Reality bites as 'FT' rises to challenges of digital age
MEDIA & MARKETINGThe year 1888 was a big one for journalism, bringing the launch of the London Financial Guide – almost immediately renamed as the more familiar Financial Times.
Back then it was a four-page effort, printed on boring old white paper, and billed as the friend of the “Honest Financier and the Respectable Broker”. As target audiences go, this sounds somewhat niche, but it nevertheless enjoyed early success as the parish paper of the City of London. Perhaps the dishonest financiers and brokers of ill-repute fancied something to read over a brandy in the gentleman’s club too.
Yesterday, the Financial Times - printed since 1893 in its now trademark pink to distinguish itself from a competitor – ran to 34 unfashionably broadsheet pages plus a special report on “The World 2013” that managed to fit everything into six pages. And yet you don’t have to be a risk-tolerant, contracts-for-difference-buying market player fond of emerging economy property funds and earnings-light tech stocks to place a punt or 10 on the FT’s print edition shrinking all the way back to zero pages sometime within the next decade. It has made 125 years, but 135, even 130, could be a stretch.
On Monday, Financial Times editor Lionel Barber emailed staff setting out the company’s vision “to reshape the FT for the digital age”. It makes interesting if ominous reading for employees of other newspapers, who rightly regard the FT as better adapted and more adaptable to digital than most. The FT has gone so far, and now it’s going further, faster.
Much of Barber’s message detailed a synchronous retreat from print practices now viewed as cumbersome and unwieldy.
A “possible move” to a common running order between UK and international editions, limits on the number of changes in the US second edition, a paring back of the UK third edition and an end to “octopus commissioning” were cited.
The octopus bit means “fewer commissioning channels”, every over-managed reporter’s dream. Every frazzled production editor’s dream – “a far more disciplined adherence to copy delivery times” – also found its way onto Barber’s list. It’s something of an old favourite among media groups hoping to control costs (which is all media groups, all of the time).
The FT editor wrapped up his eight-point agenda by mentioning “tighter control of pagination”, adding: “We need to ensure that we are serving a digital platform first, and a newspaper second.”
Print, he noted, is “still a vital source of advertising revenues”. But the consequences of the “newspaper second” line are plain: operationally, print is becoming an afterthought. Digital subscriptions surpassed print circulation in the first half of 2012 and reached 313,000 last September, up 17 per cent annually, while global print circulation in December was 286,000, down 14 per cent year-on-year.
Sooner rather than later, those vital print advertising revenues will join the digital flow. Human resources are already being diverted – the group has announced a voluntary redundancy scheme to cut 35 jobs on the print side, while 10 people are being recruited on the digital side.
“This will be an opportunity for all of us to think harder about a more dynamic and interactive form of FT journalism beyond the printed word,” wrote Barber. Indeed, nothing focuses the mind on the future of journalism quite like a goodbye bash for a colleague who’s been around since what feels like 1888.
The Financial Times should be expected to be ahead of the curve. The ups and downs of equity, currency, bond and commodity markets make financial journalism particularly suitable to online, 24-hour delivery – although, at this stage, it might be better to reverse that sentence and say that financial journalism is especially unsuited to a publishing model with once-a-day print editions at its heart.
Still, Barber’s talk of “wrenching” structural change may prompt a few “uh-ohs” among print media groups that have nothing near as comforting as cash from 313,000-plus digital subscriptions to cushion their bottom lines.
Other uncertainties are specific to the FT. If print is in the ha’penny place within the Financial Times Group, then the group’s position within its parent Pearson is almost as insecure. When a price tag of a cool £1 billion circulated last week, Pearson insisted the FT was not for sale. But its chief financial officer did concede last year that the education publisher would re-examine its ownership of the title “eventually”.
On its own online history, the timeline for the Financial Times stops at 2010. In the two years since, the pace of change has accelerated. 2013 will be brake-free. It’s bad news for octopuses, and good news for honest financiers.