The Financial Times' Gillian Tett on going global and staying hungry

Gillian Tett, U.S. managing editor for the Financial Times chats with Sean Czarnecki about covering American politics and making sure print and online editorial teams play nicely.

How has the 2016 election affected how you cover politics? Does it make you fact-check candidates more aggressively?
We take accuracy seriously. We’re in a slightly different position from other U.S. media because we’re not doing wall-to-wall coverage of every single thing that happens. We don’t breathlessly repeat every Trump speech. We’re much more selective. We pride ourselves on trying to really choose key elements and provide context for our readers in a thoughtful way.

You first held this position from 2010 to 2012. How have the day-to-day operations of the job and U.S. coverage changed since you took over for Martin Dickson in 2014?
We are now a digital-first publication. Not only are the digital and print editing processes integrated, we’re also looking to integrate video, charts, and all manner of multimedia into our reporting, and that’s quite a bit on its way.

We try to optimize our viewership by paying close attention to big data, which is integrated with our news operation. We look at when people read us, when they’re hungry for news, what kind of news they like, and where.

FT is the same talented team with the same core commitment to content, with a few additions to step up our technological skills and changes to the distribution and production processes. It’s like massively revamping an old car’s engine and putting it back under the same hood: it might look similar, but the inner workings are more dynamic, integrated, and exciting.

How do you coordinate your editorial teams and keep them from stepping on each other’s toes?
When I arrived in the U.S. in 2010, there was one team handling FT.com and another doing the newspaper editing, seated with their backs to each other. Classic story of any newsroom. First thing I did was turn around the chairs, put them at the same desk.

We moved into new offices a few years ago. Everyone has to talk to each other. Importantly, we have all our social, video, interactive graphics, and data and analysis teams sitting together.

Now, we have a 24-hour rolling news-production schedule, or ‘broadcast’ schedule. In the old days, London kept control of things. Now, we take over the global operation of the news production and editing process each afternoon, then hand off to Hong Kong around midnight.

Instead of having a traditional news conference, people communicate throughout the day, setting times when news will be delivered and released. In some ways, it’s a move toward a more seamless model.

How do you get people to make room for the FT in their media diet?
Unlike most of our competitors, we’re cross-border and truly global in our perspective. I don’t mean that we just have news from around the world; we take a global insider-outsider perspective of the news.

We’re also cross-beat. While we still have beat reporters, we’re fluid and integrated in terms of how we cover stories. Someone might be working the banking beat, but we encourage them to think about political implications, so on.

We cross political boundaries. We’re not tribal. Most of our rivals have clear political affiliations. Our columnists tend to be all over the place politically.

The last thing we have is high cachet in terms of culture, intellectualism, economics, and politics. We’re a smart read for a globally aware audience.

How much does the versatility of your reporters have to do with economics rather than culture?
It’s a combination. We don’t have as many reporters as our rivals. Frankly, we have a lot less. One of the reasons they’re cutting staff is they’re more extensively staffed, perhaps too much. That smaller staff means we are more cohesive, flexible, and coordinated. They provide a punchy, powerful view of the world.

Have you or your staff ever been pressured to cover stories a certain way since being acquired by the Nikkei?
There’s been absolutely no conflict whatsoever. I know there was concern about that.

We’re lucky to have the Nikkei as a partner because of three important factors, the first being they have great global ambition. Secondly, they have a lot of respect for us. There’s been a lot of mutual learning in that they sent people to work with us; in fact, I have a couple people from Nikkei sitting on the news team in New York, learning how we do things to take back to Tokyo. And finally, they have access to funds and long-term investment horizon, which a company needs if it wants to be a powerful media brand on the world stage.

How do FT readers usually consume media?
Paper makes up a decreasing amount of what we do. Paid-for circulation is 840,000. Out of that, digital circulation is 625,000, and that’s up 17% year-on-year. (Updated to reflect numbers for January 2017). Corporate subscriptions is critical for us, about half of all circulation. We’ve been deliberately managing down our print circulation but not too dramatically.

Unlike our rivals, we moved aggressively toward digital and a subscription-based model, so now 50% of revenue comes from content. Advertising is still important, but it’s a bit like the gravy on the meat.

This story was updated on January 6 to include circulation numbers for January 2017.

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