The Financial Times deserves high praise for its digital plans

Lionel Barber is successfully navigating his paper online despite pressure on all sides. World Economic Forum

One of the most irritating things about digital journalism evangelists is their lack of respect for editorial leaders who have to take old institutions into the new age.

Yes, of course the future is digital. But frequent hectoring about a lack of momentum among newspaper editors takes no account of the responsibilities they have to shareholders, staff or loyal readers. Unless you have hundreds of journalists dependent on your decisions, a career hanging on shareholders’ views of profitability and a board assessing your every move, you can have little idea of the balance of judgements needed to make major decisions about the future of a publication.

When I was responsible for modernising the BBC World Service I likened the task to carrying a Ming vase across the museum floor to a new setting. If you manage to transport it successfully, a whole new generation would be able to admire and enjoy it. Drop it on the way and the game is up. Only a fool would rush.

This week we have had a glimpse of how the Editor of the Financial Times, Lionel Barber, is setting out to carry his particular Ming vase across the floor. In a memo to staff, he outlined the next steps in the FT’s digital strategy.

The memo states that, from next year, the FT’s printed content will be led by its digital content and not vice versa. The traditional process of making incremental changes to newspaper editions throughout the night is “dead”, Barber declares, before telling staff that only one edition of the paper publication will be produced each day. It is being simplified from a multi-part, multi-region, multi-edition newspaper to one core global product.

The memo is revealing – and a lesson to those evangelists who have never carried significant responsibility. It’s a plan which is carefully radical.

If you manage a valuable global brand, the last place you want to be is at the bleeding edge of change. Far better to tuck yourself behind, let others make the mistakes, and take advantage of the path they open up. It’s an approach Lionel Barber understands. With CEO John Ridding he has carved out a profitable digital strategy and built a global brand where others have lost money. The FT’s metered paywall is widely recognised as the most successful approach to driving subscriptions while remaining accessible. The FT is seldom lauded by the digital elite, but it should be.

The plan builds on previous changes which have moved the balance of the newsroom away from print towards online and digital editions. Now it’s seeking to consolidate that position further.

The idea that online content should lead the print edition reflects the reality of how the FT’s readers consume its journalism – during the day on a computer or phone. I am told there are only about 70,000 newspapers sold in the UK each day – although global print circulation is of course much higher. When you combine print and digital it reaches more than 600,000 people a day – significant for a highbrow financial product – with growth driven by online and mobile.

The new strategy informs new editorial priorities. Breaking news is to be second to context and the publication’s analytical strengths will become the priority – surely the main reason anyone reads it.

For the production process, it means moving from evening work aimed at producing a morning newspaper towards digital editions timed for when the majority of readers are online. More like a broadcast as Barber describes it – recognising the reality of convergence, defined by the way it is read rather than produced.

And he speaks of a more open approach – not perhaps the most obvious move for the FT – with journalists conversing with readers and being more responsive to their demands. Greater transparency in journalism is becoming a pre-requisite for public trust.

Finally he places all these changes in context:

We have transformed our business model, successfully charging for content and building a global subscription business. Last year, our online subscriptions surpassed our print circulation for the first time. Today, we have more than 100,000 more digital subscriptions than print sales.

Many believe the FT will become the first daily newspaper to abandon print and go digital only. This strategy certainly opens the way for it becoming weekly in print at least. But the FT is being realistic about change. It is neither at the front nor the back of digital reform, remains focused on what its readers want, and is careful not to destroy the best of the past as it invents the future. It deserves to succeed.

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