Among the discomfiting changes sweeping through the financial news business in the U.S. has been the rising influence of what we here at The Audit call the Anglo-Australian model.
The most jarring manifestation was the 2007 purchase of The Wall Street Journal’s parent, Dow Jones & Co., by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which within months had jettisoned the paper’s incumbent editor and installed its own, mostly Anglo-Australian, team led by Robert Thomson.
Almost as important has been the steady rise here of the London-based Financial Times. The salmon-colored broadsheet has seen its circulation (paid print and online) hit 542,000 as of last August, up 3 percent from a year earlier in a bad year, while its U.S. edition has grown to 143,000 from zero when it was first introduced in 1997. In 2001, a Dow Jones executive could still dismiss it as a “a fashion accessory” in this BusinessWeek story; not anymore.
The FT has an outsized impact on the U.S. financial conversation with its scoops, long inside-the-paper analyses, and columns; we’re particular fans of Martin Wolf. Its influence has been most clear, perhaps, in the FT-like innovations the Journal itself has adopted, including a heightened emphasis on breaking news and scoops, shorter stories, fewer in-depth front-page features known as “leders,” a section-front devoted to corporate news, and a transformed “Heard on the Street” column that is now similar to the FT’s Lex section (subscription required; the FT has also attracted attention for its paywall). Thomson, it should be noted, is an FT alumnus.
Lionel Barber has presided over much of this. An FTer since 1985, he headed the U.S. edition from 2002 to 2005, then was named editor of the FT overall. He is credited as a pioneer of the so-called integrated newsroom, in which reporters file continuously across print and digital formats, and for presiding over a shop that is unusually collaborative. An Oxford man, he speaks fluent French and German, has interviewed premiers and presidents, appears on “most influential” lists in Europe, and in a pinch might be a decent stand-in as 007 if it ever comes to that.
It must be said, however, The Audit, while handing out praise, has also faulted the paper in particular instances and remains an overall skeptic of the British journalism model, particularly because of its lack of American-style investigative reporting. For us, this is not a detail. Indeed, our study of pre-crisis coverage found the absence of investigative reporting on rogue lenders and Wall Street was the main reason the business press and the public were caught so off-guard by last year’s calamity.
Barber, who clearly respects American journalism traditions, ruminated on the Anglo-American journalism divide, as well as his stint working at The Washington Post during the height of the post-Watergate Bradlee era, in the FT last October.
I sat with Barber recently to discuss these and other issues, including his speech last April at Yale in which, with surprising candor, he grappled with the question, “Did financial journalists miss the financial crisis?”
The Audit: Why did you give the Yale speech?
Lionel Barber: The immediate trigger was that I felt that everybody else was being blamed—the bankers, particularly the regulators, Alan Greenspan, economists. They’re all taking heavy criticism. But it was appropriate, enough water had flowed under the bridge, for us to look at how we, us journalists, had done. I decided to give this speech in America because, I’ve spent ten years of my life as a working journalist in America, including a stint which was seminal in terms of its influence, at The Washington Post in 1985 when I spent four months on the national staff working with alongside some really great journalists. These are really brilliant journalists, serious journalists, and they take the business of journalism seriously, and that’s why I wanted to give the speech in America.
TA: When did you think this crisis was going to be the big one?
LB: I can identify almost to the day. It was in late January 2007, and it was in Davos, and several of the top bankers of the world were there. And [Blackstone chief] Steve Schwarzman gave a breakfast presentation in which he described—and I can remember writing it down in my little black diary—how [easily] they could borrow money…how they got better financing terms than everybody else. And the message I took away from it was, We can borrow, and we almost don’t have to repay. And I thought, this is unsustainable. Something is going to give.