A chat with Lionel Barber

The editor of the Financial Times on what it means to be "digital first" and other topics

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.

DS: Well, yeah, we’re in New York. So mobile will be an increasing part of the digital piece and digital an increasing part of the overall piece of subscriptions.

LB: That’s right. But that’s why I talk about a rebalancing.

DS:. And there’s no end point where it makes sense to stop printing the paper? A lot of papers are trying to figure when and if that happens.

LB: I never get into this debate because, first of all, we know that print is valuable. Second, it’s absolutely obvious to me that a certain class, section of people, want to read the printed newspaper. I’ve just spent three days in New York. I’ve had interviews with at least five top Wall Streeters who run their firms, and they either buy one or two copies of the newspaper. They subscribe. They get them delivered to the office and to their home. And they don’t want to read it on their desktop. They read it in print. And, interestingly, two of them were saying they really believe that reading a newspaper is a deeper form of reading because you concentrate more on what’s on the printed page.

DS: I have no doubt that’s true.

LB: Yeah, I don’t know how you’d prove it. But that’s an important insight. I call it, “lean back, lean forward.” By the way, coming into work now, I look at the iPad, and sometimes I look at the newspaper…It’s a different kind of engagement, isn’t it? The engagement with the tablet or with the desktop, with the Web, it is slightly more—I emphasize the word, slightly—more skittish.

DS: Is the main sort of attraction of the print paper going to be longer, in-depth things that will be able to stay fresh for…

LB: Not necessarily, no. That’s one of the great intellectual and journalistic challenges which I’m relishing at the moment, is to reinvent, somewhat, the newspaper. That means actually you need to package information in the paper in an engaging way. And I would submit that, if you look at the FT, look at the use of graphics, particularly where we have hired a brilliant guy from the Guardian, Kevin Wilson, more than five years ago, who’s had a huge impact on the Financial Times. We have transformed how we tackle subjects. And, the Web has influenced how we use design and graphics to convey difficult themes. The next point is, we pride ourselves in the FT in writing very concisely, but with context.

We’re slightly less fussy. I respect American newspapers and American journalism enormously. You know I spent time at an American newspaper [as a visiting fellow at The Washington Post in the 1980s]. We’re snappy. We have attribution, but we allow a little bit more comment-stroke-judgments to be made in the news form. And I think we can do that because we’re trusted. So you can have really quite rich, informative 400-word articles. Then there’s the long form, yes. One of the most gratifying things that I’ve seen in the last year or so is that some of the most read articles in the Financial Times have been the long form.

DS: It surprises you, right?

LB: The “Death in Singapore” story was massively read. “Amazon Unpacked,” this amazing piece written by Sarah O’Connor, about what it’s like to work in an Amazon [warehouse]. That was hugely read. So you need to have that. But if you have just long form throughout the newspaper, people are just going to go to sleep or say it’s too daunting. Lastly: thoughtful comment offering a global perspective with brand names from Larry Summers to Martin Wolf, drilling into areas in which we have specialist expertise, like macroeconomics and the implications of the global financial crisis, people will come to us and come to the newspaper because of that.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , ,