CJR: On the subject of telling people in the 1 percent what they need to hear but may not want to hear, I wanted to ask you the question for, I guess, any business editor. What was the main lesson you took away from the financial crisis of 2008? Lessons for journalism in particular, but also in general.
Dickson: For journalism, I think the lessons of it…Journalists need to be more vigilant in joining up the dots and seeing the big picture. There were clues to what was happening, the strains within the financial system in the runup to 2007 to 2008. Some of our reporters and analysts highlighted them. Gillian Tett warned several years before.
CJR: Oh, she’s in my book [The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: the financial crisis and the financial press, under contract with Columbia University Press].
Dickson: So I don’t need to carry on?
CJR: I’m just saying.
Dickson: Martin Wolf warned in column after column about the dangers of imbalances in the global economic system. Other people were writing about the buildup of leverage in the private equity market. There were these various clues. Various other things were hidden. No one really appreciated what was happening in bank off-balance sheet vehicles. No one quite appreciated the extent to which rating agency ratings were no longer as robust as they need to be.
CJR: To be relied upon, as they say.
Dickson: Exactly. I think the bigger picture and how these all connected together was not seen by the industry as a whole. But also, I would add, not by anyone else, really. There was a comprehensive failure…Clearly, there were one or two people who did the really hard footwork and went right up the chain to the origination of those mortgages and the facts on the ground in terms of repossessions, interest rates, sustainability of that level of debt surfacing.
CJR: And the defective nature of a lot of the mortgage products
Dickson: If you did that, as one or two people in the financial industry did, and subsequently made a lot of money because they could place very knowledgeable bets…
CJR: You’re thinking about Big Short people?
Dickson: Exactly. If you’d done that amount of due diligence on almost a county-by-county basis, then you might have been able to piece the chain together.
CJR: Couple last things. On that balance sheet question: Jonathan Weil at Bloomberg is sort of a master of the balance sheet. If you talk to him, he’ll tell you it’s kind of a lost art among business reporters. Some people worry about that.
Dickson: Well, I can’t speak for other papers. I know, with us, it is emphasized. Every reporter who comes into the FT—well, everyone who comes into the FT on the editing side of the paper—is offered and given balance sheet training. A lot of it is done by a former financial editor of the paper, Jane Fuller, who now runs a consulting business. She not only knows accounts front to front, but she knows a journalist’s needs. She comes in with a package that she knows will help our journalists get the most out of accounts, and then she comes back and retrains people, so it’s drummed into them. It may be a lost art elsewhere, but we place a tremendous emphasis on being able to read a balance sheet. What the balance sheet tells you may often be somewhat opaque—notwithstanding 2008—there’s still an awful lot of information sitting there if you’re looking for it.
CJR: A different topic: We had a really great talk with Rob Grimshaw, who does your digital stuff. Kind of a rock star these days in the paywall set. It’s a good story. One of the things he did talk about is, the thing about this paywall thing is it’s not just about putting up a tollbooth or whatever. He described it as a kind of complete transformation of how the company does business. How does this new digital emphasis affect the editorial side? Are there any dangers in terms of getting your wires crossed with advertisers, that kind of thing, but also: how and to what extent does editorial have to collaborate with the rest of the business internally?