Dickson: So job one is managing the team here. The second job is to be the public face of the FT which means appearing on public platforms, which means hosting events, which means appearing on TV, radio, as required.
CJR: You mentioned earlier about “we cater to an elite audience” and I kind of understand what you mean. If someone came in and asked, “You mean you write for the 1 percent about the 1 percent,” what would you say?
Dickson: I’d say, not at all. I’d say there are a significant number of the 1 percent among our readers, as you’d expect. A considerable portion of the 1 percent are highly successful businesspeople with a global view who need to be kept up to date, but we have many readers in other parts of…pursuing other professions, pursuing other interests. In the UK, it has been traditional for leaders of trade unions to read the FT. Our middle-eastern coverage is read by people throughout the middle east, irrespective of whether they’re businesspeople or not.
Yes, we appeal to a lot of people among the 1 percent, but we appeal to an awful lot, more people beyond that. I think the criteria that binds our readers together is an interest in world events, be they business, economic, or political.
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.