It was a time when the financial markets were growing and globalising rapidly. Gossip, speculation and misinformation abounded. There was a need for a ‘‘friend to the honest financier and the respectable broker.’’
From 1888, when it began publishing under that motto, The Financial Times has seen continuity in its mission. On Wednesday, The FT is celebrating its 125th birthday.
In a multichannel world, whatever form journalism takes, those values and that fundamental rationale is unchanged.
The newspaper’s London headquarters along the south bank of the Thames will be lit up in pink, the colour of the paper on which it has been printed since shortly after it was founded. There will be a few parties — understated, of course, for these are straitened times in London, and challenging ones for the newspaper industry.
Anniversaries are difficult for newspapers. At a time when they are losing subscribers and advertisers and losing ground to digital media organizations that are still in their adolescence, few publishers want to emphasize their age.
But John Ridding, chief executive of The FT, has a better digital story to tell than most other newspapers. True, the print editions are fading. But The FT has figured out how to make significant money from new outlets, without straying from its original purpose. So Ridding is not worried about looking back.
‘‘Milestones matter,’’ he said. ‘‘In our industry, which has seen so much upheaval and disruption, it shows amazing continuity. The look and feel of the business was very different, but there are some enduring constants that persist.’’
In addition to its birthday, The FT can point to several other recent or pending milestones.
Last year the number of digital subscribers, now more than 300,000, surpassed the print circulation of the paper, which has slipped below that figure. This year, print and digital subscriptions and sales are set to overtake advertising as a source of revenue. Mobile devices now account for one-quarter of The FT’s digital traffic and about 15 per cent of new subscriptions.
The FT was one of the first newspapers to charge readers for access to its website, which it did in 2002. It revamped its digital business model in 2007, moving to a ‘‘metered’’ approach, in which readers get a certain number of articles free before they are asked to subscribe.
Since 2007, The FT’s paying digital audience has tripled, and the metered approach has been adopted by other newspapers, including The New York Times.
With print circulation moving in the other direction — last year alone it fell about 15 per cent — The FT recently accelerated its move away from paper. In January, Lionel Barber, the paper’s editor, sent a memo to the staff, detailing a plan to ‘‘ensure that we are serving a digital platform first and a newspaper second.’’
Under the plan, the print operations of The FT will be streamlined. While separate regional editions — for the United States, Britain, Continental Europe, Asia, India and the Middle East — will be maintained, there will be fewer nightly updates.
Editorial hierarchies will be simplified, Barber wrote, with an end to ‘‘octopus commissioning’’ — under which reporters answer to multiple editors. Deadlines will be more strictly enforced. The paper is eliminating about three dozen editorial positions, though 10 posts are being created on the digital side.Ridding described the new approach as ‘‘more of an evolution than a revolution.’’
‘‘It’s more of an intensification of an existing digital trend,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s driven by a need to redeploy resources to digital. That’s what readers want.’’
It’s not all about cutting. The FT also continues to develop new products, like an FT Weekend mobile application, to accompany the Saturday/Sunday print edition, which remains an important source of advertising revenue; the app is set to be introduced shortly.
Last year The FT began publishing e-books with selected themes, compiling articles from the newspaper and enhancing them with material from journalists’ notebooks; the first one examined the possibility of a Greek exit from the eurozone.
At a time when The FT’s biggest rival, The Wall Street Journal, is trying to broaden its appeal to general readers outside the financial industry, The FT is ever more focused on corporate customers.
Its total 600,000 print and digital subscribers include more than 163,000 users at 2700 companies and other concerns that have bought business licenses to The FT’s digital content. A large but unspecified portion of The FT’s individual subscriptions are bought on expense accounts.
‘‘They are an unusual beast, because their market is business to business,’’ said Douglas McCabe, an analyst at Enders Analysis in London. ‘‘It’s a very different model from a conventional newspaper.’’
Analysts say the strong growth in digital subscriptions masks the fact that online advertising has failed to catch on in a big way. This helps explain why the FT, despite its plugged-in and mobile audience, has not done away with its print editions, despite their flagging circulation.
The weekend paper, especially, remains a favorite of luxury advertisers.
‘‘In one sense, its challenges are the same as everyone else’s,’’ McCabe said. ‘‘Print circulation and advertising are falling away. Advertising in a digital environment remains difficult for them, as it does for everybody.’’
Although the business audience has been an attractive niche for The FT, McCabe said, it could also make the paper increasingly vulnerable to competition from operations like Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters, which deliver news electronically alongside their financial data services.
This is one reason for the perennial speculation about a possible sale of The FT by its parent company, the London-based publisher Pearson.
‘‘Pearson has said repeatedly that The FT is not for sale,’’ Ridding said. ‘‘This kind of thing has been around us for as long as I can remember. We’re getting used to it. I think people tend to hold onto The FT.’’
The FT has had only a handful of owners, and Pearson has held it since 1957. One of the reasons that the paper has reached the ripe age of 125 — a milestone that the International Herald Tribune, based in Paris, passed last year — is its founding values, Ridding said.
‘‘Our role is to be a trusted guide, a filter,’’ Ridding said. ‘‘It’s actually a pretty constant value. In a multichannel world, whatever form journalism takes, those values and that fundamental rationale is unchanged.’’
The New York Times