FT’s Barber on why it decided to start charging for content
Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times since 2005, recently gave an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review regarding his time at the publication. Barber discussed topics such as media paywalls, wider coverage of world news, and how to cover the “alt-right”. Barber plans on stepping down from the Financial Times soon, although no particular timeline was given.
Here is an excerpt:
In your tenure, FT circulation has grown by a lot [recently topping 1,000,000 paying readers], and digital subscribers just skyrocketed [to 650,000]. Not to undermine your skills as an editor, but do you think that that was something to do with the growth of the financial sector?
When I came here [in concert with others] I said, “We’re under-priced.” So we need to raise prices because you’re creating a premium brand and making a statement. But then it was also useful internally because I could tell the journalist, “Right, we’re having to charge this extra stuff and raise prices, so you gotta create more value.” Very important.
Second, we made a big decision to charge for content. We didn’t go for what was going on in America, which was, “Knowledge wants to be free.” No, it doesn’t. If you’re going to spread knowledge and insight, you’re going to have to charge for it.
And then the third thing, we had to figure out the business model, because our business model was broken in 2004 and 2005. We needed to figure out how to sell direct to customers, not be disintermediated by these aggregators, and sell direct, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve concentrated on a business audience. Of course, we have others who are not in the financial sector. So we’ve sold to law firms, to accountancy firms, but also colleges, all sorts of businesses.
And lastly, you can grow if you’ve got a brand, a valuable brand, offering a digital proposition, with no geographical boundaries. So, that’s why we’ve doubled the paid circulation since I’ve been editor.
Barber has won various awards throughout his career. He was named Young Journalist of the Year by the British Press Awards in 1981, and was also awarded the St. George Society medal of honor for his contribution to journalism in the transatlantic community. He has worked at The Scotsman, The Sunday Times, and also employed in various senior roles at FT.