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: L. Gordon Crovitz

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-07-11

Ask L. Gordon Crovitz about branding, and he will tell you. In doing so, he will also tell you about content.

He will tell you, for instance, that the brand that has employed him for 25 years is one of the most powerful in the world. He will tell you that it is trusted because of the high quality of its content. He will tell you that his brand opens doors at the highest levels of business, diplomacy and politics.

He will tell you that its provenance dates back to the late 19th century when youngsters would be hired by canny entrepreneurs to run its hand-written news updates across Wall Street.

He will tell you that his brand is innovatively meeting the special digital demands of the 21st century, widening distribution in order to make it ubiquitous and indispensable. He will, in fact, try to prove how pervasive his brand is becoming by getting out his BlackBerry to show off a new product with continuously updated content.

But the 46-year-old Mr. Crovitz will not tell you, even under the implied threat of not being offered dessert, how much he has contributed to the extension of the brands he has worked for since he was barely out of his teens, Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal.

"I have a dedicated team," he said. "If I'm smart, that smartness lies in being smart enough to spot talent and surround myself with very smart people."

Such self-effacing words are entirely in character for North Carolina-born Mr. Crovitz, even though he's in a business - journalism - where braggadocio is often used as a sales tool.

His words are measured, as carefully chosen as when he wrote sparkling editorials for the Journal after graduating from the University of Chicago, moving on to Oxford University's Wadham College as a Rhodes Scholar, and then at Yale Law School. Those editorials are still remembered by his colleagues and readers for their clarity and power, and for their meticulously reported details.

Mr. Crovitz, of course, doesn't need to brag - neither about himself nor about his brands. The record of Dow Jones's president of electronic publishing - and corporate senior vice president - speaks for itself: Under his stewardship, the Journal's online version, WSJ.com, has obtained 731,000 subscribers, a seven-fold increase in eight years.

That makes it the biggest paid-for online news service in the world; in fact, if it were a print newspaper, WSJ.com would figure as America's seventh largest. WSJ.com is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

"I've had the great fortune of being a news junkie who also happened to be in the news business," he said. "I was focused on a journalism career quite early in life."

Early meant when he was 14 years old. The son of parents who were both psychology professors, he began writing for a newspaper in the local community of Durham. Concomitantly, he was a radio broadcaster at Station WCHL in nearby Chapel Hill, N.C.

"They say nowadays that on the Internet you can't tell if you're a dog," Mr. Crovitz said. "Well, on radio you can't tell if you're 14 years old."

When he got to the University of Chicago - where his major was Politics, Economics, Rhetoric and Law - Mr. Crovitz's journalistic abilities were channeled into the Chicago Journal, a weekly that he helped to found. The publication served the south side of Chicago, a low income community, igniting in Mr. Crovitz a sustained interest in urban affairs, and also reinforcing his evolving belief that free markets and enterprise, and not handouts, were integral to solving the problems of poverty.

His conservative beliefs were an anomaly at Mr. Crovitz's next academic stop, Oxford, where students have traditionally been leftist. But Mr. Crovitz enjoyed an advantage over everybody: He was the only fellow around who regularly received The Wall Street Journal, mainly because he was a contributor to its editorial pages. He would happily share his copy, even with the most implacable ideological opponent.

"That made me very popular," he said. "It also made me aware that there was an opportunity for the Journal to publish in Europe."

Not long afterward, at the age of 22, Mr. Crovitz became the founding editorial-page editor of the new Wall Street Journal Europe, working out of a room on the top floor of the Hilton Hotel in Brussels.

If that was a coveted job for him to get, it was even bolder on the part of the Journal to take a chance with him.

"I wasn't entirely surprised because it's in the culture at the Journal to give young people a chance," Mr. Crovitz said, recalling how he'd been given an editorial to write on his very first day as an intern while he was still an undergraduate.

He also recalled the major role that the late Robert Bartley, the longtime editor of the Journal's editorial page, played in shaping his career.

"Bob was a mentor, an inspiration," Mr. Crovitz said. "He was the greatest newsman of his generation."

Beyond mentoring Mr. Crovitz, Bartley inculcated in him the conviction that newspapers are meant to be sold. That meant lively writing. That meant ideas needed to be argued forcefully and persuasively. That meant never taking liberties with the facts. And that also meant sometimes taking editorial positions that weren't exactly cheered in every constituency of the polity.

Those lessons were useful to Mr. Crovitz when he moved to Hong Kong to take over the venerable Far Eastern Economic Review, a Dow Jones publication. He later spent a year running Dow Jones's Telerate in Asia before being asked to return to New York to become president of the electronic publishing group.

The group included Dow Jones Newswires, Dow Jones Indexes, The Wall Street Journal Online, Barron's Online and other Web sites. Its daily newswires output is 12,000 news items.

If his elegant writing and management skills were tested during his stints in Brussels and Hong Kong, Mr. Crovitz's new job included an unusual challenge because he was dealing with a new medium, the Web.

"I early on recognized that the Web was going to be a very powerful medium for delivering news quickly and for letting users select just the news they wanted," he said. "I thought it was magic. My colleagues and I had to make up business models as we went along."

At the core of those models was Mr. Crovitz's belief that consumers would be willing to pay for well-produced, trustworthy content.

"I was appalled that every newspaper was giving away its content free online," he said. "We were criticized for charging for our content, but I believed in our model."

That belief has been justified. His 1,400-person unit's annual revenues are $500 million, out of a company total of $1.55 billion. Its operating income in Dow Jones is $100 million, or 40% of Dow Jones's overall total. Its Internet ad revenue alone is $60 million.

"Dow Jones has a culture where people relish bucking the trend, whether in approaches to news or in business models," he said.

Another Crovitz strategy has been to expand laterally. He teamed up with Reuters in 1999 to form Factiva, where he is chairman; the news-aggregation and search service has revenues of more than $250 million and 1.6 million subscribers, now top in its market.

And this past January, he led Dow Jones's acquisition of MarketWatch.com, a publicly traded company affiliated with CBS, for $528 million. That at once brought 7 million new unique Web users to Mr. Crovitz's stable. Indeed, on his watch, Dow Jones has acquired media properties worth some $700 million in the last two years.

"For the millions of subscribers to Dow Jones products and services around the world, it's the quality of the content that counts, regardless of the medium--in print, on Web sites, through a newswire or on a BlackBerry device," Mr. Crovitz said. "And so we're very focused on using technology to make our news available whenever, wherever and however people need it."

So what are his worries?

"We need to make a stronger effort to reach advertisers," he said. Online advertising was $9.7 billion last year, or about 3.7% of overall advertising spending, according to a Merrill Lynch report. That figure is expected to grow by 20% in 2005, and Mr. Crovitz is confident that his revenues will increase, too.

"We've been able to monetize our content online like no one else," he said.
So, the reporter asked, what did he think really accounted for his success?

Mr. Crovitz paused for what seemed like a minute.

Then he said: "Success sounds like some term of finality. To me it means constantly meeting challenges."

He paused again.

"Our key is brand and content," Mr. Crovitz said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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