The Media Today

Lionel Barber to step down as editor of the Financial Times

November 12, 2019

In May, Jim Waterson, media editor at The Guardian, reported that Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, was on the way out, and that the search was on for his replacement. In the summer, when Amber A’Lee Frost, who was interviewing Barber for CJR, mentioned that he was retiring, Barber laughed and replied, “What are you talking about? As far as I’m concerned, I’m running the shop.” We now know for sure that he won’t be running the shop for much longer. This morning, the FT announced that Barber will step down early next year; his top deputy, Roula Khalaf, will succeed him, becoming the first female editor in the paper’s 131-year history.

Barber became editor in 2005, following stints as the paper’s Washington correspondent, Brussels bureau chief, news editor, and US managing editor. His tenure saw several significant shifts at the paper. In 2015, Nikkei, a Japanese media group, purchased it from the British publishing company Pearson; earlier this year, the FT relocated back to its old offices, in the heart of London’s financial district, following a 30-year absence and a major revamp. Barber has prioritized fixing a business model that he says was “broken” when he took over. Things seem to have worked out; in the spring, the FT hit the 1 million subscriber mark, with digital subscriptions comprising more than three quarters of its readership. At the time, Roy Greenslade, a British-media expert, wrote in The Guardian that the FT “was quicker than most to seize on a winning twin strategy: pioneering online innovation while building a global, as distinct from UK, news brand.” Under Barber’s editorship, the paper swelled its ranks of foreign correspondents, cutting against the sad industry trend of overseas retrenchment.

ICYMI: Please stop

The paper has traditionally favored a business audience, but that’s far from the extent of its influence or readership. In CJR’s first print issue of 2019, Frost, who calls herself a “‘big S’ Socialist,” wrote that she regularly reads the FT, despite its neoliberal bent, and that she greatly prefers it to the New York Times. “By literally any measure, the Financial Times is just a better paper,” she wrote. “It covers the world as it is—a global battle not of ideas or values, but of economic and political interests”; nor does it “lose itself in the mire of myopic American culture wars.” Speaking with Frost later in the year, Barber concurred with her general assessment of its editorial orientation. “People have strong views. I mean people in the FT. But that doesn’t affect the news coverage,” he said. “We’ve tried not to be an echo chamber. And… we don’t have a party-political agenda.”

Despite this broad, global outlook, in recent years, Barber’s FT has been defined—to many of its British readers, at least—by Brexit, which was embraced by a thin majority of British voters in 2016, but has still not happened. The paper has led from the front in its hard-news coverage of Westminster and, particularly, of dynamics in Brussels, which have commonly been misunderstood and miscommunicated by more provincial elements of Britain’s press. Nonetheless, when it comes to Brexit, the culture war comes for us all. The paper’s opinion pages—which have long had a clear liberal slant—strongly backed Britain remaining in the European Union in 2016, and have criticized the Brexit project in no uncertain terms since then. Recently, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspended Parliament, the editorial board furiously accused him of detonating “a bomb under the constitutional apparatus of the United Kingdom,” and called on Parliament to kick out the government; when a court ruled that Johnson’s move was unlawful, the paper hailed “a devastating indictment of the abuse of power.” At an editorial meeting this morning, Barber quipped, of his impending departure, “Everyone thought I was a remainer. Turns out I’m a leaver.”

Still, for all the unavoidable domestic politics, the world outside is clearly still a priority for the FT. Khalaf, Barber’s replacement, has a strong background in this department. (She has led international coverage and also brought it home: Barber told Frost that, during the Brexit referendum, Khalaf brought foreign correspondents over to the UK to cover Brexit from the ground; those reporters, Barber said, had a better sense of public opinion than the paper’s leadership.) Britain might be intent on isolating itself, but the FT, assuredly, is not.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on the Financial Times:

  • Paymasters: This year, the FT’s chief executive, John Ridding, took a pay cut; journalists previously voted no confidence in his leadership after a livestream of a speech to staff cut out before his pay package could be discussed. Per Greenslade, Ridding agreed to invest his planned raise in a fund to reduce the paper’s gender pay gap.
  • Of wolves and Wall Street: In 1991, Khalaf, who was then working at Forbes, wrote a critical profile of Jordan Belfort, the stockbroker who was subsequently disgraced, then immortalized as the title character in The Wolf of Wall Street. Khalaf’s story featured in the movie. The film, Khalaf wrote, “has little time for Mr Belfort’s victims. Although not quite a glorification of its subject, it is not an indictment.”
  • Covering climate: In September, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, spoke with Gillian Tett, editor-at-large at the FT, about “Moral Money,” the paper’s newsletter on the climate crisis. You can listen here via our podcast, The Kicker.
  • All that Jazz: Last week, the FT had a candidate for correction of the year: “An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Salt Lake Tribune has a full-time jazz reporter. It in fact has two reporters who cover Utah Jazz, the local basketball team.”

Other notable stories:

  • CJR has a new vertical called Outbox, where our staff will share quick reflections on the news and the world of journalism. (We guess you could call it a blog.) In our first offerings, Sam Thielman asks journalists to “please stop” covering right-wing trolls Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, and Alexandria Neason lists words that we should all think twice before using, including “woke,” “content,” and “unprecedented.”
  • With all eyes on tomorrow’s first public impeachment hearing, the Times looked back, laying out “the inside story of how we got here” in a clear, comprehensive piece detailing Trumpworld’s moves on Ukraine. Elsewhere in impeachment, the AP’s David Bauder profiles Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News commentator who—unlike many of his colleagues—has defended the probe. CNN’s Oliver Darcy reminds us that it’s been 246 days since we last had a formal White House press briefing. And Trump tweeted his regret at signing the Whistleblower Protection Act, which became law in 1989.
  • In his newsletter, Popular Information, Judd Legum writes that The 74—an outlet founded by Campbell Brown, who now oversees “news partnerships” at Facebook—has been savaging Elizabeth Warren, who wants Facebook to be broken up. (One writer called Warren “the second coming of Karl Marx.”) Brown hit back that while she remains on The 74’s board of directors, she has no editorial input. (She also said Facebook did not initially respond to Legum as “it was pretty clear that accuracy wasn’t a big priority.”)
  • An LA Times story quoting Pete Buttigieg on “the failures of the Obama era” caused a stir. But the quote was wrong—Buttigieg actually said “the failures of the old normal.” Evan Halper, who wrote the story, blamed a “noisy recording” for the error, and said sorry. Buttigieg was gracious: “Despite what this president says, journalists take their obligation very seriously… and you saw that in how quickly that correction took place.”
  • Staffers at Hearst Magazines—whose properties include Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and Men’s Health—are unionizing. A “strong majority” of the company’s 500 employees have signed on; the resulting union will cover print and digital staff across multiple titles, and be one of the biggest in the media industry. CNN’s Kerry Flynn has more details.
  • Amid political chaos in Bolivia, several news outlets were attacked or threatened, and at least four were forced off the air, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports. In other troubling updates from CPJ, Abdul Hameed al-Yousef, a photographer in Syria, was killed on Sunday in an attack by pro-government forces. And in the Philippines, Dindo Generoso, a radio journalist, was shot and killed last week by unidentified assailants.
  • And Rudy Giuliani might start a podcast providing analysis of the impeachment hearings, CNN’s Michael Warren and Pamela Brown report. Name suggestions are welcome.

ICYMI: Twitter hates me. The Des Moines Register fired me. Here’s what really happened.

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously detailed staff anger at Barber’s remuneration, based on a misreading of an article by Roy Greenslade, in The Guardian. In fact, this pay dispute only concerned Ridding. The post has been updated.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.