On a recent episode of Recode Media, hosted by Peter Kafka, Daniel Roth explained why he made the leap from traditional to digital media to become executive editor at LinkedIn. When he began to feel like “a polar bear, jumping from smaller ice floe to smaller ice floe” as a magazine writer, he took a big chance — one that looked like it wasn’t going to work for the first year — and has helped the job-listing site become a content destination.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I’m here with Dan Roth, who’s also a funny guy, a wry guy. How are ya?
Dan Roth: Good, how you doing?
Dan and I used to work together a looong time ago. Nearly 20 years ago.
Holy shit, we’re old. And now you work at Microsoft.
Oh my god, yeah, that’s true.
Have you thought about that yet?
You know, it’s been an interesting progression, because the deal happened, it feels like, so long ago now, and we’ve all been living with it for a long time.
I’m doing a terrible podcasting hosting job. I should explain what your actual job is. You work at LinkedIn running their content. You are the content czar at LinkedIn.
I’m the executive editor of LinkedIn. So I oversee all of the original content on LinkedIn, the influence program, which is this group of sort of celebrities of the business world.
You’re the most powerful man in business journalism, I read when I was googling you this morning.
That was written by your old boss [PK laughs] Henry Blodget. There was nothing better than a Business Insider headline, just the superlatives are awesome and they get repeated everywhere. The SEO value is ... that will be on my tombstone, I think.
So we’ll talk about all that. But what I was saying was, you now work for Microsoft because LinkedIn got bought by Microsoft, and I think the deal just went through like days or weeks ago.
Probably by the time you hear this, a few weeks ago. So how has life changed for you now that Microsoft is paying for your salary?
So far, there have been no changes. It’s been an incredibly smooth process where we started laying out ... As soon as the deal happened [we] started thinking through what this could be like if and when the merger goes through. And there are some pretty powerful opportunities to create if you’ve seen any of the …. Jeff Weiner, our CEO, and Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, both wrote posts on LinkedIn about what this could look like, and one of the things they called out was creating the world’s largest newsdesk. The world’s largest business newsdesk.
Right, so from the get-go ... Sometimes when a merger like this happens they’ll say, “Nothing’s going to change, completely autonomous, everyone’s going to go ahead and do their job, and obviously some things are going to change down the line.” But from the get-go your boss and the CEO of Microsoft said, “We’re going to work together, we’re going to figure out ways to import LinkedIn in some capacity to Microsoft.” So that meant your job was going to change in some capacity.
The way that Jeff put it to us — the phrasing was pretty cool. [He said,] think about your — and this is LinkedIn so we tend to speak in language about how great things could be — your dreams amplified. All the programs, everything we’re working on, how does Microsoft help amplify what we’re doing? And all of the discussions that we’ve had is how does Microsoft help grow LinkedIn.
So the questions are how do we team up with MSN to be able to grow LinkedIn? How to we think about — in particular for content — what does content look like in a world where Microsoft’s running this massive news portal? And then there’s other things. We know that professionals start their day with Microsoft. They open their PC, they go and search for things. They are in Microsoft Office products all the time. How does the news and the views and the stuff that my team works on, and the entire content ecosystem at LinkedIn, how does that play in that world?
So you guys have been sketching this out in your head for ... A deal like this gets announced months ago, now it’s a thing, so do you start working on it immediately? Do you wait for the deal to get done before you start working on it? How does that process work?
You have to wait for the deal to be done to be able to launch, to be able to do anything.
Noodling in the back of your head.
But you’ve got some ideas.
But in the meantime you got to go ahead and do your job. So explain what your job actually is, day to day.
I’m the executive editor of LinkedIn, which means I oversee an editorial team. We have about 20, almost 25 editors, who are around the world and in New York.
Human beings, human editors. We all have sweatshirts, hoodies, that say "human editors" on them. [PK laughs] And they are mostly people who come from the business journalism world: Forbes, Fortune, AP, Reuters, Le Figaro. The role of the editors at LinkedIn is to really focus on high-quality content and high-quality people. How do we make sure that we get the best stories and the best shares and people weighing in on the most important topics of the day?
Because there’s a couple different things going on at LinkedIn on the editorial side, right? Average people are just writing stuff and posting it.
That stuff’s automated, right? I submit something and it just sort of goes into the system at some point. And then you guys are also going to Bill Gates and whomever and saying, “Would you like to write something for us?” Are you guys writing your own stories as well? Or it’s all contributors?
Yeah, so we call it ... Actually, this shows you the big jump I’ve made since leaving traditional media — I now have an acronym that I use in talking about it. The three Cs, we talk about. I talk about.
I just winced a little bit.
[laughs] Create, cultivate and curate. By the way, the fact that you winced, that’s — everyone on my team winces every time I bring this up.
It’s good, it’s good. They’re still human.
Yeah, but at one point, I’m going to hear someone repeat this, and I’ll be like, “Yes.”
[laughs] That’s your victory.
You’ve absorbed them.
So the create is the editors are supposed to write, shoot videos, be out there talking to people, Q&As ...
Yeah, you do some great interviews still.
Thank you. And then we curate, so that is what you [were talking] about, we have 160,000 posts a week being written on LinkedIn. There’s three million writers. It’s by far the world’s largest business platform and publisher if you think about it that way. And that content can either be distributed by algorithms or editors.
The system is an editorial-plus-algorithm operation. The algorithms help identify good content, the editors identify good content, what the editors choose helps train the algorithms, the algorithms help the editors make better choices. And so you can see things that are ... you can have a member writing a piece about why radio traffic reporting jobs are not going to die in the Waze era. It’s a super-narrow topic. But it could start blowing up in the algorithms, like,”Hey, editor, this thing seems like it’s actually good. Can you check it out?”
And you know a lot about the members, so you can say, “Oh, you might be interested in this.”
Are you generating revenue for LinkedIn? What’s the purpose of your team, the purpose of the work you guys are doing? Lots of people would love to have this platform, but what does it do for LinkedIn, and how do they measure what you’re doing?
Yeah, so first I have to say the last C, which is cultivate.
It’s the idea of going out and reaching out to people, either individuals or thousands of people at a time, asking them to write, to contribute content. So — and I’ll get to your question —
No, no, finish the Cs.
So the way that that works is, we have certain editors who have specialities. We have a health care editor, a finance editor, an editor just for software engineers. And that editor has certain people that he or she will turn to all the time and say, like, “Oh, the Muni system in San Francisco just got hacked. Hey, I know you’re an expert in protecting systems, why don’t you write a piece about why this thing happened?”
An actual assignment, and an assignment editor.
Exactly. So we talk about the world’s largest news desk, this is what it is. We want to take the insights that are trapped in the heads of professionals everywhere and get them out to the world’s professionals.
So I get why people would like to write for LinkedIn, because ideally you get lots of distribution, it helps buff up your professional reputation, helps the company you work for. What do you guys get out of it? Because you’re not selling ads against this stuff, are you?
No. Well, there are ads that run on LinkedIn but we’re not ...
That’s not your business.
That’s not the main business. If people are coming to LinkedIn every day because they have this great information that makes them better at what they do, there’s all kinds of benefits to the system. They will update their profiles, they’ll start looking for a job that they might be interested in. They will write something that gets someone they work with, their colleagues, their boss, interested in checking it out. They’ll get jobs from it and then they’ll come back to LinkedIn more.
Because the value of LinkedIn still is, it’s for job seekers, people who want to hire people. It’s that network, right? And then there’s some advertising based around it. But it’s really still a professional network, and the idea is, I’m going there fundamentally when I want to connect with someone professionally, usually to hire or get hired. And you want them to be more engaged generally.
When I joined LinkedIn five years ago, that is what LinkedIn was, exactly what you described, and people would come here to get jobs. Over the years, especially because of the content that’s flowing through LinkedIn now, people will come just to get smarter at what they do.
And so we think about “get a job,” but also “get better, get smarter, be more successful.” And being more successful doesn’t always mean getting a job. It could mean ... I just heard yesterday from someone who said, “I wrote these posts and I got two speaking opportunities.”
Right, but for LinkedIn the company, you just want them more engaged generally. Put it this way: Facebook wants people engaged so they can eventually show them ads. Right? That’s not what LinkedIn does, and that’s not really where you guys are headed.
Well, we’ll do two things. We’ll do three things. We show them ads, so that’s one thing. And so you might say, if someone wants to reach — when people buy ads on LinkedIn, they’re buying ads for a specific community. I want to reach software engineers in Minnesota. And they can do that. And we need software engineers from Minnesota to be on LinkedIn, contributing, reading, so they can see those ads in their feed. They also might want to get jobs. That’s part of it.
But you know, recruiters make up 60 percent of our revenue. So if you are Oracle and you’re buying recruiting seats for LinkedIn, you want to have access to all of this LinkedIn data. Let’s say that you’re hiring someone who’s just graduating from college. You’re a recruiter and you’re looking at all of these resumes, essentially, these profiles of people. Someone who’s written a post or has shared content, the recruiter gets much more information about that person.
Right, right, so you want me — or whomever — more engaged with LinkedIn broadly. So when the Oracle recruiter comes in, they’ve got a better pool of people to look at and they know more about that pool, and it makes it more valuable to that audience.
That is one leg of the stool.
Is there another acronym? Or there’s a stool.
[laughs] No, this is all I got, this is a stool. One part of it is the recruiter, and the second one is ads, and then subscriptions [are] the other big business.
Right, got it. I’ll stop grilling you about the business model. But it is interesting. Because it is this really big publishing platform. A lot of people would like to have a publishing platform as big as yours, but it’s not Facebook, it’s not Twitter, you’re doing something different.
So I was thinking about how you guys are different [from] them. One way that’s different is we just passed through an entire election cycle and there was nothing controversial that came out of LinkedIn. There’s no fake news there, there’s no one yelling racist comments. I’m assuming both candidates probably put something up there at some point? Did Trump submit something?
Trump never did come.
Not his thing?
[Ted] Cruz is on there. Hmm, who else? [Marco] Rubio, I think, was on.
And so the reason we’re not reading about fake news on LinkedIn, the reason we don’t have to worry about people doing hate speech on LinkedIn, is what? It’s a professional network? People are using their real names?
That’s a big one. When you write or share or comment on LinkedIn, your boss sees it, your employees see it, your future business partners see it. So people tend to be much more careful about what they say. It’s fascinating to watch how self-policing LinkedIn is. When people start talking about politics, you will see this flood of comments beneath what they are writing, saying, “This isn’t Facebook, please don’t put that here — this is LinkedIn, please talk about business.” This is not the company saying it at all. It’s users.
Right, you’re not discouraging people who are saying, “This is not the place for this sort of thing.”
Right. Now, we have certain rules in place. There are terms of service, and you can say, “This is not a professional conversation, please remove it.” We also, though, have — because we’re an editorial and algorithmic operation — largely kept a lot of the fake news out of it. It is very hard to input any kind of fake news on LinkedIn. You can share it, but it won’t go wide. First of all, if you share it, you can see exactly who shared it. It is always tied to your identity. So you have to be someone who’s comfortable saying, “I have now shared this fake news that has nothing to do with the business world.”
Although that’s not slowing it down on Facebook, right?
I think it’s not because it’s not your professional identity.
People are saying awful things on Facebook with their real name attached to it.
And I wonder, though, if that changes when you enter the workplace — what people say at work versus what they say at home are just two different things.
They’ve got some dividing line in their head even if they’re not even conscious about it. And some people are conscious about it.
So did you guys see a spike in traffic and engagement, like a lot of other publishing companies did in the fall? Or not really?
We saw a spike in content about the election. And a lot of people writing about what they were going to do, what a Trump administration would mean to business, what it would mean to protecting their workforces. A lot of open letters. Man, really, open letters had a great year this year.
So people were doing politics there.
People were doing politics, but again, you would then see the comments, people saying, “Why am I seeing this on here?” And I would talk to people who were writing it, asking whether they should be writing this kind of stuff on LinkedIn. My take was always, look, if you want to write about policy, that’s awesome. That’s essential. Write about what the future is of Obamacare. Or what changes in a Trump administration, how is that going to affect net neutrality. Those are the kind of topics, if you want to geek out on that kind of stuff on LinkedIn, it blows up because you get the right experts weighing in, pushing back and telling you what the right answer maybe should be.
If you were just going to say, “Trump’s a terrible guy,” “Hillary Clinton is a cheater and should be in jail,” that kind of stuff dies on LinkedIn.
What about “Hillary Clinton runs a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor?”
No pizza. I don’t want to jinx myself, but pizzagate, that hashtag has not shown up on LinkedIn.
All right. During the commercial break I’m going to go check LinkedIn, see if we can find some pizzagate stories.
I’m just realizing I probably shouldn’t have said that. Now we’ll find something in the dark reaches. [PK laughs]
We’ll be right back.
Back here with Dan Roth, whose title I keep forgetting. I call him the most powerful man in business journalism. He works at LinkedIn.
I love that, that’s my new title. It’s executive editor, but I like yours better.
I met you because we were fact checkers at Forbes magazine back when there was a Forbes magazine. I guess there still is one.
A long time ago. You had a much more successful career. You moved up through Fortune and Wired. You were a great writer, still are a great writer.
But you had a great career in business journalism, and then at one point you were managing fortune.com. You seem like the kind of guy who might be the editor of Fortune Magazine at some point. And then you ended up at LinkedIn. How’d you get to LinkedIn?
It’s a long path, but I’ll take you back to kind of the beginning of it.
Because the path looks pretty linear up until the LinkedIn part, right? You’re moving up various mastheads, you’re doing great work, you do great business profiles, you wrote a great Trump story, I’ll ask you about that in a minute. And it’s a narrow path, right? There’s not a lot of people who can rise to the top of these publications, but you were on that track.
It was a path that made a lot of sense to me in a certain era. So when we got into magazine writing, there was a very clear career ladder for magazine journalists. You start as a fact checker, you start writing bigger pieces, you then decide whether you’re an editor or whether you’re a writer, you pick which path you’re going to go on. I used to go back and forth between being a writer and editor.
I was at Forbes and then I went to Fortune, I was at Fortune for eight years, I was a tech editor for a number of years, and then I went fully into writing. Went to Portfolio, helped start Portfolio magazine at Conde Nast.
R.I.P. Portfolio. Then, I went to Wired. I was writing these big feature stories, it was a great job, I’d do four features a year and they were awesome stories.
You wrote four stories a year.
Four stories a year. It was phenomenal. When the Kazaa guys were starting Skype, I traveled with them through Europe to see what they were creating. None of us knew what it was going to turn into. Shai Agassi, when he was going to launch Better Place, I spent all this time with him.
And the idea was you’d spend months on these things, they’d be multiple thousands of words, you weren’t expected to blog on the side.
Right, no, that was it.
“Just deliver us four awesome stories.”
Exactly. And when I was at Wired doing this, the No. 2 at Wired, a guy named Bob Cohn, every single thing we did — he was the kind of soul of the place, and he left to go to theatlantic.com and be the editor of theatlantic.com. This was in 2007, I think. And at the time we were just shocked because — and this is hard to realize now, but that was a demotion. That was a weird step for someone to take.
Yeah, the websites were still JV.
Right, exactly. And I was talking to Bob about it, and Bob was like, “This is the future. This is not just the future, this is actually the present. And the door’s going to close very shortly for high-level people in the print world to become high-level people in the dot-com world. At some point, there will be enough digital natives that the print people will no longer be able to make that transition.”
Right, because there was a period, we’re nearing the end of it now, where you’d say, “If I really want to up my website, I’ve got to go hire somebody from the New York Times or the Atlantic or the New Yorker.” And more and more people are saying, “Well, we don’t need to do that — in fact, that might be a bad idea.”
That’s right. That was a total eye-opener to me. It was like, of course that’s what’s going to happen. All my news, I’m reading online. These magazines are not going to [survive]. This is not the way the media world is going to look.
And Wired, this is during the financial crisis, Wired was having cutbacks and I realized that I’m a polar bear, I’m going to be jumping from smaller ice floe to smaller ice floe as a magazine writer. And so Fortune had closed down its website and was restarting it. And I talked to Andy Serwer who was the editor of Fortune, said, “I’d love to come in and be the editor of fortune.com.” I had no digital cred at all [but I] put together a plan, got hired there. And that was a very deliberate move to do exactly what Bob had done.
Right, gotta get in on this internet thing.
[laughs] Exactly, this internet thing. And while I was there ...
So that all still makes sense. You’re still a guy writing and editing business. You’re still connected to big media companies.
Yeah, and now I’m part of the future. And I’m like, “All right, great, I’m digital. I’m good to go. I’ve got three kids, I’m going to be able to support them for a while.”
And then I went to San Francisco to go meet with advertisers — you have to go and do meet-and-greets with advertisers. And one of the guys I met with was a San Francisco ad boss, took me to lunch with someone who was in ad tech, and this guy said, “Oh, you know, great to meet with you, just so you know, I’ve just put together a way to be able to sell to exactly your audience across thousands of different websites.”
He’s not saying this as a threat, but it is a threat.
No, yeah, he was just like, “This is really cool. I can now sell ... I know people come to Fortune, buy fortune.com, because they want to reach people with 100,000+ household income who are men in their 30s and I can do exactly the same thing at a tenth your cost.” And he’s just kind of throwing it out there.
Right, so what he’s saying is, “I’m in a business where the plan is to eviscerate your business and take some of the margin.”
He doesn’t think that’s threatening to you, because he’s not really thinking it through.
Right, he’s just chatting.
And this is the way he’s talking to his clients and he’s talking to his investors. But this is, “We are going to destroy traditional media and we’re going to suck up their audience.”
It’s not just traditional media, it was digital media too.
Right. “Any kind of media where they’re spending money and taking time to develop and create a brand, we’re just going to basically suck up all the data and leave the brand as sort of a desiccated host.”
Exactly. “This brand no longer is going to be able to help you sell.” And so then once again I was like ...
Did you pick up on what he was saying?
As he was saying it, I was like, “I think I’ve made this move because I’m now part of the future, but if the advertisers don’t think this is the future, it’s not the future. It doesn’t make any difference.”
Guess what! You’re still a polar bear, you’ve gotta keep jumping.
Exactly. When I was at Fortune, one of the things we were launching was an app for salespeople. It’s called the Fortune 500 Plus. It’s this thing I developed with Josh Quittner, who went to Flipboard. And I came to LinkedIn at one point to talk about using LinkedIn APIs for it.
And LinkedIn at this point is a job network.
A job site, exactly.
There’s no content there.
There was a little bit. LinkedIn at the time had started to use the Twitter Firehose. [It] had access to the Twitter hose. Now, people could combine their Twitter accounts with their LinkedIn accounts, and you would go on there and see what people were tweeting.
The idea for my app was, if you were a salesperson and you’re trying to sell to Oracle, you walk in and meet with your Oracle rep, and you can see exactly what he’s been tweeting. And you would use your LinkedIn data to help you do that. And at that meeting, I met Jeff Weiner, the CEO, and I don’t even know how much longer it was, but a couple weeks later, maybe, he approached me and said, “We’re going to be pushing much harder into media.” I don’t even remember how he phrased it, but it was something like, “We are going to become a professional publisher.”
And what happens when some who’s not in the publishing business says, “We’re going to get into the publishing business,” to you. Do you take that seriously?
No, I definitely didn’t take it seriously.
Jeff Weiner is a persuasive guy, but it didn’t register.
Very persuasive, but it wasn’t even my mind-set yet. I hadn’t made that move to think what this could even look like.
And then I just started sitting with it. At the time, Fortune was part of CNN Money, and we were having these constant discussions about stuff we wanted to launch, and there were just not enough resources to launch anything. You wanted to change the website, it took forever and there were always problems. It occurred to me that what we were trying to do was ... it was a tech game, and we were a media company trying to figure out technology. And here is Jeff Weiner saying, “We are a tech company trying to figure out media,” and that just seemed like a much better bet to me.
So what did you need to do to get comfortable? Because the cynical/skeptical/just conservative view of a thing like that is, even if Jeff Weiner means well, they’re not in the media business. They don’t know what they’re doing. And maybe he really wants to do this and he’s going to put resources behind it, but also maybe he’s going to try it and. after six months. it turns out it wasn’t a good thing and we’re going to transition to something else, give it away. It seems like an incredibly risky jump.
I felt like it was a risk. I agree with you, and I think that it felt like a risk worth taking. I figured that, look, I’ll go to LinkedIn, I’ll learn how a tech company works.
And by the way, they’re public, right? So it’s not like you’re getting in before the IPO.
That’s right, exactly, it’s already happened.
You’re not going to get a windfall from this.
Yeah, it was a month after the IPO, I think, this happened. So I was already too late. Or it looked like I was too late. I wasn’t doing it for the money. I was thinking about my career: “Look, I could spend two years, I’ll spend two years at LinkedIn. Even if this thing’s a disaster and it doesn’t work out the way I think it’s going to, I will have learned how a tech company works and that will benefit me when I get back into media. And, best-case scenario, it works phenomenally and it lives up to this image that Jeff has for it, and it’s going to be amazing.
So your thought was, “Maybe I can jump back. I’m not leaving media, I’m still in media, and if goes to zero I can come back and I can say, ‘By the way, I get tech now.’”
Right. And I remember having these conversations with Jeff about this. And saying, “Look, if I leave media, I can’t go back.” And he said, “Why?” I said, “That’s not the way it works. When you leave you’re leaving. This is the priesthood. You don’t just leave and come back.” And Jeff said, “Well, that’s stupid. Why is that the case?”
Yeah, he’s right.
And I was like, “Oh, you’re right. Why is that the case?”
You can totally come back.
Of course you can go back.
Do you want to come back?
[laughs] Right, I’m good.
Come work at Recode? So I’ve told this story before, I think I told it onstage so I don’t think I’m speaking totally out of school, but I went and saw you, maybe a year into your job there, and you were not happy.
It was a hard transition.
And you picked up a chart and you showed it to me, it had a bunch of different lines, it was a graph, and said, “Can you read this?” And I said, “No. I’m a liberal arts major, I have no idea.” And he goes, “I can’t read it either, but everyone else in this company knows what this means and they can read it. And I’m a writer and everyone else here is not a writer and I can’t figure out how to make this work.” And it looked like you were going to have to leave. So what happened? How did it work for you?
Thank you for bring up that very painful moment.
It’s a good — what do we call it? A learning ...
A learning moment.
Yeah, that’s right.
There were so many things that changed. One is that I started learning how to speak the language and I started learning what ... What I thought I was going to learn at LinkedIn has been totally true, but I’ve also learned way beyond that. One example is learning how engineers and product managers think about what they’re building.
Which is radically different than the way you ...
At least the way I approach something isn’t the way you used to approach things. How is it different?
So as an example, I remember being in a meeting with an engineer one time, we were discussing putting news into — there are various modules when you’re on your LinkedIn feed that will have news in it. And there’s always a question of, should an editor be able to rank the content that shows up in this module. So the question is, if there’s something that’s breaking news, should an editor push something to the very top of this module and say, “This is breaking.”
That’s literally what an editor is supposed to do, is say, “This is important.”
Yeah, exactly. So I’m in this meeting with an engineer, and I’m presenting this very philosophical argument to him about, “Look, this is what an editor does, and you put this thing at the top and this is how it works, and I can tell you what is important and what’s not and this is what people are going to talk about and this is the thing.”
We’re going back and forth, it’s like a half-hour meeting, and about 15 minutes into it, he’s like, “Wait, all I need from you is instructions for how to turn this into an actual product.” We weren’t even arguing about the philosophical nature, he just needed to understand if he was going to make this into a project, if he was going to code this.
“Just tell me what the specs look like.”
What are the specs? And it took a while to realize, all right, what language are we speaking here? Are we talking philosophically or are we [not]? And there are certain times where you’re talking philosophically, and there are other times where you’re just saying, “If we do this, what are the trade-offs? What happens if we do this and not that?”
The other part about being a journalist is that everything is important. Anywhere I’ve worked, LinkedIn, Wired, anywhere, everything is of the utmost importance. It’s “drop everything,” you’re always on fire. You can’t operate like that when you’re at a tech company. You have roadmaps and engineers have to work over a certain period of time. And you’ve got to think, “If I build this, how does it affect this other product?”
“And if I ask you to stop working on that so you can build this, how’s that going to work?”
Exactly. [laughs] I remember having a meeting ...
I’m starting to run into some of this now.
Oh really? It’s fascinating.
Just for little things that seem like, “Well, obviously this should get fixed, because it’s broken.” And they say, “It is. And we’ll put it in the queue.”
And it’s a real challenge to like get it moved up in the queue and explain that process, and there’s a method to it, right? There’s logic behind the difficulty in getting that stuff done.
Yeah, and learning how to prioritize has been something that I think will stay with me forever now, and it’s surprising that it took being in my 40s before I realized how important that was. But you start realizing that not everything ... you look at the world differently, because before you go through a process like that, you pick up a product and you’re like, “These idiots, why did they make this thing this way?”
Once you’re actually making the sausage, you realize that there are trade-offs for everything and you have to figure out what the right trade-offs are. So the discussions I have now are about ... we’re all on the same page about how media works on LinkedIn. And now it’s about what kind of trade-offs we’re willing to make to do what we want to do.
And did you have to cross some hump within LinkedIn to say, “This product’s working, now it’s doing what it’s supposed to.”? When did that click in? Or was it always working?
It’s a great question. We started with something called LinkedIn Today, which was a curation program. If you look on a website and you see an “In” share button below a story, that would take the information about who was sharing what and it would share it out. So we could see that there were people who were in the financial services industry reading a particular story, and we would say, “This is great for everyone in financial services.” And a starter that says curation play.
That was a tough one because to move in that direction, to make a better curation, people don’t totally notice if you’re 20 percent better than you were yesterday. They only really notice when you mess up. When you give someone who’s in financial services …
You mean the reader?
The reader. Yeah. When you give someone in financial services a story about McDonald’s changing their menu, they notice that we messed up. So that wasn’t moving the needle.
Then, we launched original content on LinkedIn, and that’s when everything changed for me. We launched the influencer program, which at the time was 150 people. Only 150 people could write content, long-form content, on LinkedIn. And it changed for me, because this was the first time that someone said, “Hey, Dan, this is your expertise, go and do this.”
So the original idea was, “We’re going to be an almost-traditional newspaper and we’re going to tell you about news stories that are important,” and it switched over to, “We’re going to bring interesting people who are going to talk about news but also things that are not news.”
Yeah. Originally, it was just curation, it was exactly that. But the second one became, “What if we become more about views? What if we can take what people know, what they see, if we can get Richard Branson explaining how he takes the risks he’s taking. If we can get Jamie Dimon to talk about why he thinks this regulation should go away or how he runs his business?” That is something that people can’t get otherwise and professionals will gain from having heard this.
So that took a couple years, for that to click in.
This came from my boss, Ryan Roslansky, who’s the head of consumer product. [He] had an idea of doing this. It was about a year into being at LinkedIn, a little bit over a year, I think.
Was there anything that LinkedIn guys wanted to do that made sense in their orderly engineer brain, and you said, “Oh no, no, no, we can’t do that”?
I can’t think of any time that there was something that was so out of whack. You know, I’ll give you one example: In the early days we’d have frequent talks about the value of press releases. And you would have engineers saying, “Well, we’re looking at PR Newswire, Business Wire, and this content, this is clearly about this company, so this should go at the top.” I would have conversations with them, my team would have conversations, saying, “There’s a value in press releases, but it’s not news. Don’t mistake this with news. This is a company giving its point of view.”
“It’s not that we shouldn’t have it. We should just know what it is.”
Yeah. But if you put this at the top of someone’s feed and say, “This is the most important thing going on about a company,” you’re making a big mistake.
And that was an education. “What do you mean by that?” They just hadn’t ... And it’s not that there was any kind of ill will, it’s just [that] no one thinks this way.
I know this is not your thing, but why do you think it took them so long to figure [out] that shoving email after email after email in my inbox about someone in my network was negative, was a bad idea? It took them years to come around to that. LinkedIn was famously spamming.
And now it’s not. So they changed it.
Right. This is before my time, when this was happening, but my understanding is that when you’re in a growth phase and you’re thinking like growth hackers, there are certain things you do to grow the company. Email was a phenomenally successful way to grow the company. There were negative implications of sending people that much email.
But there was still a bar going up and to the right, or a line going up and to the right.
Well, at some point there was, and I think Jeff completely owned this, that this is not a great experience, and if people don’t have a great experience they’re not going to come back. So there’s been a concerted effort to remove email as a … y’know. You don’t hear the late-night comedians making the email jokes about LinkedIn anymore. That’s the measure that we measure. So that’s a really good thing.
Yeah, that’s messed up. Maybe they’ll make ... Well, they are going to make new Microsoft jokes.
We’ll figure out what those are. You’re actually pals with one of those comedians.
With Seth Meyers.
With Seth Meyers.
Yeah. We went to college together.
It’s a cool group, right? It’s you, Seth, Mike Lazerow ...
Mike Lazerow. Pete Grosz, do you know Pete? He’s in the Sonic ads. Do you ever watch “Veep”?
He’s the oil lobbyist. Sydney, um ...
Oh yeah! He’s great.
We all went to college together.
And so Mike becomes an entrepreneur, Seth becomes a comedian, you become the LinkedIn guy. Do they give you shit about that?
You know, first of all, Mike writes for LinkedIn, so there is a ...
He gives you content, he doesn’t give you shit.
Exactly. And Seth, when I was at Portfolio, Seth used to do the back page of Portfolio, like funny things. This is before he became as big as he is now, he wouldn’t do it now. No, these guys ... they probably do behind my back.
But to my face, they realize ... they don’t mess with the 3 Cs, they know I’m going to drop the 3 Cs on them.
No, real friends tease you in front of your face, that’s how that works. [DR laughs]
So I was looking at your Trump article from 2004. A big, long feature piece on Trump. It’s great, because it really holds up well, it’s well-written — obviously, because you wrote it. But it gives you a good sense of his personality in that he’s blowhard-y and blustery and nimble with facts. I’m sorry, that’s the wrong way of putting it. Lies a lot, but may not even be aware that he’s lying. It certainly doesn’t have the sense of menace that a lot of people feel about Donald Trump, myself included, now.
You spent some time with him to do a piece like that, right? You’re on the plane with him, you’re hanging out with him. Do you get, and now you probably have not [been] hanging out with him, but do you get a sense that his personality has changed since 2004, when you wrote that piece?
I actually get the opposite take, which is that it is ... I think when I see him talking, it is exactly the same, he seems like the same guy. Yeah. Just on a much bigger stage.
Before, he’s doing things like calling up a supplier for one of his buildings and yelling at him. Sort of as a show for you guys in the audience.
Exactly. It was clear he was like putting on a show the entire time.
And now just a different audience and it’s the entire world.
He knows how to read a room incredibly well. But he’s also ... when we were doing the story, he was very focused on this idea that I would realize that he was successful as a business person. I went in, this story was 2004, it was right when “The Apprentice” had become the biggest show in America, we wanted to do a piece on: What is he like as a business person?
And here was this guy who was incredibly successful, clearly very successful, and he went out of his way to try to make sure that I, the reporter, realized he was successful. Showing me clip after clip of articles written about his golf courses. And I had never had an experience where someone had tried so baldly to let me know that they were important and other people thought they were successful.
And you’ve interviewed lots of big, bold-faced names, none that seem that needy. Do you remember, did you deal with him on the “rich list” at Forbes?
Who? Oh, Trump?
No, no, I would just hear the stories, [like] when he’d call Pete Newcomb and complain that we were devaluing him.
It was the whole ritual he would do. He would call up the guy who ran “The Richest 400 Americans” and they would have a back-and-forth that went on for months, that would involve, like, Trump would take him out and give him a helicopter tour and show him around the properties. A lot of the things were not properties, they were, like, patches of dirt. He would say, “That’s worth $2 billion.” It would go back and forth. And basically, in the end, I think Trump would say, “I’m worth $6 billion,” and Forbes would just sort of shrug and go, “It’s $3, leave it there.”
Give him a haircut every year.
So your piece, when you wrote about it, I mean — you have a skeptical take at the time, like, “Well, maybe he’s not worth as much, and maybe some of his businesses aren’t going to work as well.” But it’s still largely positive about it.
The feeling was — you gotta remember, in the end, when you stripped everything back, he was a reality-TV host with some hotel properties and some golf courses. There was nothing super-negative to say. It was, “Hey, here’s a guy.” It’s like, “He’s having fun doing this and he’s fun to watch.”
And the last line is him sort of shrugging and going, “I’m just a fucking businessman.”
And what was his reaction to the piece?
I saw him about a month later. He used to call me every day when I was working on this story, and then the calls stopped as soon as the piece came out.
And he would call as himself, he wasn’t calling as his fake publicist.
I never got that. And in fact, the first time, when I pitched the story, I got his assistant and I said, “I’m Dan Roth from Fortune, I’m interested in doing a story on Donald Trump,” and assumed I would get his PR person. A second later, “Dan, this is Donald.” [PK laughs] And there was no fake person in there. So I saw him about a month later and he said he thought the story was somewhat fair.
That’s high praise from him right?
Did he give you ... he famously does the thing with the silver Sharpie.
I got none of that.
None of that.
None of that.
Was he on the cover?
He was on the cover.
So there you go. He was probably just happy he was on the cover.
When I pitched the story to him, he said he wasn’t going to talk to me. And I said “That’s fine, I’m going to do the story anyway, and I hope that you’ll talk to me for the fact-checking at least. Oh and by the way, this is a cover story.”
And then he said, “Oh, you know, I’m flying to LA tomorrow, why don’t you fly with me?” So that was like, within half a second, suddenly all doors opened.
So in that story, he doesn’t use a computer. Like it’s not plugged in, it’s on the side, I think that’s still the case. But you’ve been able to get Richard Branson and Bill Gates. When you’re an online publication, and now you’re an online publication that’s part of LinkedIn, do you still find that there’s difficulty getting a certain kind of CEO to engage with you, or do most of them now get what it is?
It has gotten easier and easier to do, and people just get it now. An example: I just interviewed Indra Nooyi about, I don’t know, a month ago — the CEO of Pepsi. Pepsi was releasing their second 10-year plan and she wanted to release it on LinkedIn. Howard Schultz, when he wanted to announce that he was going to be giving free college educations to all Starbucks baristas, we got the call saying, “Howard wants to debut this on LinkedIn.” Because they know they can reach the right and a massive audience. And in both those cases, I went and did interviews with both those people to talk about what they were doing.
Right, and you do these whole packaged things now, where you’ll write stories about them and there’s video and they like all that.
We have them write, they put the video at the top of it, and then all the comments start coming in. And part of this is when we go to them and say, “You have to understand, we’re not going to tell you what the questions are in advance.”
This is actual journalism.
“This is real journalism going on. Here are the topics I probably want to cover, but we’re going to come in and talk about whatever’s going on in the world, and you can engage with it or not.”
And do you think there’s an audience within LinkedIn for the 4,000-, 6,000-, 10,000-word pieces that you used to do at Wired, at Fortune? Do you have an itch to do that?
I think there is. There might be. I do not have an itch to do that.
You know what? Those pieces take a long time and there’s so much more ... I think my system is now operating at a totally different speed. I don’t think I could do that kind of sit-back-and-spend-a-lot-of-time ...
I remember talking, I was working for Henry Blodget, it was then Silicon Alley Insider, and you thought you might want to write about it at Wired. And it took months just to get the pitch through. And I thought, “Oh my god, I can’t believe …” And that used to be life for me, too, like you have to get approval from various people, and yes, you may now go do the piece, and that’s going to take X number of weeks. I can’t imagine that world anymore, it still exists.
Yeah, no, but it’s crazy. And at the time it was you, Henry and Dan Frommer who’s now the editor of Recode.
Now my boss.
We just shuffled the org chart, I now report to Dan.
[laughs] It is crazy.
He used to report to you, right? At that point, right? Was he reporting to you or were you peers, or colleagues I guess?
I think he probably reported to me. I don’t think I was managing, but yeah.
That story was a very early story and BI was really just getting started at that point. You guys had kind of just changed your name from Alley Insider to Business Insider. You were out of the loading dock. But you were still sharing space.
We kept getting pushed aside by Gilt Groupe, which was going to be the big company. Things change.
So I think that those kinds of stories do well on LinkedIn. I don’t particularly have a desire to do those kinds of stories anymore, but I love promoting them. And we make a very big deal, the editors, when they are promoting stories and there’s various different ways those stories show up on LinkedIn. Those kind of long-form big-business features get a lot of love.
So we’ve been talking about stories, that’s what people are submitting to you. There’s a big push in media to go figure out video, primarily from companies that want to get some of that advertising money.
It seems like you do a little bit of video like you just talked about, like you’ll go film something with Howard Schultz. Are you intentionally not doing much video, because there’s not an ad business there for you?
I think we can be a little bit more thoughtful in how we go after video, because it is not an ad play. It’s just an engagement play. If the professional world wants to engage, wants to get their ideas from video, we should be doing video. If they want to shoot video and put it up there, we should be doing video.
But you’ve seen a lot of publishers who go after video purely because of the higher CPMs, and you do stuff that’s not in the service of your readers. If people aren’t watching it, what’s the point in doing it? So yes, we want to do video and we’re doing video, and video shows up on LinkedIn. But not in a way that is just trying to go after [clicks]. It’s not a gold rush.
Right, it seems like there’s probably a play for, like, get lessons or testimonials, but you’re going to figure that out on your own time, there’s not a rush for it.
We have a studio. Members are sharing videos all the time, publishers share videos, the editorial team shoots videos, we do about three videos a day at this point. We do a daily news wrap-up every morning, we do a daily news kind of agenda-setter every morning, we have people in the studio all the time. Like Spencer Rascoff just came by and we talked about his latest quarterly earnings and we talked about lessons for real estate agents. And there’s Lynda, or LinkedIn Learning as it’s called now, so you’ve got full courses. If you want to learn how to program Java or use Photoshop, you can take courses on that. So there’s all kinds of video all around LinkedIn. But chasing this one sort of news video is not a core part of who we are now.
That puts you in a very rare place right now, since everyone else is chasing it.
Right. Are you chasing it?
Not me personally.
But we just hired Gavin Purcell from NBC.
Jimmy Fallon’s guy.
Yeah, sure. I follow him on Twitter.
So he’s the guy that’s going to figure it out for Vox Media.
So that’s pretty cool.
That’s very cool.
We’re all excited about that. But yeah, I do audio.
I love audio, I think audio’s the way to go.
Me too. And this is a fun interview.
Good. Well, Peter, thank you very much. I appreciate you having me.
Thanks for joining us.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.