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Financial Times Editor Lionel Barber: "Now Software's Driving the Journalism" (Q&A)

Print is still profitable, says Barber, even though two thirds of the FT's readership is online.

Lionel Barber, the 59-year-old, Oxford-educated editor of the Financial Times, comes across exactly the way you’d expect a 59-year-old, Oxford-educated editor of a significant newspaper to act: Gracious, opinionated, maybe a bit deliberative.

But that’s not the full picture. He’s also a fan of Silicon Valley and aims to be a regular. The London native visits whenever he can, not only to see his daughter, who works at a San Francisco startup, but also to take a measure of tech’s latest fluctuations, to gauge its possible impact on the news business.

Financial Times Print Edition

In fact, the FT, a 126-year-old financial and business broadsheet known for its unusual salmon-pink hue, has tipped more steeply into digital distribution than any other major newspaper, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Over two thirds of the FT’s total paying readership of 677,000 are online subscribers, with digital circulation growing at a rate of 33 percent a year. Even the recent design update to its print paper was partly done to favor the quicker pace of its website, as the online posts will now determine what appears in the daily print edition.

The FT’s paywall also stood as the model for the New York Times’ version, and last year it started FastFT, a digital news stream of market-moving stories that’s piped into its website, twitter account, even wearable devices. The paper has also had an impact on media and tech, and earlier this year broke the news on Apple’s acquisition of Beats.

It’s a notable enough news brand that former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who owns a massive news and financial data business, has even expressed interest in buying it. Pearson, FT’s parent company, has said in the past the paper is not for sale.

Barber, who previously lived in the U.S. as the Washington correspondent for the FT and later as its managing editor for the region, spoke with Re/code on a recent visit to New York where he talked about the future of the paper and of the news business in general. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Re/code: The FT is still primarily aimed at U.K. and European business readers, but the U.S. has clearly become important to the Financial Times. How important?

Lionel Barber: You can’t be a credible, global media presence without having a substantial footprint in the most important media market in the world — that’s America. Second, it’s the most dynamic, the most innovative in terms of technological disruption, and a lot of what’s happened here you’re going to see later. And third, we’re not trying to be a preponderant presence in the U.S. media market, but if we can take a nice slice, that’s good.

I see the FT under the arms of more people on the subway and on Wall Street all the time. You’ve already got a pretty nice slice.

Yeah, but we’re greedy.

So there’s more opportunity here.

We see opportunity, and we also know that with globalization the sophisticated American business reader and policy maker wants a global perspective. That’s what we offer.

How often do you visit the U.S.?

I’ve always tried to come to the States four to five times a year. I always come for the summer because I get invited to Sun Valley. Look, I’ve spent more than 10 years of my life here, so I like coming here. And I go to Silicon Valley just to get the adrenaline rush. I like to see what’s going on. And my kids are here as well. My daughter’s in San Francisco, and my son is an aspiring actor.

Despite the fact that newspapers are declining, when it comes to business news, there are more outlets than ever. What sets the FT apart?

We’re not an American media organization. We’re offering not just a picture of Europe, we’re offering a picture of the whole rest of the world, and bringing that to America in a way that I just don’t think others do. Because our traditional rivals are seeing the world largely through American eyes, and we’re not. Also, our coverage tries to establish the connections between business, politics, finance and economics, the whole thing, it’s integrated. The comment part of the FT is also increasingly important to our competitive edge, and I think that’s going to be increasingly important to all news organizations.

You have more online paying readers than print readers.

Two thirds.

At what point do you think all your readers will just be online?

It’s now about 470,000 paid subscribers digitally and 220,000-ish print. When I started [as editor] it was 75,000 digital, 440,000 print. I still see there’s a future in print. Print still has value. There’s millions of dollars of advertising wrapped up in that. Print is here for us for a while, and what we have to do is keep that vibrant.

But do you have a projection for when it’ll all be online?

No, because the print is actually profitable — even before advertising. We’re not including editorial costs, but in terms of the printing and the distribution and the subscription and cover price, we’re not making millions, but it’s profitable. We’re dealing from a position of strength.

The FT has a specific audience in the U.S. — power players in finance — and with that there’s some overlap with the Wall Street Journal, which is obvious, but also the New York Times. You appear to have almost a working relationship with the Times, which adopted your paywall model. How often do you talk to them?

It’s nothing formal. They asked us for advice, and we give it. It’s nice to see they’re being run by a Brit now, a British export.

Right, Mark Thompson, who used to run the BBC. He’s created a new app strategy for the Times. Basically, more apps like NYTOpinion and NYTNow, also Food. Do you think it’s working?*

First of all, I don’t have a monopoly on wisdom. I would just say if you’re going to have the kind of paywall, then you’ve got to find some verticals that people are going to pay for. This is a great period of experimentation. That’s why we launched FastFT. It’s not a newswire, it’s sort of breaking news with a bit of attitude and it’s compact. And we found that people, they want to consume that, and it works well on a mobile phone. And the Times is also thinking very much about mobile.

Have you read the Times’ Innovation Report, which was critical of its own digital efforts?

Oh I love that. I believe it said, “We haven’t cracked the code.”

No one has.

I’ll steal that phrase. That’s good. We’re watching everybody. And as I say, no monopoly on wisdom.

So in terms of what you’re seeing among news organizations, who’s winning so far?

I’d turn that question back on you. When you say “winning,” what are the metrics? One measure would be, obviously, are you building subscription business? That’s a measure. And second, are people staying with you? And third, very important for me as a journalist, are people spending serious time on your site or reading you on mobile because you’re content is so good and sticky and engaging?

Who do think are doing worthwhile things in news today?

It’s interesting how Vice uses this kinetic approach. We’re not going to embed somebody in ISIS but it’s interesting. I’m also interested in how some American journalists are doing very interesting things with data and graphics. Obviously, Ezra Klein is one, and Nate Silver.

Is that something FT might try? A data- and graphics-driven site like Vox or 538?

We’ve got a very good interactive team. We’re going to be strengthening that area. One of my mentors used to say journalism used to drive software, and now software’s driving the journalism. The software people are telling us about new ways to do something, and as journalists you’ve got to be more humble about that.

It seems that in the case of a Nate Silver or an Ezra Klein, they’re able to harness both ends of that, the journalism and the data.

Well, that’s why they’re so valuable. And frankly, we want some of that. We want more of that at the FT.

The FT started its U.S. edition here back in the ’90s, but it probably hasn’t been until the last decade or so that it’s had the impact we’re seeing today. What was it like helping to start FT’s presence here then?

I was in America back in the late ’80s and even through the ’90s, and when I’d appear on American TV or radio, they’d say, “Oh, we’ve got Lionel Barber from the Financial Times … of London.” Even the New York Times would write, “the Financial Times of London.” Like a nice little pat on the head. But they don’t say that now. It’s just, “the Financial Times.” We’re players. We get listened to by a lot of important people.

* This conversation took place a week before the New York Times announced it would cut 100 newsroom staff, partly because its app strategy isn’t really working.

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