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New York Times editor talks Apple, business reporting and digital with Medill students

Dean Murphy speaking with students.
Wide shot of Dean Murphy speaking with students.

Whether or not they were interested in business journalism, Northwestern students left New York Times Business Editor Dean Murphy’s (BSJ80) presentation with a greater understanding of what it takes to tell compelling stories in an increasingly digital age.

“I think within Medill people shy away from business stories because they think of [the topic] as inaccessible, and I always appreciate when I hear someone that is involved in business reporting reiterate that business stories are really human stories,” said Katherine Lonsdorf, a graduate MSJ student in attendance. “They have other elements to them that affect people on a human level more than just the scary business aspect.”

Murphy, a Northwestern graduate, explored this connection through two in-depth New York Times features; the recent conflict between Apple and the FBI about unlocking the cell phone of the San Bernardino shooter, and an arbitration series about individuals who had fallen prey to hidden clauses in legal documents.

“I’m very passionate about business journalism, but more specifically, the components that make business journalism relevant, which is an intersection of business, civil society, and government,” Murphy said. “These two stories are perfect examples of this trifecta.”

In order to employ these components in an interesting and pertinent story, Murphy says it’s important to not let the business side of the story overtake the other parts, and vice versa.

“The arbitration story started out as an important but mind numbing business subject, and we were trying to figure out how to tell it in an engaging and relatable way,” Murphy said. “It wasn’t a secret subject, but what wasn’t known was how the impact was playing out in real life.”

To connect this story to readers, the reporters found real people with an interesting story to tell, and related their message through video components and “entertaining” writing, Murphy said.

“In the end, journalism is about conversation, and as much as we try to be thorough and accurate, in the end if people don’t feel engaged enough to read it, it doesn’t matter,” Murphy said. “The digital aspect has really brought that home for us at the Times. We have amazing journalists but we still have to find ways to get people to read what we do, and it’s an interesting challenge.”

The New York Times, like many other journalism publications, is continuously working to find new ways to engage readers. Murphy noted social media has played a large part in this, claiming the New York Times has partnered with Snapchat and Instagram to try to reach a wider audience. Twitter is also a useful tool for reporters, and the New York Times uses it to not only promote articles, but also to find sources for stories.

In regards to print journalism, Murphy says he is “agnostic, not antagonistic,” and while print is not dead, it can be slow.

“Print is late to the party, so we need to find ways to push out our stories digitally, and find which platform is better for certain audiences,” Murphy said.

Siri Bulusu, a business MSJ student, said this is an important aspect of journalism that Medill employs through its program.

“I thought it was really important that he talked about platforms for content,” Bulusu said. “We have so many conversations in class about digital media and it’s good to know that Medill has its finger on the pulse about what’s happening in the industry.”

Regardless of the topic, Murphy said good writing needs to be at the center of every story. 

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of good writing, especially in a long story,” Murphy said. “It’s also important to find people who give quotes that get to the core of what we’re trying to say in a very entertaining way. You need to have little crumbs along the way that nourish the reader.”

Learn more about the high-profile speakers we have visit our students in our Medill graduate programs