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Sept. 30, 2014, 10:50 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Q&A: The FT’s Gillian Tett on separating digital from print and tailoring news to new reading habits

“What is changing is people are actually saying, Okay, how are consumers, our readers, actually consuming the news?”

W
hen you’ve been publishing a newspaper for 126 years, a little touchup every so often doesn’t hurt. But the recent “refresh” of the Financial Times — which includes a redesigned front page, new color graphics, and a new typeface — has as much to do with the company’s digital future as its present in print. While the FT is still a broadsheet and maintains its famous salmon hue, editors say they’ve reoriented the paper for the digital age and are placing less focus on reacting to news and more on providing context around events. The FT, like a lot of media organizations, is touting the idea of being digital-first in its reporting and delivery, which means slotting different types of stories into the print edition.

gilliantettGillian Tett, U.S. managing editor of the FT, says print now fits into a wide variety of reading experiences that media companies need to provide readers. The FT, Tett told me, has invested lots of time and resources in studying reader habits and consumption patterns, like what people are looking for when they read on different devices and at different times of day.

“In the past, newspapers basically gave readers what the newspaper decided was the news, in the way the newspaper decides they should have it. There was no consumer choice. You either took the paper or you didn’t,” she said. “What is changing is people are actually saying, Okay, how are consumers, our readers, actually consuming the news?”

In our conversation, we discussed how the company is focusing on print while expanding further into digital, the FT’s use of aggregation with fastFT, and how the organization is thinking about emerging mediums like wearables, with their new app for the Samsung Gear. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Justin Ellis: The FT has talked in the last year about becoming more digital first. How does this refresh fit into that?

Gillian Tett: Here’s the issue: We have been incredibly proud at saying we are digital first and very digitally focused. You’ve written about this yourself. You can see the impact of that in terms of our readership, in terms of our news flow, in terms of the way we’re presenting stories and thinking about stories: We are very, very focused on digital output. In fact, we’re very proud of the fact that we’ve been pretty innovative compared to most of our peers, in terms of really embracing the digital revolution.

But what this refresh really does is signal very clearly — and not just signal but actually underline and enable us — to show that we care about print a lot too. And it’s not necessarily an either/or. Obviously we’re facing a marketplace where there is an evolution from print to digital for many of our readers, but not all of our readers. We have a lot of really valued readers who really like reading us in print, with the old-fashioned crinkle, if you like.

The print edition shows that, actually, we’re putting emphasis on that as well in terms of what we value. In terms of our day-to-day workflow, obviously we, like many papers, are facing a world where we have to reorganize ourselves to cope with both. But something I often say to journalists when they ask about is it print or digital, how do we cope with it — it’s a bit like movies these days. Are they showing it in the cinema, or do you view them at home? The answer is there’s been a shift. Fifty, 60 years ago movies were viewed in the cinema — they weren’t really viewed at home on your couch. Then, of course, it changed — we had the option of viewing it on home on the couch. But guess what: Cinema attendance hasn’t actually disappeared because different forms of media distribution form different social functions. So the question of how we take our famous FT content and supply the reader however they want to read it.

Justin: A part of that is what goes on behind the scenes — the production of the paper and the work of the reporters and editors. How is their workflow going to change?

Gillian: The big picture way to see this is that, until recently, many traditional newsprint organizations, when they moved to the digital sphere, essentially scraped their print edition and then put it online. So, if you like, the digital offering for many organizations was almost a derivative of the print offering.

What we’re doing today is essentially turning that equation on its head, and saying we’re digital first, we’re very focused on putting out a fantastic website, and then we’re using what we can from that in the print edition too.

Now that changes our work day. It means that we have to focus on producing stories a lot earlier. We’re now very, very conscious of how people read us and when people read us. We’re trying to really hit those target points. It changes some of the ways we conceive of stories, and conceive of actually reaching out to readers. In addition to our, if you like, bounded newspaper, our print newspaper, we have a digital site that’s essentially open-ended, bottomless if you like, and constantly evolving.

But we also have a whole range of new products we’re actually designing specifically to try and tap into what our readers want. Remember, many of our readers are now getting us on mobile devices, not even PCs any more, or iPads. Things like FT Antenna, which is a terrific new product that pulls out the best of what’s on the web for our readers, and things like fastFT, which really capture breaking news stories, are our ways of trying to serve this diverse, multifaceted audience. In some ways, the media world is not that different from any other business sphere in that we need to listen to what our consumers want, find a way of serving them, find a way of being flexible enough to actually adapt to that, and essentially go forth and deliver the product.

Justin: What kind of patterns are you seeing in how FT readers consume what you guys are producing?

Gillian: One of the really terrific and exciting things about the digital revolution is that we now have dramatically more information than ever before in history about how people are consuming us. Traditionally, newspapers or media outlets have put their offerings out into the wide world and kind of hoped that consumers were reading that or wanting that. But they didn’t really have a precise way of knowing that.

What we have now, which is very exciting, is we can actually see when people are reading us and which stories they’re reading. Now, as [FT editor] Lionel Barber has made very clear, we’re not going to start editing our newspaper purely in terms of what readers want for short-term interest. Doing that would be a really bad idea, because we would just give people what they want and create intellectual echo chambers. We are allowing readers to customize the news, but we don’t just give them what they want at any one moment. At the same time, we have people doing things to ensure we have a lot of fresh stories coming into the stream as readers actually want it.

So, surprise surprise, we’re finding out that readers want a lot more information about breaking news earlier in the day. So we’re providing news to actually satisfy that. One of the reasons we’ve launched the terrific program fastFT — and I should say by the way the woman who has been running fastFT in recent years and created it is moving to Washington to head the Washington, D.C. bureau next month. She’ll be very much bringing that energy into our American offering and how we actually think about our American political news. So, we’re trying to hit readers early in the morning, at times they really want, with breaking news.

But the other aspect we’re discovering, which is terrific because it feeds into the FT’s core franchise, is that we have a lot of readers who really value us for our slower news, if you like, and our ability to provide slow, thoughtful analysis that nobody else does and really join up the dots. Lionel Barber sometimes talks about slow news and fast news, or news you lean into, i.e. stuff that is breaking and quick, and news that you lean out to, and ponder and really savor and reflect on.

Traditionally people have thought of slow news as being almost magazine news, perhaps, being feature-y news. What we’re finding is that readers are actually using the multiple range of options they have to get FT content, and using it in different ways for different types of news. So, you might get breaking news, fastFT, on your mobile device. You might then go home in the evenings and take time with the print edition to actually savor a really thoughtful, long — what we call a “big page,” these are the big features we run just next to the editorials, which really takes time to read and think about, and maybe you’ll cross-reference or rip something out and show one of your friends. It’s actually a multiplicity of forms that people have options to use our content. So we’re seeing, unsurprisingly, the consumption vary.

Again, it’s no different from, say, movies, if you think about it. People look at movies in different ways, and that’s changing all the time.

Justin: Reading habits seem to be on a continuum — along with the redesigned print product, there’s also the weekend product. It seems you’re focused on different ways people read and the different things they’re looking for.

Gillian: Absolutely. I actually trained as a social anthropologist before I became a journalist. I did a lot of field work for a PhD, so I’m passionate about the need to actually go out and not just listen to consumers but actually watch what they’re doing in terms of how they use any product. Many years ago, I went out with Microsoft and spent quite a lot of time with Microsoft anthropologists looking at how people are using consumer electronic devices. That was quite a long time ago.

We very much, as a newspaper, take up that approach to actually looking at what our consumers are doing, our readers, and seeing how they consume our news and try to tailor our product in response.

So, at one of the spectrum, as I’ve said you’ve got something like FT Antenna, you’ve got fastFT. A lot of our readers want a quick hit — they want to be on top of the news and they’re not going to be caught out. We can ensure they won’t be caught out, because we have this quick product that is incredibly easy to read on a mobile device. Take a look at fastFT: short, snappy, pithy, exactly what you can read in little chunk-size pieces, say, between meetings.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Weekend FT and How To Spend It, in all their glorious, long, timeless, thoughtful format, which is meant to be savored. There’s no way you’re going to read a snatch of Weekend FT between meetings. But you can sit down on Saturday morning with a cup of coffee and savor it. And, unsurprisingly, people who savor Weekend FT don’t do that so much on their mobile devices. They’re either using iPads, which is a terrific way to actually look at the whole range of content we have digitally. Or you can go back to old-fashioned print, which actually is not so old fashioned at all when you have fabulous color and graphics and all the things that we can offer today.

I would say there’s never been a more exciting time to be involved in journalism because you have today the ability to write stories that span the world and write across a whole bunch of different themes and topics. Which for the FT is fantastic: We’re the paper that tries to connect the dots and link up politics and economics and business and culture and society. Not only are we able to join up the dots across borders, and join up the dots across different subject matter, but the idea of being able to actually tailor the kind of news you are offering for different channels and different times of day, in different ways, it’s just terrific. In the old days when you had a one-size-fits-all newspaper, and you only had one way to reach your readers, you were often very, very constrained. This way we have incredible flexibility.

Justin: What value do you think the aggregation of fastFT and FT Antenna provides to readers?

Gillian: The reality is people want quick flashes of what’s happening in the world. The same way people look at Twitter, they scan the headlines, or a Bloomberg terminal. They look at what the breaking news is on CNBC. They just want to be in the know. Our readers are very globally aware — they’re very keen to make sure they’re actually on top of the news. We don’t pretend with things like Antenna or fastFT that this is really going to give you anything more than a quick, sort of watercooler moment about what’s going on in the world. But they’re very valuable products right now.

However, we would then say that if you want to know about something in detail, actually click onto the FT website or pick up the paper and look at the range of different products we offer in terms of filling you in with details, background about the news.

Justin: You’ve also moved into wearable devices, working on the product for the Samsung Gear. That seems pretty well timed, given the Apple Watch news. What’s the strategy there?

Gillian: When I look at what’s happening right now in the digital landscape and the media landscape, it’s a bit like the old-fashioned high school charts showing evolution — presuming you went to a school that taught evolution. You get a break point between the ages, you go from paleolithic to mesolithic, and when you get a break point you suddenly get 50 new species jumping off the page, all trying to wiggle into new niches and work out who’s going to survive or not.

You can use that metaphor for what’s happening in the media world in terms all the digital startups, but you can also use it in terms of different channels for actually communicating information and news to people. So, right now, Silicon Valley is an incredibly exciting place to be in terms of the sheer breadth of innovation that is coming out through things like digital devices, through things like wearable devices.

Will they all survive? Absolutely not. Are some of them going to turn out to be flashes in the pan? Absolutely yes. But something like wearable devices, which is a very, very exciting concept, is going to have a future. We don’t know exactly what form. But the key point is this: We want to be ahead of the wave and really part of that product as it grows up, and really implant in the marketplace that the FT is there with the reader as they move around the world, and as they move around different forms of their lives. You take your FT content with you. That’s really what’s going on here. We don’t yet have a fully fledged, all-singing, all-dancing FT watch that we can announce yet. But hey, who knows. The marketplace is moving so fast that in a year’s time maybe we’ll have that.

POSTED     Sept. 30, 2014, 10:50 a.m.
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