March 2, 2007

The Financial Times
had several reasons to celebrate this week.
It marked the 10th anniversary of its American edition. Less sentimentally, it was able to report
full-year 2006 results that included growth in circulation, ad revenue and
profit as most papers — in England
and the United States
— headed the opposite way financially.

The distinctively salmon-colored daily is much admired; it
was rated best newspaper
in the world in a 2005 survey by a Swiss media
consultancy, displacing The New York
Times
, which fell to sixth. With a U.S. circulation of 134,000, barely
10 percent that of The Wall Street
Journal
,
the paper may be totally unfamiliar to many American
journalists. Its average reader has a
six-figure income. And it has special characteristics of a business-targeted
brand.

There is common ground, however, with what’s happening now
at many American newspapers. The Financial Times is already a year down
the path of transformation to a fully integrated multimedia newsroom. That’s where Gannett papers are headed with
their four-month-old Information
Center initiative
. More recently The Atlanta Journal-Constitution announced a newsroom reorganization
several weeks ago, steering that newspaper in the same direction.

CEO John Ridding, who was in New York this week, offered a number of
thoughts in a phone interview on a successful transition so far.

“It’s not something we’ve just been working on lately,” he
said. “We like to think we were pioneers in the late 1990s. There were bold steps that followed, and this
is the latest.”

A critical part of the process is resetting “mindsets” and
coordinating the newsroom makeover to “broader changes in our ambitions,” such
as growing ad revenue and creating new streams of income.

In the new newsroom, about 500 journalists come to work,
some on an early morning shift that didn’t exist before, and take responsibility
for “story building” in both online and print throughout the day.

Ridding resists Wall
Street Journal
comparisons when asked whether the reorganization tips the
print edition heavily into analysis and second-day takes on stories broken
online. “Not necessarily analysis,” he
replied. “I’d call it value added. That
could be an exclusive additional piece of information or a judgment in the
second or third paragraph of a news story.” The Financial Times’ good reputation includes printing a generous
portion of stories that are well reported but also very pithy.

In the interests of keeping business and editorial moving in
tandem, Ridding said, the company recently named a new head of FT.com with the
unusual title of publisher and managing editor.
He doesn’t touch copy. “An
integrated operation needs to be more nimble,” Ridding said. It has to pull
together news and design with IT, advertising and marketing “so the parts don’t
go in different directions.”

Along with the newsroom reorganization, the Financial Times shed 50 news positions
through buyouts, or, in the more elegant British term, “voluntary
redundancies.” Ridding said that he
couldn’t put his finger on areas of coverage that had been dropped and that
collapsing two distinct operations into one brought with it efficiencies.

The merged newsroom is by no means all the Financial Times is doing
differently. Under the rubric of what
Ridding calls “unleashing the brand,” the company in 2006 doubled a conference
and meeting business targeting top-level executives. It sought out marquee
names, adding deposed Harvard president Lawrence Summers as a columnist and
co-sponsoring a meeting 18 months ago to launch former President Bill Clinton’s
Global Initiative
. It also recently started FT Alphaville, a financial markets
blog.

Like The Washington
Post
, the Financial Times is
embedded in a larger company, Pearson, with an assortment of
ventures. Pearson publishes The Economist, and, like the Washington
Post Co., has a big for-profit education business.

Online FT.com performs an artful straddle between offering free
and paid content. A basic news report is
free, but the full personalized news package costs $110 a year. A revved-up version that includes more
detailed financial data and reference material is $300. Like The
Economist
, it offers a free trial subscription and begins billing after two
weeks unless the subscriber cancels.

In a general way, Ridding said, he doesn’t buy into “the
existential doubt around the industry.” For example, he said, “We’re getting
access to budget we didn’t have before with online video. We are beginning to tap into TV budgets. There are some big opportunities there if we
get it right.”

Further grounds for optimism are that the company is
investing in online and new features, but also growing print rather than making
up for a shrinking print business.
Advertising revenues were up a robust 9 percent for 2006, as was U.S.
circulation.

Profits are still nothing to cheer about at roughly 4
percent of revenues. As recently as two
years ago, though, the company operated in the red. Ridding declined to specify a profitably goal
but said he expected the company would continue to grow profits.

For all the new, the Financial
Times
still keeps a foot in tradition, clinging to a true broadsheet format
and printing on that unusual pink stock. “We’re not dogmatic or doctrinaire, but we are happy with it,” Ridding
said. Looking at the many changes to narrow width or tabloid Berliner formats
here and abroad, “I’m not sure they are successful from a design point of
view. Some seem to be driven just by
costs.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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