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The FT’s digital strategy

James Lamont, Managing Editor, Financial Times, ‘The FT’s digital strategy, RISJ Seminar, Wednesday 5th March 2014

Mirjami Saarinen writes:

“This is an increasingly exciting time to be a journalist. News rooms are in a stage of upheaval and the business models are in flux.  Journalism is changing everywhere,” says James Lamont, the managing editor of the Financial Times.

However, ‘exciting’ is not a synonym for ‘easy’.  Lamont admits that the question of profitability is so hard that not all the newspapers will survive.  But the FT has found a way back to the light again, thanks in part to the paywall the paper launched in 2007.

“The Internet paywall was an incredibly good decision. It has probably guaranteed us survival. We can now see a future ahead of us”, says Lamont.

The FT’s key financial figures confirm his words. Profits rose 17 % in 2013. The share of digital content in the total revenue is now 55%, compared to 38% in 2008.

FT’s total circulation has risen to 625,000, which is the highest figure ever, of which 240,000 are print sales and the rest are digital readers who overall now represent 64% of the FT’s total audience

At the same time the share of subscription income has risen to 63% of revenues, whereas the share of advertisement has fallen to 37%. Traditionally in newspapers these numbers used to be other way round.

”This shows that you can survive with subscription. But advertisements are still an important addition to this.”

In digital media, mobile is the name of the game. Mobile devices account for 62% of FT subscribers’ consumption and 45% of total online traffic. The mobile phone is a practical tool for readers, but for newspapers it is a challenge.

”We have to format the FT for mobile devices. Also the business model is difficult.”

James Lamont underlines that a successful paywall launch requires quality in content.

”Relevance is the key word. People don’t pay for something that they don’t value”, he stresses.

The aim of FT’s digital strategy is to accelerate the number of digital subscribers, and at the same time to try to halt the decline of subscribers to the print edition.  At least so far this has succeeded.  The FT Weekend’s print circulation has even increased.  Last year the print edition became profitable after decades of loss making. ”There is still demand for the print. But FT’s future is digital.”

The Financial Times was established in 1888, when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Old institutions, which FT clearly is, often struggle with change. They have old assets, but also old baggage.

”Digitalization has been the biggest change in the paper’s history. It is the Gutenberg press moment”.

Lamont says that 2012 was a turning point.

”Then the number of digital subscriptions surpassed the print ones. It helped to change the view in the news room.”

Almost one in four FT journalists changed jobs last year. Also journalism itself has changed.

”New journalism is different from old journalism. There is more short-form of journalism, twitter is very important, you have to get the story out first. The buzz word is engagement with the readers. They don’t any more lectures, they want to participate.”

Different kinds of technical tools have come to newsrooms to stay. Web analytics tells you by the minute which articles are being read.  James Lamont appreciates new technology, but underlines that they are only an aid.

”You have to be very careful with the analytics. It is not a substitute for good news editing. We are not like a retailer, only giving people what sells best. We publish stories which we think are important and which readers also want to read.”

FT’s digital strategy has clearly been a success. But how easy is it to copy this kind of success to other general newspapers? Business newspapers have content which people are prepared to pay money for, and the average income of subscribers is quite high, so they are more willing to pay for the news.

”This is much more difficult for general news. In the UK they have to compete with the BBC and the Guardian, who are giving their content for free.”