On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Financial Times CEO John Ridding talks about the company’s decade-long head start in paid online subscriptions. Some of his peers in the tech and media world were initially “hostile” to the idea of a paywall, he says, but two-thirds of the FT’s current revenue is coming from subscriptions.
Below, you’ll also find a lightly edited transcript of the full episode.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media, I’m Peter Kafka, that is me. I’m talking to you from Vox Media Headquarters in New York City. It is snowing. It’s probably not snowing when you listen to this, but we’re taping this a little bit in advance. I’m here with John Ridding, CEO of the Financial Times. Welcome, John.
John Ridding: Thank you, Peter. Good to be here.
It’s been a while since we talked, we were just going over the chronology.
Yeah, it’s been a couple years and then a couple years before then, and I think since we’ve been speaking, so much has been changing.
So much has changed. The nice thing about talking to you is your story is consistent, which is, we have a subscription-based business, which for years was kind of a novelty in media. Right now, everyone wants a subscription-based business, so we can talk about that.
This is a free podcast where we talk about subscription-based businesses. That’s kind of the pitch. Catchy. It’s actually not the pitch. Terribly boring podcast but there are a lot of folks who come into this building right now talking about how they’re launching a subscription business, they’re pivoting to a subscription business. You have done this for a very long time. Let’s just go over some top-line numbers. You guys started this subscription model, the online subscription model, when? 2007?
Yeah, the best part of a decade ago.
And, in those days it was very lonely in subscription land.
And, prior to that you famously, you’ve got the ... What would we called it? Salmon-colored?
August financial publication, primarily under the European audience and Americans who like to hang out with Europeans, and then there was a free online component.
Yeah, and I think we’ve always seen ourselves, in the 30 years I’ve been at the FT, we’ve always seen ourselves as very global. It’s been part of our DNA. But we’ve made a very big shift from print to digital. We still believe in print, but digital’s been a real growth driver.
So, you launched this paywall, it’s a metered paywall, some version of that, 2007. It’s hard to remember back then, but there was still this idea that not only should stuff be free on the internet, but it had to be free. There was no way would anyone would pay for this stuff.
Yeah, it was kind of like a religious doctrine, and I sort of remember when we launched the paywall, or the subscription model — because I don’t regard the paywall as necessarily the best term because it sounds very rigid. We always had a degree of flexibility in our subscription model. But when we launched this, I remember coming to the U.S. and talking about this and doing a tour of the West Coast, and it was very odd because the reaction was pretty hostile. I mean, it was this sense that, “You guys don’t get it.” And the line I remember from the time was, “The internet wants to be free.” Which I always thought was kind of weird and a little ridiculous because clearly the internet doesn’t want anything, it’s a channel.
We always felt, and continue to feel, that our journalism, whether it’s in print, online or what’s coming down the track in voice probably, is valuable, and we need to get the revenues from that journalism to support a quality news operation. I think that since those early days the world has moved much more our way. I think a lot of publishers have left it pretty late to get with that program, but I’m very pleased that we’ve been fixed on that as a core tenet of our business model.
Yeah, I wanna talk about the mechanics of how it works, but before we get there let’s just do the top line first. So we’re 11 years after launching a subscription model online. How many subscribers do you have?
So, we’re now, our total paid for users are about 925,000.
That’s the combination of digital and print?
Yeah. And two-thirds of that are digital.
So, 900,000+ subs, two-thirds digital, and then your revenue mix is now predominantly subscription?
Yeah. So basically, again, there’s been a kind of flipping of the revenue models. Now, kind of getting over two-thirds of our revenues are subscription and content-based revenues, and advertising has gone down to about 40 percent.
Is this where you thought you would be 11 years ago? When you modeled this out, did you say, “We’re going to be nearing a million subs in a decade”?
I mean, to be honest, I think anyone in those ... Given how quickly things have been changing, anyone who makes exact forecast of revenue splits five, 10 years ahead is probably smoking something. But, we kind of figured that was the objective, to make the core foundations of the business model based on journalism and content.
Not just because we could see the risks in advertising, but because we kind of felt that ... If you go back to Henry Luce, the primarily relationship of a publisher should be with the reader, not the advertiser. We love advertising, we’ll take as much as we can get, but fundamentally we felt that both from a business model but also from a position of principle and strategy, that the reader relationship was key.
Is it my imagination or have you tightened the paywall recently? Is it harder to get the Financial Times without paying or registering? I noticed your paywall coming up in front of my screen a lot more often.
Yeah. There’s been quite a significant change in that we’ve moved from the metered model to what we call a sort of sampling model. The metered model worked fine and it kind of gave us our first ...
You get this many free clicks per month.
What you do, basically, within a month you get everything for free. So you have a month to read everything you like, and we felt that was much more in line with ...
That was the metered model or that’s where ...
That’s where we are now. So, the metered model, you’d get 10 free a month and we could flex that. We started at 10, we reduced it ... We definitely tightened up the metered model, but then we thought, what do we really want to do? We really want to achieve the habit in digital that people used to have in print. I remember getting on the train in early days and you’d have the FT guy, you’d have the Times guy, you’d have the Guardian guy and girl, but I guess in those days women were sort of less present, something we also need to address.
There was a habit, and we wanted to recreate that habit in digital. A metered model kind of goes against that because you’re by definition rationing. What we wanted to say was, for a month come and read everything and build that habit. And ideally, you spend a month with the FT, you get to appreciate it, become a subscriber. So we found that has given us this new phase of growth, it actually accelerated our subscriptions.
Why do you think that accelerates? Because again, the idea behind the meter was, we’re gonna give you some amount of stories for free per month, and hopefully we give you so many ... You come back to us so often you realize that you must have us. It’s sort of our job to keep bringing you in and producing scoops or whatever it is. And that’s sort of the standard model now for a lot of folks, and there’s a great Wall Street Journal piece about how they’re sort of using computer science to figure out how many free stories they should give you based on who you are, reading habits. So the idea of just giving you a month of all you can eat and then putting the hammer down, why do you think that has boosted the business?
Well, there’s a couple things going on at the same time. But firstly, I think it’s precisely because it does give people exposure to the full range of what we do, whether it’s business, whether it’s arts, whether it’s politics.
So, giving you more.
Giving you more. I think people feel they get to understand the FT more deeply. At the same time, clearly we’ve been spending a lot of time and investment and expertise and optimizing the whole subscription science and our data team, which has been transformational in terms of optimizing the model, in terms of understanding the propensity to subscribe, in terms of targeting more effectively, they’ve done a great job. So, I think not just the model has changed, but the expertise within that model, and of course last year there was a bit of a breakthrough with Google where First Click Free, finally demised, following a lot of discussions and pressure.
And again, if you’re not following this closely, the idea was that Google was insisting that you get ... That if you wanted to be indexed by Google that you needed to allow a user to see a story for free, or at least a number of free stories. Again, this is a philosophy that they weren’t going to send people somewhere where there was a paywall.
Yeah, and I think that’s been a really important change, because we felt all along that the throttle, the terms of access, should be down to the publisher. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and I think Google came to accept that position, so First Click Free has gone. We are now working with Google to experiment and model what works best, and there’s different cohorts and different propensity to subscribe.
I have to say, one of the key things that’s happened on that subscription journey has just been the application of increasingly sophisticated science around the whole subscription model. One of the reasons why I think it’s hard for new readers or new learners when new subscription model publishers to start here, the idea that you can just flick a switch and go from an ad-based model to a subscription model I think is misguided. I think it’s a pretty hard process that requires a whole lot of investment and time.
I’m gonna get you to spill some how-tos in a little bit. So if you are considering, like everyone is, putting up a paywall and creating a subscription model, we can talk about how to make that work. Financial Times is a business paper, a lot of corporate clients. What is the average subscription price?
So the standard subscription in the U.S. is about $350 and that’s ...
For your average or that’s ...
That’s the standard.
Right. What is your average subscription?
It’ll be that because we don’t ... Occasionally we do campaigns, we fundamentally ... That’s the price. And the premium is $575-$580.
So you’re charging $350+ for your publication, which automatically means you’ve got a very specific segment. Either people are affluent and are paying out of pocket or more likely they’ve got a corporate account. Right? Someone’s paying for it.
It kind of depends how you look at it, because I would argue that that is less than a double espresso from Starbucks every day. So it’s like, where do you see the value? And I personally think that we are at the premium pricing end ...
I’m not saying it’s over priced. I’m just saying it’s not cheap. And so if you’re at 900,000 subs eventually, I’m assuming at some point you start thinking, “If we’re going to keep growing, we want more consumers who are actually paying out of pocket to pay for us.” Do you think about, “Well, maybe there’s a less-expensive tier that we could offer”?
We are thinking about different pricing models, but I think there’s still an awful lot of growth to go for at the price points that we have because of the quality of what we do. And if you were to think about the global audience for quality news, not just business news, political news, social news, the weekend FT has fantastic arts and society coverage. We think there’s an awful lot more readership to go for and the digital revolution in mobile has made it much easier for us to reach those people because we’re not constrained by the economics of the print side, which are pretty tough. Consider the numbers. We’ve added ... we’re growing at 10 percent, pretty much, year on year in our subscriber numbers at that price point. That’s pretty healthy.
So, I don’t think we feel that we’re running out of road at that pricing level. But it may be that there’s different packages, there’s more flexible packages, that we can develop for different audiences. At the moment we’re just gunning full steam ahead to get through that million level, which is an overarching company goal, and then take it from there.
It used to be the conventional wisdom, all right, the FT can charge, the Wall Street Journal can charge. If you’re a business publication you can make a subscription model work. And now we’re seeing a lot of flowering of other subscriptions that are working, most prominently the New York Times, the Washington Post. A lot of people attribute that to sort of a reaction to Trump. Jessica Lessin, you’ve been onstage with her, also business publication, but you’ve got things like The Athletic, which is now doing sports stuff. You’ve got more and more niche stuff. Is there a content grip that you think works best for subscription or do you think this can work for literally anything?
I think it can work for a very broad range of publishers. I think it is, to be candid, easier if you’re a high-end specialist business publication. But I think a lot of the industry was too quick to dismiss the ability to charge for content, and my view is that if you have something that differentiates you, something that makes you special — it could be a brand identity, it could be a columnist, it could be a sector of coverage — you have something that differentiates you, you have the ability to charge, and I think if you don’t have anything that is in any way different or special, you’ve got some bigger questions to ask about what are you doing.
Yeah, you’d have bigger questions in general, right? Because, at the biggest end, you could have commodity news if you have a massive, massive scale, even then you’d have some problems. You never ask anybody, “What’s the key to success in commodities? Oh, make good stuff.”
Well, different stuff. I mean, good stuff and different stuff. I think that anything where you are unique or special is going to be a reason to charge. And this comes back ... This isn’t just in news media, but I remember one of the arguments around the subscription issue was always the demographic one, too. Well, young people aren’t going to pay for anything online. They’re not going to pay for information or for anything digital.
I remember at the time, if you cast your mind back, maybe when we were first meeting years ago, the explosion of the ringtones industry. That was a $10 billion industry driven by young ...
Yeah, and young people. They were prepared to pay for stuff that they had to pay for, so I think, No. 1, I think it’s ...
I don’t think you want to draw an analogy to your business and the ringtone business.
I’m just saying that this demographic that people said would never pay for anything online, did. I think that if you have something special and unique, people will pay, whatever their demographic, whatever their cohort.
Same thing with Meredith Levien from the Times. She said the biggest segment of their new subscribers are millennials.
Right. Yeah, and I think actually that’s ...
She got a big round of applause.
Yeah, and I think actually we’re seeing significant growth in younger readers, who I feel — for a whole range of social and political issues — are much more engaged and want to be much more engaged than people are giving them credit for. You look at Brexit in the U.K., you look at the gun control issue here, I think we’re seeing actually a lot of deeper engagement from young people, and they want reliable information.
I want to ask you about Brexit, but first, our business model is still based on giving away this thing for free and bringing advertisers in. So we’re going to hear from our advertiser right now. We’ll be back with John Ridding.
And, we’re back with John Ridding, CEO of the Financial Times. You mentioned Brexit a minute ago that was on my list of things to ask you about. It seems like, among the many reactions to Brexit and the Trump election, one thing I’ve thought for a while, this is a repudiation by a big proportion of the electorate. At least, of this sort of philosophy that the Financial Times stands for, free trade, global capitalism. Globalist is an insult now within some parts of the Trump White House, people who like Trump.
Have you guys thought a bit about what Brexit and what Trump’s election means for the content you’re creating?
Yeah, of course. I think when you see big social and political trends and events, and the coincidence of Trump and Brexit raised a bunch of similar questions.
And ongoing now still, right? You’ve got optimism ...
Yeah. Ongoing. Optimism is not over yet for sure. I think one of the issues there is the insecurity that comes with the pace and nature of change. Job security, economic security, border security in an age of terrorism. So, I think there’s some pretty profound issues around the whole global agenda and globalization. We still feel that actually the benefits from globalization far outweigh the costs. I think there is a job to be done in explaining that.
Right, because one of the shorthands for this is, they’re not racists, they’re economically insecure. A less cynical way of putting it is that global capitalism works great for the Financial Times and the Financial Times audience and the 900,000 subs you have. It is not working well for a big swath of the population. Do you think your readers are rethinking what’s going on or do you think it’s, like you just said, just a matter of explaining how this is going to work for everyone better in the long run?
I think there is a realization, it’s not just explanation. I think there has to be serious thought about how the wealth generated by society is apportioned, and so I think there’s some really valid questions. I think there is also a series of very important questions around the information flow around these events, and clearly one of the big stories of today and our times is the reliability of information around these big debates and the lack of trust I think in large swaths of media, which complicates, obviously, the ability to put these ideas and arguments forward.
So, to put a fine point on that, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, on and on, are increasingly asking people to pay to receive their news. High-quality news, right? It’s easy to project out where we go here is, the best news goes to people who are paying for it, and people who aren’t paying for it get not-good news. It seems like this is going to exacerbate these trends we’re talking about.
Not necessarily. I think there’s a couple of things. One is we do have quite a lot of news that is free, so we are very keen to broaden our reach to bring people within the FT and there’s a number of ways to do that. We put stories out on social media and on big events. We often, frequently, make our content free because we feel that we have a mission to explain around these issues. So I think, as I said earlier, the idea of a hard paywall is not right.
If there’s an election or a bomb goes off or some big world event, you say, “You can read this for free.”
Yeah. We will make it available.
It’s a little bit of a weird message, right? Saying, “Normally, this stuff isn’t important enough to distribute for free, but in this case we think it’s so important everyone should read it for free.”
Well, I think there are times when you feel there is a broader mission and the opportunity and the need to put that news in front of a broad audience. But, I think more generally, I think what works in the other direction ... And again, it comes down to what you think about the economics. I do not think that, certainly in our case, what we’re charging is expensive. I think it’s absolutely affordable for people who want trustworthy, quality news. And guess what? People do. And what we’ve seen, right after Brexit and right after Trump’s election, has been some major spikes in terms of ...
So you had a Trump bump as well?
A Brexit bump? Or both?
And again, I think that when you look at the growth in our subscriptions, what we’re finding is that in a world where sadly the broader news and information ecosystem is being abused and trust is declining, what you find is that trusted brands like the FT and like others, like the New York Times, benefit from that because you do get genuine demand from people really needing to understand what the truth is in a world where it’s been increasingly hard to find. Fake news, scale news, distorted news, the deeply flawed information flow on some of the big social media platforms I think is actually leading people to think, “I need a trusted guide. I need trusted source.” We have been investing in quality, independent, journalistic integrity for 130 years. That’s why people come to us.
Let’s talk about the platform, the ecosystem. When you and I first started talking, I spent a lot of time talking to you about Apple’s ... This is when people thought the iPad was going to be the key distribution method and a lot of discussion about subscriptions and what a replica magazine would look like. It’s really hard to remember. There was a lot of excitement over Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily. It was going to be this sort of Harry Potter-like experience for a newspaper.
That’s all sort of gone away. People still use the iPad. When you get up in the morning, you start thinking about your digital partners or people you’d like to be digital partners, what’s your primary concern? Are you most concerned about getting Google to funnel you? Potential subscribers? Are you trying to reconcile your Facebook strategy? I know you’re going to say they’re all equally important, but what’s the one you wake up thinking about?
The thing I always think about is that whoever we deal with, we must have a direct relationship with our readers. And that was one of the issues ...
That was the issue with Apple, right? They were controlling the ...
Yeah. The access to the reader.
And you guys said basically, “No, thank you. We’re just going to ...”
Yeah. I mean, look, it was working great for us with Apple. We were seeing really growing subscriptions and audience. But a key principle for us has been and will always be that direct relationship with the reader, and I think that’s been completely vindicated by everything that’s been going on in platform land.
So, beyond that, with a broader ecosystem, you know, it’s deeply flawed in many ways. We’re seeing that in real time and it’s pretty freaky in many respects, and we might come back to that but we’re also pragmatic. We have to optimize within that ecosystem. We’ve made, I think, reasonably good progress with Google in terms of developing our subscription technology with Google.
They just announced a Google News initiative yesterday. It will be some time in the past we you hear this. They said, “We’re going to spend $300 million over three years. We’re going to make it easier to subscribe. We’re going to do a bunch of other things.” I think you guys were participants in that event, right?
Yeah, we were involved in that.
Is that meaningful to you?
Potentially. I mean, we’ve had our periods of frustration with Google. We’ve actually hammered a lot of that out and, as I say, over the past year we’ve seen some pretty good progress.
Why do you think Google or Facebook is going out of their way to say, “We want to help publishers.”
Well, I think there’s an important distinction between words and deeds. I think, on the one hand, clearly the regulatory dimension is out there. Even more so this week following this Cambridge Analytica thing.
So, we’re in advance of us getting regulated or increasing pressure for us to be regulated, let’s try to offer some carrots and other peace offerings.
Yeah. And I think also, one of the things I’ve been banging on about to Google for a long time is, their mission statement is to organize the world’s information, which is a great mission statement, but it doesn’t mean anything if the world’s information isn’t worth organizing. So given the rise of fake news, unreliable news, I think it’s put a pretty sharp focus on the need for quality news, and that means subscription models.
The idea that you can run a quality newsroom, quality journalism based on advertising alone in a world where Google and Facebook hoover up 80 or 90 percent of every new digital ad dollar is not realistic.
By the way, this works pretty well for Facebook and Google because they’re not in the subscription business so if you tell them the answer is “help us build our subscription business,” they’re fine with that. They’re in the advertising business.
I wrote a piece that said they can’t really, fundamentally help you guys because they’re competing with you and winning. They’re hoovering up all the money, like you said. So my inbox is full of congratulatory emails from publishers. One email from someone at Google saying, “Really?” question mark in the subject line. That’s pretty much the extent of it. To me it seems like a not very controversial thing to say. They’re clearly in the advertising business.
They are the advertising business.
They are the advertising business. And so for them to say, “Well, we’re going to help you in some way, but not in a way that competes with our core business,” is not a terribly difficult thing for them to say.
Well, I think there’s a couple dimensions ... First off, it was a really good piece — I read it — that you did.
Oh, good! I’ll add that to my congratulations list.
I think the advertising business isn’t just Facebook and Google. There’s new dimensions. There’s branded content. There’s innovations around advertising, which are viable and growing, certainly for us and I think for other publishers. But I think that any publisher that has been focusing on a general digital advertising model in a time of Google and Facebook is going to run into very serious business model issues and problems.
But I do think that there is the opportunity for the platforms to be a lot more helpful in terms of subscription model development. Fundamentally and most important of all, I think that any publisher that ties their fortunes to social media or search platforms is making a major strategic mistake.
Our belief all along is that we have to have an independent, stand-alone business model and operation that does not depend on policy changes or the whims of the social media platforms. And yet when we saw, earlier this year, the change in the Facebook news algorithm, that was a wake-up call, I think, to a lot of people in the industry, that if you bet the farm on Facebook’s very enticing reach — and they can change the weather kind of overnight with changes to the news algorithm — you’re pretty exposed.
The alarm went off, probably a little too late for a lot of people if you’re just, like you said, if you’re just thinking about subscriptions now, you’re in trouble. That said, if, let’s say, over the last year you’ve been thinking, “We should really figure out a subscription business,” and you are moving toward there and you’re not the Financial Times, what are some things that you need to be thinking about, besides make great content that is distinct? Let’s say you’ve got that part nailed. What else?
Well, I think specialization. Being very confident and very clear about — and very clear to the newsroom about — what makes you different and must-have. If you’ve got anything that’s must-have, that’s a good basis to invest in the gritty, difficult stuff of a subscription model. It’s a lot of ...
So what is the grit ... Because again, make good stuff. Good. Make stuff that’s must-have. I guess you could have had some discussion about how you measure that, but there’s kind of a “you know it when you see it,” right? You kind of can distinguish that. Do I need this to do my job or can I only get this there? Let’s say you’re headed toward that path, what is the gritty stuff that isn’t apparent to a dummy like me?
It’s sort of measuring the readers. Who’s reading what, when? What content is working for them? We’ve always been very clear ... We’re very data driven but we’ve always been very clear that we are fundamentally editorially driven. We will never second guess our editors, but the data is very useful for them to understand what’s working. I think just having some very clear goals for the whole organization around what success looks like. The key driver for us, one of the key drivers — which I think is probably more generally applicable — is this idea of engagement.
You measure the engagement from how often people are coming, how much time they’re spending when they come, how many articles they’re reading. So this engagement score or metric, we apply to every single one of our readers and we track it very closely. And, I think, that enables the whole organization to understand what’s working and what’s keeping that loyalty and habit with readers. So the subscription number, in a sense, is a symptom of having a very effective engagement strategy.
Are you measuring per article? That was an engaging article, that article brought in that many more readers.
It’s quite a complex set of calculations that goes into the score, but fundamentally it’s a combination of time, amount of articles read and the recency of which people came. And if they score well on those three things, they’re an engaged reader.
If you were an old-school journalist and the web came along and all of a sudden people were measuring your productivity by the number of clicks you got per article or however they were measuring it, you said, “Oh! This is gross and I don’t like it.” And if you’d been in a different business you’re always getting measured. And again, people will say, “Well, one of the problems with the ad model is you do all this clickbait. You write stuff that people will want to click on.” I’m a little confused by how that’s different than a subscription model where you write stuff that people want to click on.
Yeah, used wrongly, data can be pretty dangerous, actually. If you’re just trying to optimize clicks you can do all sorts of things that are not true to quality news, so we don’t ... We’re very care about how we use the data. It informs, it doesn’t drive.
You’re still measuring what your audience wants to read, right?
It’s still fundamentally saying, “Do you like this? We’ll give you more of it,” right?
Yeah. What we don’t do is we don’t follow the data. So we don’t say, “Hey! This story’s looking pretty exciting out there in the world. It’s getting lots of clicks. We should be deploying resources there.”
Our view is that we set the agenda. We don’t follow it. Nonetheless, it’s still quite important when you’re thinking in a macro and strategic term about what kinds of sectoral coverage is ... For example, AI might be developing as a really interesting theme for our readers and you can see that through the data that informs decisions about where we invest, what kind of services we develop, so it’s kind of in that sort of slightly broader theme.
But at some point you also have to go, “We think AI is going to be important.”
“We’re not really sure what it is and we don’t have a huge audience for it yet but we’re going to bet on it,” right? You have to do some of that, right? Where you test out different ideas in your head early.
Yeah, and I think there’s ... I don’t often quote Donald Rumsfeld but there are things you know, things you don’t know and things you don’t know you don’t know.
I’ve seen you quote Donald Rumsfeld before. I was Googling you before. You used that before.
I’ll stop that.
It’s a great one. Known unknowns.
But I think that serendipity dimension and the judgment factor is crucial, actually, to news media and also crucial to ... it’s not only crucial to a business audience but a more general audience. I think that’s it. One of the dangers, of course, with social media, is that silo effect. People only get the echo chamber. They only get what they’re asking for. They only get what their friends are talking about. That’s actually pretty unhealthy.
But there is an FT version of that, right? Which is, you’re going to get a worldview that kind of looks like the people ... The same worldview that the people who you work with, probably the people who you live with. Most publications have a version of this, whether there’s an outcry with the New York Times decided to hand over the editorial page to the people who voted for Donald Trump, right? That’s 30 to 45 percent of the country, and to hear some Times readers describe it, that’s terrible. And the FT has its own version of that.
I would disagree with that. I think that the FT has very much resisted this trend towards polarization. If you look at our op-ed pages, there’s generally a range of views. We run pro-Brexit stuff on our op-ed pages. There’s a pretty lively debate even within our columnists. There’s quite diverse views.
I think we see our mission very clearly as being a forum for discussing all of these really important issues at a time when a lot of news media has become troublingly polarized.
You guys were owned by Pearson for a very long time. I always debated about who was going to buy you. Up until the very last minute, it looked like Axel Springer was going to buy you. I think there was some “Dewey defeats Truman” headlines. I think maybe, I don’t want to disparage anyone, but I think maybe your own publication reported that you were being bought by Axel Springer and then that didn’t happen. Nikkei bought you instead. I want to ask you about Nikkei, but you were obviously there for that transaction. Can you describe what happened? Because normally when someone’s going to get bought it’s fairly evident who the buyer is at some point. There isn’t a last-minute switch. What happened there?
I think what happened was simply that there were a number of deeply interested buyers and it was a very close-run thing right to the end. Of course, because I was a player as CEO of the FT, I wasn’t allowed to be in the room for the final decision. Rightly so.
You were pretty close to the room.
Pretty close to the room. My nose up against the glass of the room, but it was probably the most dramatic day of my business life.
How close was that deal to going to Axel? Was it within hours? Was ...
I was not in that room so I can’t say. But what I can say is that there was some very serious interest from very serious people. In the end, Nikkei came in with a good offer. Not just in terms of the numbers but in terms of their vision for the FT.
I think one of the things that isn’t understood enough is I think Pearson took their stewardship role very seriously. That the FT should end up with a long-term owner that really understood the values of the FT, and I’m delighted that that’s actually what we’ve seen with Nikkei and I think it helps that they’re private. They can take a long-term view, which in a world of major disruption, I think we’re entering a whole new phase of disruption in news media, but having the ability to have that as a long-term view and that same belief in quality, independent journalism, is vital, refreshing and very reassuring.
What has changed under Nikkei? And, the answer cannot be nothing.
They have been, as they promised, completely hands-off in terms of editorial coverage and have been absolutely scrupulous on that front. What we have seen is a number of areas of cooperation in the business side. We now have a combined sales team in Asia, which is working really well. We just launched, actually, a new product called scoutAsia which is a news and data service about Asian companies for the world. We’re working with them on a business English venture. So there’s a number of specific investment projects that we think ...
That wouldn’t have happened.
That wouldn’t have happened, and unleashed both the FT brand and the Nikkei brand that we think can become quite a substantial business. One of the things I really appreciate and respect about the Nikkei strategy is that it’s focused on growth. They believe in growth, and at a time when a lot of people view news media as playing defense, we’re playing offense. They want us to grow and we are growing.
What does offense look like? Besides growing your subscription business.
It’s growing our subscription business. It’s innovating around advertising models, branded content, etc., and it’s conceiving of and launching new product innovations like scoutAsia, like business English, and there’s a number of others that we’re thinking about at the moment.
I hear rumblings about M&A activity in part because things are cheaper now than they were a couple years ago.
I hadn’t noticed that so much.
Yeah? Maybe you should ask around, but it seems like you are in a position where if you want to bolt on product to the business, you could.
Yeah. We’ve made a couple of acquisitions under Nikkei. A business called Alpha Grid, which does branded content in video, which is great. We just bought a business called Longitude, which does research. Really to help develop that new advertising and marketing strategy. Absolutely, we are very interested in looking at what’s out there.
You should buy The Information, right? That’d be a good complementary business.
I normally like to announce deals and projects online.
Yeah, yeah. This is just between us.
I do think there’s an opportunity. What we look for is something that can accelerate our strategy, that is consistent with the strategy that can accelerate what we do but also to bring in new areas of expertise, because I think we’re all aware that the pace of change is accelerating, if anything.
The way I think about it, we’re at the third phase of disruption. Phase one was digital. Phase two was mobile. And now we’re getting a combination AI, blockchain-type technologies and voice, which I think is going to be a really interesting challenge for publishers.
Let’s talk about voice next time. You’re at 925,000 subs?
When do you think you hit a million?
So, a very wise mentor of mine once said, “Give a target or give a date. Don’t give both,” but we’re closing in on that pretty quickly. It’s a year or so.
Okay. So, the next time we talk you’ll be at a million+. We can talk about voice, how that’s working out. We can talk about whether or not Google has delivered on its promises. Deal?
I look forward to it.
Thanks for coming, John. Appreciate it.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.