Q&A: Nikki Waller, Editor of Live Journalism & Special Coverage at The Wall Street Journal

Events and live journalism have expanded dramatically in the past five years at The Wall Street Journal, and continue to be big growth areas for its newsroom. We caught up with Nikki Waller, recently appointed editor of Live Journalism & Special Coverage, to learn more about The Journal’s events business and what’s next.

The Idea: Can you give us an overview of your role at The Wall Street Journal?
NW: I’m the executive editor for our live events, setting the storytelling — themes, angles and agendas — and coverage for events like WSJ D.Live, our annual tech conference in Laguna Beach, and our global CEO Council gatherings. It’s my job to make sure we break news onstage and cover the topics and ideas we discuss for an audience far beyond the people in the seats. In addition to live events, I oversee Journal Reports, whose amazingly talented team of editors puts out about 55 special reports every year. We think events and special reports can work together really well — one example of that is Women in the Workplace, a flagship annual report and event that we produce with Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.Org and McKinsey.

What makes a good live journalist? Does the skill-set needed differ from that of a regular reporter or editor?
I led the Journal’s global coverage of management and the workforce before taking on this job, and would say that editors and reporters who lead broad coverage areas and think in terms of themes already have the skill set. A great many editors and reports already excel at live journalism — if you work in an open-plan newsroom you can overhear how colleagues conduct interviews with pacing, tension, and ability to cut to the chase. It’s live journalism all around you.

In live events, you invite interesting people onstage for a conversation conducted by a journalist who is outwardly curious and actively listening. If you’re lucky, sparks fly, news breaks, and everyone feels like they’ve just witnessed a moment.

The challenge is continuing the conversation beyond the ballroom, and making sure it translates to the broader audience online. For example, a fascinating panel conversation can make for less-than-enthralling video, with rare exceptions. We’re experimenting with video formats that capture the same interesting person and ideas we had onstage, but in a way that’s highly consumable on other platforms. Check back with me in a few months on that.

WSJ has expanded its live events business quite a bit in the past five years, and is still growing. Can you speak to how it’s evolved and what’s next?
Live events are growing rapidly for WSJ. Since so much of our communication is mediated by screens, people really relish talking in person and want to be in situations where serendipity can happen. News organizations have especially strong convening power, partly because the interviews onstage are lively, tough, and spontaneous. Speakers and attendees also want to meet and hear from the editors and reporters who gather and break real news. And that demand is only growing stronger.

The Journal’s live brand has been strong for a long time; this year I’m focused on updating our offerings, modernizing the coverage, and bringing more diverse voices and formats to the fore. We want to surprise people and hook new audiences, too. (At an event we held in December, one attendee in the front row had a man bun — I’ll call that progress.)

What is a cool project that you’ve worked on recently? Is there anything interesting you’ve learned (or hope to learn) from it?
Right now, I’m working on The Future of Everything Festival, a three-day event in New York City from May 8–10. It has a dozen different tracks on the Future of AI, Medicine, Work, Art and Equality, and field trips with every track. It combines areas where our reporting is strongest, but is new for us since we’re aiming at the consumer — students, entrepreneurs, doers — along with the C-suite level leader who we typically draw. It is a healthy mix of all those groups, with lively conversations and content. Plus, there will be many robots.

I’m also working through my first budget season, and while less sexy than the Future of AI, it’s proving instructive on how media businesses run. We joke that I’m in charge of the newsroom growth areas, but live journalism is an area with tremendous potential returns, both journalistic and monetary, if we do it right. (Shameless plug: I am hiring right now, so come and help make it happen. Apply here for senior editor, live journalism and here for editor, tech events.)

What is the most interesting thing that you’ve seen from a media outlet other than your own?

So tough to pick just one. I love how The Cut at New York Magazine has grown and become the digital magazine for intelligent women who can engage with essays on the implications of #MeToo to witty takes on face oils or Ina Garten’s husband, Jeffrey. They see their audience. Runner-up is Harvard Business Review, which is innovating around single-subject reports. AI, for Real was one of my favorite reads last year. It attacked a giant business topic from several angles and in many formats, including a video that pitted chef Ming Tsai against Watson in the kitchen, and is a terrific example of a digital multi-story package.

This Spotlight was originally published in the February 5th issue of The Idea. For more Q&As with inside intel like this, subscribe to The Idea, Atlantic Media’s weekly newsletter covering the latest trends and innovations in media.