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.
Dickson: That is part of what we want to do. We have to address a huge range of reader demands, from very short instant market blogs at one end to investigative reporting at the other. We are placing increasing emphasis on our investigative reporting.
CJR: Is that so?
Dickson: Yeah. [FT top editor] Lionel Barber, two years ago now, hired Christine Spolar…She’s a great American investigative reporter, who now heads up our investigative reporting unit. Under her leadership, we’ve run some really great, in-depth series over the past year or two. I don’t know if you recall the tax law series we did with ProPublica, which won an Overseas Press Club award…That’s one example. The LIBOR scandal—we played a leading role in reporting on that, both in terms of reporting and then in-depth analysis of how it worked and what it means…Hopefully, it would be wonderful if one of these days, we got a Pulitzer. Another thing I’d point out, which is very much in the mainstream of what we do, is the series on Amazon we did earlier this year. Amazon is not a company known for being terribly liberal with its relations with the press… I think that shows a pretty major commitment to investigation. And that took months put together.
CJR: Is that a cultural change for [the FT]?
Dickson: It’s been a gradual evolution. There’s been a constant desire to do investigative reporting. You go back 20 years, or 15, 20 years, we had an investigations unit which did some very good work. But there’s been very much a new emphasis on it since Lionel took over as editor. He has really pushed this agenda.
CJR: What is the job of the US managing editor? … How much autonomy do you have? What’s your mandate?
Dickson: My responsibilities are three-fold, really. One, to manage our team in North America—and we have 50 journalists or thereabouts around the country—to manage them and help them develop their careers, which is a very important part of what we do.
CJR: I never heard that before from a managing editor! (laughs) You want to help reporters? Wow.
Dickson: Let me just elaborate on that, because one of the strengths of the paper is the fact we move people around the world. I mean, not against their will, but most people like to travel.
What we’re trying to create is people who have great global knowledge, great knowledge of a range of industries. So we like to, every few years, keep moving them around the world, gaining knowledge, gaining experience that they can then bring back, either into reporting roles or editing roles. There’s logic to this: it increases our knowledge base, it increases the culture. That’s why helping people develop their careers is very important for us. It also keeps people engaged and loyal to the paper.
CJR: Reporting. How do you win favor here? What are the incentives?
Dickson: The incentives are, in no particular order: writing great news stories, getting great scoops; two, being able to analyze a subject and write longer form pieces that see the wood for the trees and give the reader a coherent overview of the subject at hand…And three, longer form investigative reporting.
CJR: But in no particular order?
Dickson: In no particular order.
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.
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?
Dickson: The first thing to emphasize is that, while there is generally closer working, the Church and State division between editorial independence and the advertising and commercial aide is paramount. We cannot allow our journalism to be influenced by outside forces, and that is front and center in all we do. Every reporter on the paper knows it. We use social media on the reporting side. We collaborate, particularly with Darcy [Keller, head communications for the Americas] and her team, on the social media side… to get our message out of what we’re producing in the paper. It’s been an invaluable means of spreading the word of what’s going in next day’s paper. A very large portion of our [registered users] now are coming from social media leads…Conversely, social media is important for our reporting efforts in terms of increasing ability to crowd-source information. The ability to go on Twitter and see what people are talking about and, in some instances, actually react if there is a situation literally involving crowds that’s on Twitter. During the  London riots, you could go on Twitter and you could see what was happening on the ground before any mainstream media was reporting. We’re keen to incorporate social media increasingly into our website offering. The question, which I think everyone is grappling with, is how much and to what extent do you mediate what’s coming on?
CJR: Of course. Beyond, literally just beyond that, phones and tablets are kind of a big deal these days. Does that change your life at all?
Dickson: Not in terms of reporting, particularly.
CJR: Last thing: Mobile is such a big growth thing. Is that a disincentive to do longer pieces, since people are reading on these smaller screens?
Dickson: No, not at all. It’s obviously not as easy to read a 3,000-word article on a phone as it is in print or online, but our readers read us in multiple formats. They do just read us on the phone, and they don’t just read us at the start of the day. Every day we run a big page, what we call a ‘Big Page,’ which is a page with a full-page feature on it. A lot of our traditional readers, if they don’t have time—these are all very busy people—if they don’t have time first thing in the morning to go through the whole paper, they will often rip that page out and save it for the evening or the weekend.
CJR: Right, or press the “Read Later” button or whatever.
Dickson: I don’t think it’s a disincentive at all.