Former FT editor Barber’s advice on the Coronavirus pandemic
The financial crisis of 2008 saw three commercial pillars of the news industry disappearing overnight. Back then, hundreds of newspapers closed down with many more journalists losing jobs but the Financial Times survived.
In fact, since then the FT has grown in profits and revenue.
To throw further light on the matter, Press Gazette asked former Financial Times editor Lionel Barber to share his insight into how his paper survived the last major storm the industry saw. Here is what he had to say:
“The financial crisis was a once in a generation story for the FT – the most serious of its kind since the Depression. The top editorial team viewed it as a chance to establish ourselves as a truly global publication, able to report, analyze and comment on the story from all corners of the world.
Remember this was a global crisis, exported from the US to the UK, then Europe, the Middle East and China. We are able, via our global network of correspondents, to connect the dots.
“One day, it was the downfall of Dubai; the next, China’s reflation; the next, the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. We had people on the ground. We could Commission. Then we needed to coordinate. I made a point of putting our commentary front and center of the coverage. We had world class voices on economics and finance/markets, starting with Martin Wolf and Gillian Tett. Gideon Rachman was a new commentator on foreign affairs, wonderfully versatile.
“The same holds for our veteran global business commentator John Gapper. I also bolstered the ranks of top notch economists and financially savvy journalists. We had to be strong on the news, reacting to events and anticipating trends. Our commentary was often what set us apart. We were also European-based, not Anglo-Saxons from America.
“The financial crisis also offered the FT a chance to open a debate about financial capitalism of the kind that nearly brought down the system. This was a political and practical choice. After the dotcom crash, the FT was arguably too critical of capitalism per se (rather than of central bankers like Alan Greenspan who had helped inflate the credit bubble). Martin Dickson, my deputy, and I both agreed the FT should defend capitalism and open markets but be clear and practical about reform, from regulation to bank capital ratios.
“Crucially, these editorial decisions came on top of sound business decisions which had helped turn the FT around. These decisions in 2006-8 amounted to a reinvention of our business model, moving to a subscription model charging reader for content. We also raised prices, establishing a bench mark for quality, and we sold subs directly to businesses rather than being disintermediated by aggregators.”
Perhaps this will be an encouraging lesson for today’s news providers in these tough times.
He also shared his advice on how news media should cover the pandemic. He says:
“Find someone who really understands science and can write with clarity and insight. Trusted voices – yes, experts! – are key. The best science editor today is going to be the Martin Wolf of 2008.
“Think hard about how Covid-19 is already fundamentally changing consumer behaviour and challenging long established views about hot issues like Universal Basic Income. There’s no sport to cover for general newspapers, so thinking and writing about current and future trends is very relevant.
“There is a big financial market dimension to this. People’s pensions have been crushed, savings have been hurt. Philanthropy is going to suffer. But will markets stay low for some time or rebound? Commentators like Goldman Sachs have interesting views on this. Find some new ones.
“Tone is important. Governments around the world have been behind the curve, some more than others. But people want solutions and insights not just criticism and whining. Above all, they don’t want panic.”