While newspapers fight to stay afloat, the Financial Times is doing just fine. In fact, the paper has almost doubled its subscription prices and has been charging for online content. John Ridding, the Financial Times’s CEO, recently talked to CJR’s Diana Dellamere about believing in your content, being confident in your readers, and creating strategies for a financial future.
Diana Dellamere: Most major papers are just beginning to dip their toes in the water of charging for online content, or have abandoned the idea after some experimentation with charging for premium content. The Financial Times has been charging for online content throughout it all.
John Ridding: For us, it’s been a little lonely out there. We’ve got a little flack for it, as if charging for journalism online is a crime. But now it’s some encouragement because more people are thinking like that. It’s necessary to get through this crisis and the relationship with publications is through the readership. What we’ve been doing has become more relevant.
DD: How was the Financial Times able to successfully raise subscription rates and charge for online content in the middle of what seems like a complete financial meltdown in the newspaper industry?
JR: I think this is a crisis and I think there is a lot of justified concern, but our position is that the concern shouldn’t be fatalism. There are things that publishers and publications should be doing and must be doing to come through this crisis. We launched a bit of a new strategy about three years ago which was basically building up content revenue. Developing new publications and products, both in print and online. Developing niches really—specialist areas around our core brand. That’s really helped us offset the decline in advertising.
A lot of publications are very fatalistic about their ability to charge. I accept that it may be easier for a specialist publication like the FT to charge, but I also think that other publications need to identify these opportunities, because it would be very hard to sustain an effective news organization without paid-for news content. And I think therefore that the challenge for publishers is to face the reality that advertising alone isn’t going to sustain a quality news organization. They’re going to have to find ways to provide content that they can charge for.
The answer is having confidence in the value of quality journalism, and we have that. Being confident that the readers will pay. And, in our experience, they will pay. We are seeing sustainable strong demand. In the information age, the idea that people won’t pay for information is really wrong.
DD: Have you seen different reactions, perhaps measured by subscription numbers or inward linking, to raising rates and charging online in various markets?
JR: Particularly in the U.S., there is a feeling that information should be free. But there has to be some balance there. Some stuff is free as an investment. That’s our perspective. Everything we do throughout our news organization and our publications is essentially global. The way our audience interacts and engages with us is pretty similar across the world, in terms of what they want from us. It’s interesting, the U.S. is pretty much our fastest growing market at the moment, [in terms of] people subscribing online. We have a lot of growth markets, but the U.S. is right at the top.
DD: The FT is driven in a certain sense by business and financial information, but there is also consistently high-quality global news reporting. If everyone goes toward becoming a niche publication, will that fall away? Or will the other news be supported by the content that people feel they need?
JR: Well, you can differentiate yourself by the kind of content, but also by the quality of your journalism. I think that it’s really just about making yourself different and distinctive. That gives you pricing power. It doesn’t have to be the whole publication. There is this idea of premium out there, where you can make part of the content free and then some premium chargeable content. There’s going to be a range of that business model and that will be different depending on the nature of the content.
Everyone needs to be exploring ways to charge for content. Our paid-for model is very flexible. You basically get three stories a month before you have to register and ten stories a month before you have to subscribe. I think works quite well for journalism. Some people just come for one feature story and that’s fine. But, if people come to FT.com they are likely to stick around and read more. And then register and maybe subscribe.