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.
In fairness to Blackstone and other private equity firms, they were raising billions of dollars. You had the [Blackstone] IPO shortly thereafter, and everybody was performing very, very well. But the message that I took away from that January, from Davos was, this is going to blow up.
Then I started to talk to several of my staff, particularly Martin Wolf, who had been raising concerns in his weekly economic columns. And then Gillian Tett [who covered derivatives and since wrote a book about them]. And although we weren’t putting her stuff on the front page at that point, she was warning about the level of toxic debt, and leverage, and in particular the enormous build-up of credit derivatives. That then began to build a picture of the gathering storm so I then, and this just to make things fit together, I had insisted that we boost our markets coverage.
TA: How does the FT cover Wall Street?
LB: We’re now twelve years into our American expansion. [In the early days], our presence was minimal. We had four or five journalists in New York, one in San Francisco, three or four in Washington. Now we have 55-60. In ‘97, there were people who said these guys are crazy, they’re not going to get anywhere, they’re going to be crushed by the Journal, the [Washington] Post, the Times. The crucial insight, which I think evolved fairly quickly, I absolutely drove this message home, was, Look, we’re not competing head on with these big beasts. We’re just going to take a slice of their market, and we’re going to take the most lucrative slice. We’re going to go for the decision-makers. We’re going to be absolutely must-reading for the top level of bankers. We’re going to make a push in Washington, into the Congress, for the lawyers and the eco-system here, if you like, on Wall Street. We’re not going to be a general newspaper. We’re going to be a business and financial newspaper, and this is the key, we’re going to bring the world to America. The FT is going to be the newspaper of globalization—that was the slogan; that’s what I said. Therefore there was a tremendous focus to our editorial coverage, and we made a virtue of being a global newspaper, a global perspective.
We don’t have a lot of people, but we can cause a lot of mayhem with a small number of people, they each have their missions, they work together, we’re not lumbering. I don’t want to say that American newspapers are overmanned, but they have a lot of journalists. We’re a lot nimbler! And if you’re nimbler you can be more focused.
TA: Is it wrong to think that American investigative reporting traditions are unique here and not necessary part of the British DNA?
LB: [Refers to his column comparing British and American journalism and adds,] I think that there must be a role for investigative journalism. I think it takes two forms. One, we name the guilty man; two, arrow points to the defective part, i.e. explanatory. There’s a role for both. And I would argue that arrow pointing to the defective part is what we’re doing a lot of. I can give you examples—the [British Petroleum] investigation. I put a reporter [Sheila McNulty] in Houston and she worked for six months on that. She won a double [British] Press Award, the equivalent of two Pulitzers. Maybe not quite as good as a Pulitzer, but pretty good.