January 13, 2013

A Veteran Journalist Takes Over the Pew Research Center

Alan Murray left a top job at The Wall Street Journal to head the polling-and-analysis organization.

Not many people who start their careers crafting the taut narratives of daily newspaper articles foresee taking jobs that lead them into the even starker black-and-white world of polling data. But Alan Murray, recently named president of the Pew Research Center, has made the leap from his job as deputy managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. He’s even excited about it.

“I’d looked at different nonprofit positions over the years, but this one felt right,” says Mr. Murray, who adds that he was approached by a search firm about the job over the summer. The Pew Research Center’s reputation as a fair and objective polling-and-analysis organization drew him in, he says.

“The center has true bipartisan credibility, and that’s rare these days,” he says. “It provides a vital function by offering facts at a time of growing polarization. You can’t even go to a dinner party anymore without people erupting into these arguments. It’s the biggest problem we face in this country.”

Online Expert

Though he started working at the center late last year, Mr. Murray, 58, officially took the helm at the center in January. He replaces Andrew Kohut, who directed polling there since 1996 and became a widely consulted media figure, appearing regularly on National Public Radio and being quoted often in The New York Times and other publications.

Though Mr. Kohut, 70, is stepping down as Pew’s president, he is staying on as a founding director and will expand the organization’s global polling. Mr. Murray sees that as an advantage.

“I’m grateful that he’ll be there to help me,” he says. “I’ve got that going for me, as well as the fact that I’m approaching this job as a journalist, whereas Andy came at it from the perspective of a pollster, a social scientist. I’m sure I’ll have some new ideas to offer.”

Mr. Murray has been credited in recent years with expanding the Web presence and video offerings of The Wall Street Journal, where he also served as executive editor of the paper’s online version. Executives at the Pew Research Center say that his experience with new media will serve the organization well as it tries to reach more people.

“A big plus for him was that we were looking for someone to lead us into the digital future,” says Donald Kimelman, chairman of the Pew Research Center. “Increasingly, we reach more people directly than through traditional media. He’s already overseen a Web site with a lot of traffic.”

Mr. Murray’s journalistic skill as a neutral observer made him an even more attractive candidate. “He’s vigorously nonpartisan, as are we,” says Mr. Kimelman.

Toward Broader Support

Besides devising more ways to let people know about the center’s findings, Mr. Murray will focus on diversifying its sources of support. Today, 90 percent of its $33-million in annual support comes from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

He started working at Pew two months before he took the helm “to see how the nonprofit runs and to develop a strategy to draw other supporters in,” Mr. Murray says. “Our mission of delivering facts is something that’s attractive to many funders.”

That mission is “critical,” he adds, “and not just here in the United States. We’re at a time when the structure of the world is as unclear as it has been for a while. It’s essential that we develop more data so we can understand more about the world, so we can move forward and have conversations based on facts.”

Education: B.A., literature, University of North Carolina; master's degree, economics, London School of Economics

Career highlights: Deputy managing editor and executive editor of the online edition of The Wall Street Journal; co-hosted "Capital Report with Alan Murray and Gloria Borger" on CNBC

Books written: Revolt in the Boardroom: The New Rules of Power in Corporate America; The Wealth of Choices: How the Economy Puts Power in Your Hands and Money in Your Pocket; and, with Jeffrey Birnbaum, Showdown at Gucci Gulch: Lawmakers, Lobbyists, and the Unlikely Triumph of Tax Reform

Salary: The Pew Research Center declined to divulge Mr. Murray's salary. Andrew Kohut, his predecessor, made $442,000 in 2010, according to the organization's informational tax return.

Books read most recently: A World Lit Only by Fire, by William Manchester; Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler; and The Price of Politics, by Bob Woodward