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Financial Times CEO John Ridding explains how to make people pay for media

Techies pooh-poohed online subscriptions a decade ago. My, how things have changed.

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Financial Times CEO John Ridding
Financial Times CEO John Ridding
Barry Cronin / Sportsfile via Getty Images

When the Financial Times began putting its online content behind a paywall, John Ridding recalls that reactions in the tech world ranged from skeptical to “pretty hostile.” After all, the conventional wisdom of the time went, “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,” Ridding said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “It’s a channel.”

Now the CEO of the FT is feeling vindicated: Subscriptions to online reporting from the Nikkei-owned London-based business newspaper start at $350 per year, and readers are buying. Ridding said two-thirds of the FT’s 900,000 subscribers are digital customers, and subscriptions have overtaken advertising as the chief source of the company’s revenue, also representing about two-thirds of the total.

“A lot of the industry was too quick to dismiss the ability to charge for content. 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 the ability to charge.”

“If you don’t have anything that is in any way different or special, you’ve got some bigger questions to ask,” he added. “What are you doing?”

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On the new podcast, Ridding talked about the resistance the FT had faced from some of the big tech platforms that were intent on distributing content for free, noting that now he hopes they might start to be “more helpful, in terms of subscription model development.” One of the big fights was with Google, which used to insist that readers clicking on a link in search results should get the “first click free” — meaning they would be guaranteed to not see a paywall right away.

“We felt all along that the throttle, the terms of access, should be down to the publisher,” Ridding said. “There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and Google came to accept that position.”

He also discussed how the FT’s own thinking has changed over time. Rather than giving readers a certain number of free articles per month — the “metered” business model practiced by the New York Times, the Washington Post and Wired, among others — it has shifted in recent years to just give them unfettered access for free for the first month.

“We thought, what do we really want to do?” Ridding recalled. “We really want to achieve the habit in digital that people used to have in print. A metered model kind of goes against that because you’re, by definition, rationing. ... Ideally, you spend a month with the FT, you get to appreciate it, you become a subscriber.”

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