But actually, the most successful English-language news organization in navigating the transition from a print-centered to a digitally oriented operation is the Financial Times, the UK-based business paper.
And if there’s a man behind the curtain, it would be Rob Grimshaw.
Grimshaw is the managing director of FT.com and architect of the metered subscription model—allowing some free stories before asking readers to pay—that was launched in 2007 and which the Times copied four years later. He’s also guided the data-intensive marketing operation that turned the newspaper from an industrial company into what is now effectively an online retailer of its content. Along the way, the FT, a unit of Pearson PLC, achieved a few other important firsts: It was first to earn more revenue from readers (subscriptions) than from advertisers, reversing the model on which newspapers have relied for decades. It was first to earn more from digital operations than from print, going truly “digital first.” See this post of mine from 2012 for more details.
And most importantly, it was first to successfully replace falling print revenue with digital income. In other words, while it’s great to be digital first, it’s not so great if that only means that digital revenue caught up only because print was falling so fast. That has not been the case with the FT, as this graph shows (keeping in mind 2009 was an anomalously down year; the trend is basically flat):
That’s largely thanks to the paywall and the rise of digital subscriptions, which Ryan Chittum documented here:
And this, remember, was when the rest of the industry was in free-fall, so flat growth is no small achievement. Here’s a look at that via Pew:
Some chunk of the credit redounds to the self-effacing Grimshaw, 42, who joined the FT in 1998 after stints at other UK news organizations and became an FT.com executive in 2000. A graduate of the University of Warwick in philosophy and political science, Grimshaw’s professional background, importantly, is not in technology or editorial, but in advertising, a bit of a paradox given that the reader-centered model he engineered represents a move away from advertising. Along the way, the FT took a couple of big risks: lowering the meter to force more people to pay sooner, which risked alienating causal readers and causing ad-driving traffic to fall; and developing its own digital application using a common coding language, known as HTML5, rather than selling the FT through the Apple store, as other media outlets have done. Both worked out, and ever since, Grimshaw has been in demand to discuss the FT’s model around the industry.
The big question for the newspaper business is the degree to which the FT’s model is replicable to other newspapers, particularly American regional general-circulation newspapers. What parts of the model can be copied?
One notable element of the FT’s strategy, for instance, is that it has avoided the dramatic newsroom cuts carried out by the rest of the industry. The FT now has about 550 newsroom employees, up from 450 in 2006. Industry-wide, newsroom employment is down more than 30 percent in the same period. In this, the FT is similar to the Times and The Wall Street Journal, both, as it happen, also successful paid content providers.
Still, it’s important not to overstate the case. The FT’s audience is very well heeled and pays at least $325 a year in the US and $450 a year in the UK for a digital subscription alone. What’s more, the FT does a good business (which it doesn’t break out) selling subscriptions to corporations, essentially a business-to-business operation that isn’t replicable by general-circulation newspapers.
Still, Grimshaw is adamant the FT’s model can be copied. I sat down with him last month at his glass, cube-shaped office overlooking the Thames at the FT’s headquarters in London’s Southwark section. The conversation has been heavily edited for conciseness.
Dean Starkman: Which philosopher has been most useful to you?
Rob Grimshaw: (Laughs) That is a good question. You know Kierkegaard actually. I mean faith is quite important for the digital business. You have to believe it’s going to work out.
DS: Would you describe the period of trial-and-error that got you to this moment?