September 19, 2014

Last July, Gillian Tett, who started her job as the Financial Times’ U.S. managing editor Sept. 1, wrote about the influence Pierre Bourdieu had on her work. Bourdieu, a French sociologist and intellectual, identified the “social silences” that can perpetuate the status quo if they’re allowed to fester.

“I think it’s beholden on journalists to turn the microscope around and look at themselves more than they actually do,” Tett said in a phone interview.



This is not just theory for Tett, who has a Ph.D. in social anthropology. When she covered London’s financial world for the FT, she identified collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps as areas swaddled in silence. Tett and her team “very much warned of the dangers” these instruments presented to the world economy, she told Laura Barton in 2008, warnings that you may have heard went mostly unheeded.

“It’s not what people talk about in public but its what they don’t talk about” that’s interesting, she said. “I saw that up close and personal in the financial industry.”

In conversation, Tett uses the phrase “join up the dots” a lot. Dot-joining underpins many of her plans for the FT’s North American operations, which she now oversees. “We’re trying to very much build our coverage not on the fact that we can do not just credible coverage but coverage based on connections, joining up the dots.”

The U.S. is an exciting place to do journalism, she said, because it’s “absolutely at the cutting edge in the media landscape” in terms of how people here consume content. That’s a big deal at the FT, two-thirds of whose audience gets news via its digital platforms, and which recently redesigned its print paper — which is profitable — to reflect its new role as a place for deeper analysis and stories that might not pop online.

Earlier this year FT CEO John Ridding told me about how the company uses data from those readers to deliver products they want. Tett says that while audience data is helpful, “We do not edit by the numbers. Yes, we are absolutely aware of what our readers are interested in, but we’re not blindly driven by that.” If you feed people only stuff they’re expecting to see, or that reinforces their views of the world, she said, “essentially what happens is you end up going down these intellectual rabbit holes.”

The diversity of the staffs at many journalism organizations seems to fit into the category of unmolested “social silences” (here I should probably note that diversity is an area in which Poynter, too, could do a lot better on, staff-wise). Tett said the FT has had its challenges, but it already has a collection of bylines that’s “not exactly your standard John Smith” and was pleased when all the FT’s awards at a British press awards event last year went to women journalists.

She’s interested in hiring journalists of diverse educational backgrounds as well: “If we all end up coming from just B.A.s in economics,” she said, those intellectual rabbit holes will be harder to step around.

Tett took her new position after taking some time off to write a book that she says is very influenced by Bourdieu’s work.

Her decision to base a book about the global economy on the work of someone she called an “obscure left-wing French intellectual,” was more warmly received after Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” became an unlikely publishing sensation. Should you find an unsung obscure left-wing French intellectual, Tett advised, laughing, it could be a real career boost.

“My book is about silos and silo-busting,” she said. “It’s not a bunch of empty rhetoric.”

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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