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April 3, 2018, 12:36 p.m.
Business Models

“If the Financial Times were a person, it would be a man.” Here’s how the paper is trying to change that.

Only 20 percent of the FT’s subscribers were women. Now the paper is doing a lot of things to change that.

Most newspapers are men. The manliest of all, perhaps — at least, after The Wall Street Journal — is the Financial Times. And for a long time, no one really thought that was a problem.

But then, it became clear that it was.

Renée Kaplan, hired about three years ago as the FT’s first-ever head of audience engagement, worked with a data team to figure out exactly who was subscribing to the FT. Overwhelmingly, it was men: As of two years ago, 80 percent of the FT’s subscribers were male. Not only that: Women found the FT’s tone off-putting and were disengaged from its content. And when they were asked, in focus groups, to describe who the paper would be if it were a person, they said to a woman: It would be a man.

But the 130-year-old FT is on a mission to make readers to think of it as a place for more than just aging white businessmen. To do that, the team is doing lots of little experiments that have worked so well they became permanent products.

A new newsletter aimed at (but not explicitly “for”) women that is now beating the FT’s other newsletters in terms of open rate. Regular publication-wide promotion of articles that are over-indexing with women. A new coverage section focused on professional services industries like law and consulting. And a revamp of the opinion section, with a rewritten call-out designed to encourage women to submit editorials.

Kaplan spoke to me in detail about these efforts, and about the process of working change into a newsroom that can be culturally resistant to it. Our conversation, slightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: How and when did the FT realize it had a woman problem?

Renée Kaplan: We always had a sense via reader surveys that we had a predominantly male readership. We’ve never asked for gender data when people subscribe, but we got the sense of what the gender split was from follow-up surveys we would do.

Two years ago, our data science department started working on a lot of different models that allowed us to calculate, with 97 percent accuracy, what the gender of our subscribers was, by looking at the name that was attached to an email, things like that. That’s when we discovered that our subscribers were 80 percent male and 20 percent female. I’m just talking about subscribers here — paying readers — and any time I say “readers” in this interview what I mean is “paying subscribers.”

That’s just not good. It wasn’t necessarily a reflection of the content, it wasn’t a reflection of what we wanted, and in a world in which 50 percent or more of people are women, it was also a business opportunity. We didn’t have enough women, and suddenly we knew it, incontrovertibly. We started thinking that now that we knew who our female subscribers were, we could figure out what they were doing on our site, what they tended to read more of and less of, why they came, and where they came from.

Owen: How was their behavior on your site different from male subscribers’?

Kaplan: Well, they were much more similar to our male readers than dissimilar. People are subscribing to the Financial Times because they have a certain affinity or fit or are in a certain profession; readers are readers, to some extent.

But we were interested in the differences: What are the topics for which women tend to over-index? We began to look at the topics that get a higher proportion than average of female readers. And the converse — which are the sections or topics that tend to under-index, systematically, with women?

All of our readers tend to come to us for some professional reason, but women tended to over-index on our management content, professional guidance content, and content about professional service industries.

They tended to under-index on our opinion and op-ed content. When we dug a little deeper there, we saw that our commentary — we call it “comment,” but it’s essentially opinion content — had fewer female writers than almost any other section. What women were doing and reading on-site was clearly driven mostly by professional reasons. They tended to be looking for career network and management more than men were.

Owen: You also did focus groups. Why did you do those, and what do you learn?

Kaplan: We had realized from the data that, proportionately, women were more disengaged from our content than men were. We got lots of women into customer research panels and started asking them questions. You often get a different or complementary picture when you speak to people in flesh and blood. From the data, you get what they’re doing. From the panel, you get why they’re doing it, and it was the fuller picture that allowed us to act.

Some of the things we learned from the women in the focus group: They said FT content was really useful for career-management purposes, but they tended to read it because they felt they had to. They found the tone a little bit off-putting, not necessarily relevant to them. They didn’t feel the FT necessarily represented them or was a reflection of themselves. We realized we had a problem with tone and voice.

Owen: What did women not like about the tone?

Kaplan: We asked, “If you could picture the FT as a person, how would you picture that person?” To a woman, they all said they pictured a man. We realized that if that was the perception of the brand or the product in general, then naturally women didn’t feel represented, or they felt that it was useful, but not for them.

Owen: You also added some external research.

Kaplan: We added some research from a gender-based market research company about how women in general think and behave about news. Women tend to use business publications and financial journalism as personal development and career networking tools. They want more of a catch-up product, something accessible when they’re commuting, that they have access to on demand.

In general, systematically, women are more time-poor, and being time-sensitive was one of the principal barriers to having the time to read the FT or the news in general. The research found that women always wanted to be reading more news than they felt they had the time to read. That sense of never having enough time to achieve everything you want to achieve — is that gender-stereotypical, is it because of work-life balance issues with family relying more heavily on women than men? We don’t know. But time sensitivity was systematically flagged, and it was clearly a signal we had to listen to because it was just so recurrent.

Owen: Once you had all of this research, what did you do with it?

Kaplan: We created a company-wide working group called the Women’s Working Group that included a very senior person from every part of the business — editorial, marketing, communications, product, HR. We got together and shared the insights from our internal analysis and internal and external research. Each part of the business committed to coming up with a work stream to try to achieve one goal: We want more female subscribers.

We didn’t identify a particular target — though now we do have a target; we’re not ready to share the number, but we’re trying to align our female readership targets with a more general gender-balance target. We set a shorter-term target, within the calendar year, of growing our number of female subscribers.

We created a dashboard that monitors, in real time, what our female subscribers are reading most and least, and what the proportion of female readers is for each section of the paper. We integrated this into our principal editorial dashboard, Lantern, so that anyone in the newsroom can access it from any device at any time. This creates a little bit of accountability and understanding that, as a journalist or an editor, there is something you can do. If something is doing particularly well with women, you can think about commissioning more of it, or you can request homepage or social promotion for it. You can see which sections of the paper have a bigger problem, and who’s ahead of the game.

We also launched an experiment that ended up proving successful enough that we baked it in to our actual everyday workflow. We called it Project XX. We decided, with the agreement of our news editor and desk heads, that we would flag one article every day that we know women are typically over-indexing with, or a topic that we know works particularly well with women, and give it particular prominence: a guaranteed homepage promotion, fixed amount of time on the homepage, guaranteed social, and inclusion in our flagship newsletter, FirstFT.

We ran the experiment for four months and found that it worked. Not only were we essentially growing the median percentage of female readers for those articles by pretty significant numbers — sometimes five, six, seven percent — but also, women subscribers who were engaging with those stories remained more highly engaged over the next six to eight weeks. That was something we didn’t know it would do: The same women who had a lower engagement level before actually remained more engaged. The engagement metric is a combination of how often and how much any one subscriber is reading; we turn that into a score. So women who were engaging with these Project XX stories then had higher scores that stayed high after they engaged with this content.

It took a lot of persuasion internally to give this a go. It was either going to work or it wasn’t. Because it did work, it became a no-brainer to just build it in. Now it’s everyday behavior.

Owen: Why was there resistance to this inside the company?

Kaplan: There were good, fundamental, editorial reasons. Our job as journalists and editors is to commission stories that are the most important and relevant to our brand and audience. There’s a natural inhibition to or apprehension about being constrained by any sort of mechanical box-ticking. Like: The FT will never do a clickbait headline. We won’t commission something just because it gets a lot of clicks.

What people were willing to do, though, was understand that this was a significant proportion of our audience that wasn’t as engaged with our stories as it could be. If we could find a story that was editorially relevant, germane to the way we’d curate the homepage anyway, and also happened to be one that women particularly engage with, why not? They were willing to try it on the basis that this was an experiment, and it wasn’t going to compromise us or force us to go against the grain of our editorial instinct. If it wasn’t going to have a detrimental effect, great.

And it didn’t. It might have. If it was a pain in the ass and didn’t work, we would have stopped.

Owen: Tell me about the other experiment, the newsletter.

Kaplan: We’d done all this analysis, and we thought: What would be the ideal female FT product? We wanted to create something as an experiment, really, that would tick as many of the optimal-for-women’s-interests-and-usage boxes as possible.

Our research had shown that what women really wanted and what we didn’t necessarily have was something that would allow them to catch up with the news and would give them a sense that they could get to the FT content they were afraid of missing. They were also put off by our tone. So could we create an FT product that was more approachable and conversational, and felt different from that neutral or male tone of voice? Could we create something that was easier for them to access and share?

We decided to create a catch-up-on-the-week-behind-you newsletter: Five stories you shouldn’t miss, curated by a female FT journalist in a conversational tone, fronted by the journalist’s name and her photo. We put together a sample newsletter, four sample issues, and decided to specifically send it to a pool of almost all women, with a small control group of men.

It turned out that not only did it have a significantly higher average open rate than almost all of our other newsletters, and definitely higher with women — we also moved a significant percentage of the women in a not-engaged cohort to an engaged cohort. We raised their engagement score via this newsletter. It was a pretty overwhelmingly positive response, not unlike our previous Project XX experiment.

There was also a happy byproduct: The newsletter was also very effective in engaging disengaged male readers. So we decided to make it an official product.

We launched Long Story Short about a month ago as an official newsletter, and so far, it’s doing really well. We’ve maintained almost exactly the same format and genre and objectives as the pilot product. It’s meant to be a selection of what we think are the most important and interesting stories wrapped up into one sharable email. It’s sent every Friday at midday. It’s authored by a rotation of different female journalists and signed by them. The tone is deliberately conversational and accessible — it’s not chatty, but it is personal.

The first four editions have had a significantly higher open rate than our average newsletters, and a very high clickthrough rate — almost double and sometimes triple the clickthrough rate, on average, of our other newsletters. We feel there’s already a benefit in just opening the newsletter — sometimes you don’t even need to click through for a recap — but since one of the objectives is actually to get our female subscribers to read more of the content, the clickthroughs are very important.

Owen: Is there a way to share it with people who aren’t already subscribers to the FT? Like, does the newsletter give them access behind the paywall?

Kaplan: Subscribers can, in many cases, share FT articles for free with their contacts, but they don’t always do that or aren’t always aware of that feature. Also, we wanted the newsletter to be an experience that would feel complete and understandable just from reading it and not clicking through.

Owen: Is it clear, from reading Long Story Short, that it’s aimed at women?

Kaplan: No. While this product is 100-percent designed and engineered to engage our women subscribers and engage women readers, it is deliberately not flagged as being for or by women. Our internal and external research clearly showed that women do not want “made for women” content. Ironically, our paper is pink, but they consistently said they don’t want pinked-up content.

The way we engineered the newsletter is to be full of the services and features and experiences that women said they wanted and that the data showed us they wanted — we’re curating the links and topics in the newsletter based on real-time data that shows us what women, particularly, are engaging with this week — but we are not explicitly saying this is for women. We feel very strongly about that. The greater goal is not to sell a female FT product to women, but to get women to engage more globally with the FT.

And, in fact, not a single reader has picked up on the idea that this is anything more than a catch-up newsletter. Ironically, most of the feedback we got on the newsletter was from men. Men, overwhelmingly, are the majority of our commenters, the people who give us feedback, and people who contribute unsolicited.

Owen: Of course. Of course they are. But also, wait, I didn’t realize: The FT has comments on its articles?

Kaplan: No, so this was another challenge: We call it our comment section, but that’s a very Anglo-British term and as we’ve become increasingly global we’ve realized it’s very confusing; we’re about to re-dub it our opinion section. It’s our op-ed section. So not only were women not engaging as much with our opinion content, but they were overwhelmingly underrepresented in admissions to our op-eds, and in commenting in general. Men were much more likely to write us letters and much more likely to submit an op-ed proposition.

So we thought, again: What can we do to make [the opinion section] more accessible, make it reach more women or get them to contribute more, feel like they’re entitled to or have time to or it’s feasible to? First, we looked at all the ways that people could become aware that it’s an option to contribute. We looked at the letter we had, and the ways on-site and off-site that we were advertising the fact that people could submit.

Well, [the solicitation] turned out to be very much a reflection of the typical tone of our journalism. It was quite jargon-y, quite expert, and it was full of warnings about what we didn’t want. [From that old letter: “Our readership is global, so if you are writing about farming in Minnesota, consider how it moves the price of corn in Milan.”]

We realized: This may be exactly the kind of tone that women find off-putting. They may need more of a steer or an encouragement than men to comment or contribute. Men may not need that kind of encouragement.

So we took advantage of the fact that we have a brand-new opinion section editor, Brooke Masters, and with her guidance, we have entirely rewritten our letter asking for submissions. We tried to make it more open, more accessible, less intimidating, more clear, and more transparent that it’s not about being an absolute expert. It’s more of a reflection of what we know women said they were more likely to respond to. The experiment, again, will be to see, over the next six to eight weeks, if there’s an uptick in women submitting potential op-eds.

Owen: Does it help, with this, that Masters is a woman?

Kaplan: For better or worse, it is sometimes — though not always — somewhat easier to experiment in particular with gender-driven initiatives when an editor is a woman. It’s always easier to experiment when there’s a new editor, in any case. We’re also working with Brooke to simply grow the proportion of female writers within our opinion pages on a weekly basis. We haven’t set a particular target — that’s not necessarily the culture of the newsroom — but we have a growth goal that, over the next few months, we hope to have a higher percentage of women writing every week.

We don’t have any data that shows a clear correlation between more women writing and more women reading, but we have a commonsense, finger-in-the-wind hunch that if one of the challenges women have flagged is perception, voice, and tone not being representative of them, then having more women writing could be effective explicitly in drawing in more women and maybe also effective implicitly in somehow changing the topics or the tone of those pieces. We don’t know. This is a total experiment. But we’re hoping to figure out along the way if it works and if there are things we can concretely measure.

Owen: But why not just set a 50/50 male/female writing target, though? I get that it feels artificial to some people, but sometimes setting a concrete goal like that is the only way to actually get it done.

Kaplan: We have an overall business target, though we’re not sharing it at this time: X percent of women readers by X year. I actually feel comfortable sharing it, but I want to chat with our head of communications. [FT communications then declined to share the actual percentage.]

Every newsroom has a different culture and responds positively to different kinds of incentivization, but we’ve found that, at the FT, targets make people apprehensive. But growth goals — which are frankly, in some ways, Trojan-horse versions of targets — do work well. So much of creating effective change is finding the tone, language, and manner germane to that particular newsroom and culture. Sometimes it means moving forward slightly masked.

But, you know, some of our other initiatives are much more clearly measurable. We have a very firm no-manels policy: No FT journalists are allowed to be on panels that don’t have women. Forty percent of our broadcast appearances feature women. And almost 50 percent of our external speaking engagements are women journalists. We’re keen to be walking the talk and changing the perception of representation as much as possible, because the more coordinated we are in efforts across many parts of the business, the more likely it is that we will collectively be able to achieve a target in the end.

Owen: If having a more conversational tone has worked so well in the Long Story Short newsletter, I’m wondering if you’ve thought about making other parts of the FT more conversational, less formal, as well.

Kaplan: I don’t think it means we will want to change the overall tone of the FT, but we want to diversify the kinds of FT products we do have — not just in format and channel, but also in tone. We want to diversify the nature of the FT brand and personality. We’ve had a tendency to be homogenous across our products. How can we nuance the tone to be better adjusted to the specific audience of each of these products?

I’m also looking at how we can action the insights we’ve collected from all this. One concrete way in which we have changed our content — not exclusively because of these insights, but informed by them — is that we’ve launched a whole new reporting hub around professional services. As I said earlier, women over-index on stories about professional services — accounting firms, consulting firms, and the legal industry. There’s a much higher proportion of women reading those stories, and those stories also do very well on social media where our audience is more female. Those stories were also, in general, generating lots of other positive metrics, like higher attention rates, and were effective at bringing in new readers.

So our Companies editor created new roles and a new reporting hub dedicated to covering professional services. We now have a team that is focused on producing these stories that frequently over-index with women readers. It’s a gamble: Newsrooms aren’t in a resource-growth moment right now! To be reallocating and creating new resources for a specific vertical is pretty radical. The engagement of women with this content wasn’t the only reason to do it. But it was a big reason.

A woman reading the Financial Times by Lars Ploughmann used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     April 3, 2018, 12:36 p.m.
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