Lionel Barber has been the editor the Financial Times since 2005. On a visit to New York earlier this spring, he invited me in to the paper’s U.S. headquarters in New York for a chat about business-side and editorial matters. Here is a heavily edited version of the conversation. Transcription by CJR intern Chris K. Massie.
Dean Starkman: The FT came up with a strategy called “digital first,” which in the U.S. actually has more than one meaning. In some circles, it’s associated with free content, which is not at all what the FT is about. When you talk about “digital first,” what do you mean?
Lionel Barber: We’re largely talking about the way the news is produced and processed. That might sound very technical and boring, but you have a computer production system, which has the capacity to generate seamlessly content that can be adapted very easily for the Web and print. So it’s an efficiency term. Also, the second and crucial step, we’re trying to define the differences between the print and the Web form. This is an evolving debate. The way I think about the Web is, the news now. Print has always been a snapshot in time. When I talk about digital first, it’s…the news now—we need to get this up, we need to get the first cut of history, the first cut of stories, online.
DS: Does that mean you have to be faster?
LB: We have to be fast. Not faster than everybody else because… we need to be careful about rushing to judgment or pursuing the last rumor. That’s dangerous. We’ve seen the risks and perils and pitfalls of that just recently in the Boston bombing. I think we need to be very timely on some types of news. That’s why we’re launching fastFT, which is, in effect, instant market insights written by a team of reporters. So we’re being very timely, offering timely interpretations of important market moving events.
DS: Is that different from what you’re doing now?
LB: We don’t do it in this form. We are going to have instant market insight and some richer content around it.
DS: And you’ll charge for it? Is that something extra?
LB: No, that’ll be part of the subscription. It’s designed to deepen engagement with the website—with FT.com—in order to sustain our subscription business, which is crucial for our business model and our performance.
DS: On the digital subscription business, we had a great breakfast with [FT.com managing director] Rob Grimshaw, who mentioned that you’ve now got more digital subscriptions than print subscriptions, and you get more revenue from subscriptions generally than you do from ads. The proportion of ads-to-subscriptions across the business used to be 80/20. Is this a conscious shift toward relying on readers rather than advertisers—and digital more than print?
LB: The strategy dates to board decisions in 2006, in which Rob and I and [FT Group CEO] John Ridding, and other members participated. That was a very important moment where we created a new business model, which was based on: 1) building a subscription business; 2) the metered model, now adopted by The New York Times; 3) raising prices; 4) not being disaggregated, because were selling our content to Factiva, which was then dealing with clients. We just said, “We’re undoing that.” Those were absolutely seminal decisions, which have underpinned the success of the FT strategy. The last big decision was obviously to go with HTML5, our web app. Now we’re plotting, if you like, a second phase. Part of that is, as you say, reducing our exposure to advertising and building subscription revenue. Of course, you must not draw the conclusion that we don’t care about advertising. We definitely like advertisers. The print advertising is still very important to our business. [But] it is relatively less important than it was five years ago. Look at it like a seesaw. Print advertising revenues, yeah, drifting down, and these things are coming up on the subscription revenues. But it’s a balance.
DS: Five years out, what would those percentages look like? They’re 50/50 now.
LB: I don’t know. I mean, just think about it as a slowly tilting seesaw. We don’t want violent directions in either way.
DS: I see that about 30% of your traffic is mobile. I guess that’s also expected to go…
LB: It’s going up. I mean the desktop is clearly an important part of the multiple platforms in which we’re distributing content. But mobiles, smartphones, tablets are increasingly important. We’re at 34%. So this is like a plane taking off at Reagan Airport. Maybe we should say La Guardia.