Martin Dickson came on as US managing editor of the Financial Times in September, succeeding Gillian Tett, who is on book leave. Dickson has been with the FT since 1976 in various jobs and locations, including a stint in the US in the early 1990s. He was most recently the FT’s deputy editor. The FT is a unit of the UK’s Pearson Plc. The interview, which took place December 14, was edited for conciseness. Transcription by CJR editorial intern Peter Sterne
CJR: First, I just want to see if you have any beans to spill, any rumors about the sale of the Financial Times.
Dickson: What a surprise we should start there.
CJR: Right, I’m predictable that way.
Dickson: Well, it’s the good, obvious journalistic question. No beans to spill. There are no beans to spill. There have been a number of stories in the US press. Stories about the sale of FT come up regularly, every 6 months or so.
CJR: It’s a rite of fall, or something.
Dickson: And it’s open season again, you know. This time, okay, there is more of a peg for the story, because [Pearson CEO] Marjorie Scardino is stepping down and Marjorie Scardino said she would sell the FT over her dead body….So, it’s understandable that the rumors should surface again, but Pearson has said categorically the FT’s not for sale, there are no sale discussions going on, and John Fallon, the chief executive, has said the FT is a valuable and valued brand.
CJR: This isn’t a trick question, but I was curious: say, hypothetically, FT changes hands. Not that it’s actually going to happen. But say you had to explain to a new owner, “Okay, look, this is what is essential about the FT that you need to know. This is what can’t change.” What would you say?
Dickson: Well, I don’t want to deal in hypotheticals. If you want to rephrase the question?
CJR: What’s essential about the FT? What shouldn’t be changed?
Dickson: What is essential about the FT, under the existing ownership, leave aside any other owners.
Dickson: The FT is global, it employs some of the best journalists anywhere in the world, it focuses on quality rather than quantity of what it produces, and it targets an elite audience concerned about global affairs, and that audience is going to grow as the world becomes more globally interconnected.
If you want to dig down more deeply into the FT culture, I’d say the essentials are, we’re an extremely collaborative, collegial organization. Our journalists work very closely together and work in teams around the world to produce the very best coverage. We don’t have time for prima donnas…
The second essential is, our reporting is straight down the line. It’s independent. We don’t subscribe to any political philosophy and let that be reflected in our news columns. At the same time, we are a paper of opinion. Opinion is terribly important in what we do. But those are kept to the opinion columns. I think that independence of view is very important.
The third thing that is very important is our absolute, complete, and total commitment to be as accurate as we possibly can. It is terribly, terribly important. I think that some other newspapers have a more cavalier attitude toward the facts. We can’t afford to do that. We don’t want to do that. Our readers expect to have the news presented in as accurate and fair a way as possible, particularly if they’re business readers. You don’t want to make business decisions off biased, inaccurate information.
CJR: Who would be these other papers that are cavalier in their attitude?
CJR: You described some essential strengths of the FT. Where do you think it’s weaker? Where do you think it does not so well?
Dickson: Hmm, what do we do not so well?
CJR: There may be things you also see to be outside of the scope of your mission.
Dickson: I’m sure we have weaknesses, but… (laughter)
CJR: I’ve stumped the band? Okay. Let me just follow up on that. You guys have never won a Pulitzer Prize; does it bother you? Is that something that matters?
Dickson: We would love to win a Pulitzer, really would. [But] prizes aren’t the be-all and end-all.
CJR: No, it’s not the point at all. The prizes are almost, to me, they’re always there to incentivize something that you might not be as eager to do, absent the prize. I think they’re important, but only for that reason.
Dickson: People tend to get Pulitzers for great, in-depth, investigative reporting that reveals something of real value that the world would not otherwise know.
CJR: That’s a great way of summarizing exactly what they’re looking for, often.