Media analysis: All change at the Financial Times

As the Financial Times prepares to axe one in ten of its journalists, Alex Black asks PR professionals whether the hallowed pink 'un can retain its lustre

The Financial Times last week announced that 50 positions in its London office would be cut as part of a ‘newsroom overhaul'. But despite the headcount reduction, the paper, according to outgoing head of comms Joanna Manning-Cooper, is trying to create ‘something a bit special'.

That ‘something', according to editor Lionel Barber, is ‘one of the most integrated multimedia newsrooms in the world'.

Barber believes a ‘radical reworking' of the editorial structure will ‘simplify and streamline' operations and ‘put the web at the centre of our newsroom'. He told employees: ‘In the past ten years we have launched international editions in the US and Asia, and an excellent website. But we haven't fundamentally changed the way we work as a newsroom.'

And he concluded by saying that the cuts, though unfortunate, are part of a plan to maximise the opportunities available in the digital age.

But do financial PR practitioners see this as a brave step forward? Or is it just an old-fashioned bid to cut overheads and try and wring the same work from fewer staff?

A new reality

Financial Dynamics London chief operating officer Tim Spratt says any investment in the FT's ability to quickly put breaking stories online must be a good thing, but adds it is too early to tell whether the cuts will affect quality. ‘The FT is up against business wires and broadcasters, so same-day news delivery is crucial,' he says.

Wires such as Reuters, Bloomberg Money and Dow Jones all deliver global business news digitally, and the FT is seemingly determined to make sure it is seen as the standard-bearer for breaking business news.

Indeed, Scottish Widows consumer/brand marketing director Mike Hoban says media owners have to embrace a ‘new reality' in which their products must maintain a consistent level of quality over more than one format.

‘The FT looks like it is responding to that, which is a good thing,' says Hoban: ‘Stories that work across different media tend to make better stories anyway.'

An increasing number of companies are appreciating the value of having their news published across different formats. For example, financial comms agencies have adapted their methods over the past couple of years to suit FT.com, particularly its agenda-setting twice-daily ‘Lex Live' email bulletin. Whereas an interview with, say, a client's CEO, might previously have been lined up to meet an afternoon deadline, Lex Live usually requires a 9am or 10am call.

‘This restructure should make our job easier,' says Penrose Financial managing director Gay Collins. ‘The fact that the news process is being streamlined should increase the chances of getting in both print and online versions of the paper.'

Indeed, Cathcart CEO Jackie Elliot thinks the FT's plans will mean greater opportunities for financial PROs:

‘Obviously you still have to tailor information to web and print, but if the processes at the FT are being streamlined, it should be easier to harness the power of both.'

Still the ‘gold standard'

For PR professionals, the satisfaction of seeing clients or their organisation mentioned in a positive light in the FT's hallowed pink pages remains undimmed. For instance, Richard Acworth, head of comms at Henderson Global Investors, admires the business sections of The Times and The Daily Telegraph, but says neither can offer the depth of the FT.

‘It's always nice to see your product in the hard-copy FT,' he says. ‘If people are travelling to their office in the City, there is only one thing they will be reading.'

The FT remains the ‘gold standard', concurs Paul Deane-Williams, head of PR (investment business) at Watson Wyatt: ‘It offers a unique space in the market. It has tried to become more mainstream and expand its online  offering over recent years, but it still delivers a quality product.'

But will the hanging Sword of Damocles affect staff morale to an extent that it affects content? FT staff privately acknowledge that some sort of major streamlining had been on the cards: the introduction of a new production system, allowing articles to be prepared simultaneously for both print and online publication, is no great surprise.

‘FT.com is a massive drain on resources,' says one journalist, who prefers to remain anonymous. ‘The current system doesn't allow news to be channelled to the web and print versions at the same time.'

Barber has outlined that the journalists he retains must be ‘multimedia skilled, capable of writing, editing and publishing stories in both media and able to be assigned to any print or online channel as appropriate'.

Ultimately, FT managers are positioning the shake-up as a positive move designed to increase the pace and quality of the newspaper's journalism in the digital age.

If the new regime provides a slicker service without compromising the quality of the overall product, then it seems the axe-wielding will be seen to have been wholly justified.

FT: why cost-cutting was on the cards

Current operating margins at the FT are one per cent. Six years ago the figure was 27 per cent. The cutbacks are expected to save around £2.5m.

The FT made a profit of £2m last year. By contrast, parent company Pearson made £80m from its electronic info arm IDC, and a further £18m from newspapers other than the FT in the same period.

The ‘trophy value' of the FT to a rival would mean it could fetch at least £500m, analysts have predicted. A return to decent profitability will quieten the clamouring from investors for it to sell up…

…which is what City commentators believe will happen anyway. Shaving £2.5m from the wage bill would make it a more attractive buy.

Advertising revenues are expected to decline in the second half of this year.

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