‘I want my daughters to grow up in a country that treats them with respect’

2 Jun 2017

Raju Narisetti at Inspirefest in Dublin last year. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Raju Narisetti discusses diversity, the future of media and navigating Trump’s America.

For a figure who holds one of the most pivotal roles in publishing in America at a crucial time in media history – in fact, world history – not only does Raju Narisetti have his finger on the pulse of change, he does not shirk from tough decisions. He answers every question in a thoughtful, respectful and considered way, but, ultimately, with humility.

These are rare attributes to have in a media business noted for the blustering egos and the ruthless, towering ambitions of its top figures.

‘I have two girls, 15 and 11, who are half-Indian and half-black, and I want them to grow up in a country where they are treated with respect, where their rights are protected, and they have the ability to be anything they can be’

Future Human

Narisetti is returning to Inspirefest in Dublin this summer (6 to 8 July) for the second year running, and I got the opportunity to speak with him last year on stage with Recode editor Kara Swisher.

He holds the role of CEO at Gizmodo Media Group, a group of digital journalism sites that includes some of the the web’s most beloved and authentic brands, such as Gizmodo, Jezebel, Deadspin, Jalopnik and The Root. Before this, he was senior vice-president in charge of strategy at News Corp.

Narisetti, who was born in Hyderabad in India and was named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2007, has pretty much held some of the most crucial jobs in US journalism.

Prior to his role at News Corp, he was managing editor of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Digital Network, where he was responsible for WSJ’s digital/mobile content strategy and execution. He was also managing editor of the Washington Post, where he led the integration of its digital and print businesses; the editor of WSJ Europe; and is the founder of Mint, the second-largest business newspaper/website in India.

As we talk over the phone ahead of his return to Dublin for Inspirefest, Narisetti says he can’t wait. “It’s an amazing and inspiring event, and I’m really delighted that I can come back this year. I’m really looking forward to it.”

At the crossroads of media and tech

At Gizmodo Media Group, Narisetti is responsible for the top titles that serve the crucial 18- to 34-year-old market in America and is therefore pretty much at the coalface of digital change.

“Over the last six or seven years, whether at News Corp, the Washington Post or the The Wall Street Journal, I’ve found myself at the intersection of journalism, product, platform, tech and strategy.

“The difference is, I have always done it from the newsroom side, and with a mainstream media organisation that has a large legacy platform like a newspaper. This is the first time that I am at a media company where there is legacy, but no legacy platform, and the first time that I am able to make digital decisions that are not sub-optimal because there is always another platform to be supported.

“Here, most of my choices are around what I invest in and how do we grow our digital audiences. All my sites really aim for a young, diverse America of 18- to 34-year-olds, whereas at the Washington Post, I would lose sleep over the audience ageing and being in their high 50s and 60s. Here, I lose sleep over any risk of my audience getting into the high 20s. The reality is that if I don’t continue to engage the 21- and 22-year-olds, I will have the same problem down the line that the newspapers have today.”

There is no escaping the reality that newspapers are struggling as a result of the digital revolution, a problem exacerbated by 20-somethings not buying newspapers.

Despite this, Narisetti believes that newspapers have a future. “I am not one of those who subscribes to the notion that newspapers are dead. People have been saying this for 20 years now. Sure, they have declined in their ability to influence and impact as they used to, but I think there is always going to be a place for good journalism on multiple platforms, including print. It will probably be a smaller, but nevertheless viable, audience.

“I am sure 50 years ago, when television came along, people like you and me talked about the imminent death of radio because why would anyone listen when they can listen and see as well? Radio today is smaller but pretty vibrant, so, in that sense, I think there will be a pretty vibrant print media platform that will continue.

“But there is no escaping the reality that the pipeline of young readers between 20 and 30 is close to zero for print. Somewhere along the way, there is going to be a huge cliff where the only readers will be – if publishers are lucky – in their late 40s, but mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s. But if demographics are correct that most people will live to their 80s, then that’s still a valuable, wealthy audience that is spending money on food, entertainment, pharmaceuticals and more, so there will still be advertisers wanting to reach them.”

How can media transform itself?

The key to navigating the future of media, Narisetti maintained, is getting the revenue model correct.

‘The trick for media companies is this: if your heart is in advertising only, then you are dead, because that story is not going to end well and Facebook and Google are going to take 90pc of that market’

“There is a lot of excitement in the US right now about how The New York Times, Washington Post and the The Wall Street Journal have grown their paid subscribers in the last few months because of Donald Trump and that’s fantastic. But the reality is that it doesn’t in any way come close to answering the essential problems of our industry, which is that if you only have a couple of revenue streams – advertising and subscriptions – you are never going to get to a stable state.

“My view is that for a media company to thrive these days, you have to have anywhere between three to five sources of revenue. If you have them, even if each one is volatile and not stable, collectively you may be able to have a growing, sustainable business.”

In Gizmodo Media Group’s case, revenue is split roughly between display advertising, video, programmatic advertising, custom content and e-commerce.

“Is each one challenging? Sure! But having five revenue streams gives me the ability to really grow and sustain a fairly vibrant media company so that I can invest back into journalism.

“The trick for media companies is this: if your heart is in advertising only, then you are dead, because that story is not going to end well and Facebook and Google are going to take 90pc of that market.”

For media to survive and thrive, Narisetti asserted that the industry needs to transform within the new reality of digital and social media.

“Our entire industry was built on the notion of acting as gatekeepers – a bunch of people go into a room and decided what was going to be on the front page tomorrow.

“The reality now is that digital allows us the freedom and opportunity to see what we want to see, and turns us all into pretty promiscuous consumers who can go anywhere we want by touching a screen or mouse or talking into a device. As a result, the media industry has struggled to transform itself from being gatekeepers to being gate openers, where trusted brand curation is our strength.

“And, let’s be honest, very few newspapers and their editors spend time with their readers, they just assumed what they thought readers wanted. Using data to tweak their products to suit the audience is alien to them. But that’s precisely how Facebook, Google, Snapchat and all these other platforms are performing.

“The loop of data and responding and building better products is inherent in those companies and completely absent in the media industry.”

Despite this, he believes there is hope for media. “If you can stick to being good at figuring out the best way to engage, package, curate, inform and entertain, that role isn’t going away anytime soon.

“The challenge is that other people’s platforms are where the audience is aggregating and therefore, we have to go there.”

This ultimately means sharing less of the revenue pie than before, and the real problem is making sure the cost of journalism can keep up with the revenues that publishers are able to make.

“That’s the biggest challenge but the role for journalism, for mainstream newspapers, has never been more crucial in this time. I think, in moments of crisis and when the world is looking for answers, most newsrooms are very good at stepping in and raising their game.”

Managing diversity

It’s true to say that in Narisetti’s career, he has occupied some of the most plum roles in the media industry.

‘If we don’t fix the pipeline problem in diversity in media and tech, then all we are doing is failing existing diversity’

“I never actually consciously thought I would end up in journalism. I have a BA in management and an MBA, and at one point I was actually a sales manager for a dairy products company selling butter and cheese, and I just came to a point where I decided that was not what I wanted to do with my life.

“And also, for an Indian, I was very bad at maths and science at one point in time, which meant that most of the normal Indian career opportunities – doctors and engineers – were closed off to me. I was also a little bit doomed by my DNA and upbringing – my father was the head of a regional newspaper and my mother was an English professor. So somehow, I was doomed to end up in a writing/journalism career.”

People from Asia are making their mark in media, and in the tech industry in Silicon Valley in particular, but all of that risks being threatened by the regressive policies of the administration of US president Donald Trump, which has been sabre-rattling and threatening changes to visa policy.

I point out that there are more than 91,000 Indian people with PhDs in America, and that some of the most pivotal roles in media and technology are held by people from India: Google’s CEO is Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s CEO is Satya Nadella.

“When I got here, there was hardly anybody South Asian or from India in journalism in America. The WSJ had three or four people of Indian origin out of a staff of 2,000 people. But, if you look around now, the senior people at CNBC and CNN are from India. Most Indian people grow up in a culture where they have to learn to read, write and speak English. I was lucky enough to be a summer intern for The Wall Street Journal and that’s how I ended up there. It had nothing to do with origin. It had everything to do with serendipity, education and being in the right place at the right time.”

But the tension in Trump’s America means that the very principles of diversity are at risk of being trampled on. Narisetti urges managers to never give up on diversity.

“One of my guiding principles: I have the strong belief that what you do not measure, you will never fix. So I have always been very data-informed about diversity.

“At Gizmodo Media Group, we map the entire organisation in terms of diversity. The reason for measuring and disclosing it is because it automatically creates a benchmark and puts pressure on me as CEO and everyone else in hiring positions to improve on their performance.

“It is actually a hard thing to do in an industry that is retrenching, but that is especially when you have to actually redouble your efforts.

“One of the first things I did when I joined Gizmodo was to instigate a strong, paid internship programme and we now have the most diverse set of interns ever.

“If we don’t fix the pipeline problem in diversity in media and tech, then all we are doing is failing existing diversity. So we have to add to it and do it consciously.

“Initially, the conventional vision I had of diversity was your usual gender and race. But I think as you evolve, you have to think about all the other levels of diversity: geographic, economic, age, sexual orientation … these are not obvious until you consciously go looking for that.

“We serve an audience of 18- to-34-year-olds, therefore we need to reflect what they reflect themselves.

“If you look at American demographic trends, by 2028, it is likely that [of] the majority of young Americans between 18 and 34, some 52pc will be non-white, which means there will be a lot more diversity then than there is today.

“We want to be the go-to media brand for a much more diverse young America. We have to reflect them in our own behaviour and staffing. It is a work in progress but, by measuring and publicly disclosing and building a pipeline, we will get there.”

Finally, I ask Narisetti how he feels about living, working and being a parent in Trump’s America at a time when a country that embodies freedom for most people appears to be turning in on itself.

“We must not forget the importance of what America stands for. It stands for freedom of expression, that globalisation is good, and that opening up borders for the mobility of people and ideas is good for the world. These are the things that attracted people like me to the US and to decide to call it home.

“I have two girls, 15 and 11, who are half-Indian and half-black, and I want them to grow up in a country where they are treated with respect, where their rights are protected, and they have the ability to be anything they can be.

“I saw all of those freedoms being questioned actively by President Trump, and it is incumbent on me to speak up and support these issues and that’s where I am. And, organisationally, my company is also very open about what values we believe in, and we won’t shy away from saying that.”

Raju Narisetti will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to get your Early Bird tickets.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years