Andrew Gowers: Pink 'Un goes BlackBerry

Andrew Gowers, editor of the 'Financial Times', tells Ian Burrell how the venerable newspaper is coming to a hand-held personal organiser near you

The Victorian founding fathers who set up the paper to capitalise on investment fever in the era of Cecil Rhodes's African adventurism were still five years away from having the brainwave of turning the pages pink. Little could they foresee that, just over a century later, an editor of their paper would have the notion of sending daily editions to the world's business elite by way of electronic messages via personal hand-held devices named after the fruit of the humble briar.

That editor is Andrew Gowers, who is planning to make the Financial Times the first newspaper in the world to be delivered by BlackBerry. " There's a very great potential overlap between the sort of people who own BlackBerrys and the sort of people who read, or should read, the FT. They are on the move; they are probably making decisions about reasonable amounts of money and they need information wherever they are," he says. " So the next thing we are going to do is be available on BlackBerrys. We've got a form of FT.com that will be very BlackBerry friendly and we are having constructive discussions with BlackBerry as to how that might develop."

Earlier this year, Gowers went to Canada to meet Jim Balsillie, chief executive of Research in Motion (RIM), the Toronto-based company behind BlackBerry. "Most existing websites are too voluminous and clunky and don't look good on BlackBerry," says the FT editor. "I said, 'What do we need to do to be more BlackBerry friendly?' We then produced a streamlined version of the site."

There are already 3.6 million owners of the distinctive black portable email/internet/phone devices in the world, with the figure expected to rise to 10 million by the end of next year. Gowers himself joined the ranks just a couple of months ago but has become a devoted adherent to an object deemed by some to be so demanding on the attentions of its owners that it has been dubbed the CrackBerry. The "stripped-down" version of the FT that will be offered via BlackBerry will be a free service to business high-flyers, who will be able to bookmark the service and use it daily.

Gowers himself makes no apology for his unbridled enthusiasm for new technology, which is at the heart of a controversial strategy that has seen him drive forward the online edition of the FT in combination with a global plan to spread the paper edition far and wide, printing in 23 different countries. It is a policy that has allowed critics and rivals to point at declining UK full-price sales and claim that the paper no longer adequately does what those Victorian founding fathers intended it to do: cover the London markets.

"We are thinking about the FT brand much more than the newspaper. How do we get it to more people, in different ways, whether online or in print or in BlackBerrys or in ways we haven't even thought about?" Gowers says. "I have long thought that those who make a good fist of presenting themselves online will be those who enjoy long-term survival. The distribution costs are so much smaller than distribution costs in print. It's a very attractive medium for us to promote as a global publication."

Gowers claims that the FT is "more integrated between print and online than any other hitherto print publication". He adds: "We've had people from American newspapers coming here and going away impressed with the degree to which we have put together print and online resources."

Even so, FT.com (which has 80,000 subscribers) is "only at the beginning " of a journey, "peeking its head over the parapet at the moment", and the site will become "much more interactive, much more based on a series of communities", for technology experts, fund managers and other specialists. "They have to be given a much more vital and vivid and dynamic online expression," he says, citing online polls, video galleries and audio content.

Another aspect of the FT's current strategy appears to owe more to the tradition of the 1888 sheet for honest financiers and respectable brokers than to the era of the worldwide web. FTpm is a single sheet of A4 with stories and ads, delivered to 40,000 desks in the City every day at 4.30pm. It gives readers a news update and offers a tease of what will be available in the following morning's paper.

Asked if there is room for it to grow in size, Gowers says, "We are not trying to create a new newspaper here." But he then appears to contradict himself by adding, "I wouldn't rule out doing so either. If there were strong advertising demand, we would be interested in doing that."

Free FT on BlackBerry. FT online. Free afternoon FT on the desk. How is any of this directly going to improve UK sales of the paper, which are still the key benchmark of most British media commentators when assessing an editor's performance?

Critics noted with a certain relish that fully paid-for UK sales of the FT slipped below 100,000 in July. The newspaper points out that, unlike some newspapers that bulk up their sales with copies virtually dumped in airports and hotel receptions, FT discounts include copies bought by investment banks for home delivery to key staff so that they can arrive at work properly briefed.

The FT has a six-monthly average global sale of 428,849 (it had grown to more than 500,000 under previous editor Richard Lambert), with the US circulation somewhat static at 119,759, well short of the 200,000 which Gowers once suggested was achievable.

When Gowers, now 47, took up the editor's post in 2001 he dubbed himself an "FT Greybeard", emphasising his considerable intellect and a long career on a title which he joined in 1983. (He has covered wars and notably launched FT Deutschland against considerable odds in 2000.) He is also something of a modernist and a reformer, a fan of contemporary bands such as Snow Patrol and Super Furry Animals, attending the Isle of Wight festival this year and Glastonbury the summer before.

He was described by one interviewer as an "opinionated... Henry VIII lookalike", an ironic comment given that the FT editor has faced calls for his own head amid claims the paper has lost its way.

Gowers has not shied from the criticisms, notably warning Andrew Neil to "stick to cheap political talk shows" after the former Sunday Times editor repeatedly attacked falling standards of accuracy in the FT.

He has remained combative and stuck doggedly to his strategy, but had his worst moments in the first half of 2003. The paper was making enormous losses amid recession, financial scandals and the Sars virus and Gowers remembers thinking, "What else is this bloody thing going to throw at us?" He clearly feels more confident in facing his critics now that the FT is returning to profitability.

"The essential nub of the criticisms is that we've taken our eye off the ball in the UK because we've gone around the world. I don't think it's true and I'm determined to prove it's not true," he says.

To try to shore up the UK sale, Gowers has begun a "wave of tweaks" to the paper. FT Money (a spin-off from the former FT Money & Business) is a new Saturday section, which was launched two days ago in tabloid format with full colour and is already "attracting good strong advertising support", says Gowers. From last Wednesday the FT introduced a Digital Business section, a fortnightly offering that will cover "what technology can do for business... and the world of gadgets". Global Traveller is a new tabloid travel section, launched earlier this month.

Most significant of the new developments though is the expansion of the famous Lex financial analysis column so that it will now cover the whole of the back of the book. "For as long as anyone can remember Lex has occupied this real estate on the back page," says the editor, pointing to the column on the right of the back page. "We now produce more Lex on line because the world is going online. The next step in terms of capitalising on that was to add to the team and make Lex available in all its glory, in all editions right across the back page."

Gowers has been mulling over this change since a breakfast meeting, days after he became editor, with the author and management guru Jack Welch. Asked what suggestions he had for improving the paper, Welch, an FT reader, said: "Don't change a thing. Just give me a whole page o' Lex."

"Lex is one of the most important calling cards that we have apart from the FT name itself," says Gowers of the column made its debut in the FT in the Thirties. "It's very popular in the States and has an increasing name in Asia and Europe. This is Lex's new age."

The redesigned Lex will feature a daily "number in the news" item. (The one in the dummy is of the number of sales of cut flowers, which Gowers admits is "not particularly representative".) The idea, a variation on features found in other newspapers, seems a little hackneyed but the FT editor says his readers "live in the world of numbers" and want "a talking point, a water-cooler thing".

As part of the development of Lex, the identities of its writers (traditionally anonymous) will be revealed to readers. The journalists, Gowers says, are "quite chuffed" at the prospect of "extra limelight".

Lex gives the FT an important point of difference from the Wall Street Journal, from which the Pink 'Un faces renewed competition next month when the New York-based paper relaunches its European edition in a compact format. Gowers notes the WSJ's recent adoption in its Saturday edition of the Breaking Views column, based on a British website of the same name. "Very good it is too, but one thing I'm completely astonished by is that Lex has been at the heart of the FT for 70 years and the Wall Street Journal has not had their own authoritative financial comment and now they've decided to outsource it. Quite extraordinary!"

He also says he will be "watching like a hawk" changes in UK newspaper business coverage as The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard, in particular, are preparing to revamp their pages. He says he is "kind of assuming that the Standard will be a freesheet in the not too distant future" and says he believes there is a "polarising" in the world of print journalism "between the free end of the market and the other end where people are prepared to pay money for things that offer unique value".

According to Gowers, a typical FT reader will take a copy of the Associated Newspapers' free title Metro as a second read, where once he or she would have read the Telegraph or The Times.

He will "not rule out" changes to the format of the FT but says that the tabloid shape is not conducive to his newspaper's coverage of major stories, allowing insufficient space for the required depth of coverage on a single spread.

Gowers is far from scornful in his appraisal of the new arrival in the business market, the freesheet City AM. "I think it's a well-produced product with a good eye for a front-page story," he says generously. "If you want a quick overview of some key stories and you're not near a screen then you can get it from City AM. But if you want added value in terms of stories other people don't have, analysis and authoritative comment then the FT is still the place to go."

So what of his own record, as he approaches his fourth anniversary in the editor's chair next Saturday?

"The international picture is pretty much as I would have wished it to be and hoped it to be in terms of attracting and sustaining quality readership, and now that the advertising recession has come to an end we are attracting the advertising that goes with that," he says of his strategy to build a global brand.

Then, after a slight pause, he admits: "The remaining piece of the jigsaw is the UK which is a very challenging market for all of us. It is my biggest challenge to ensure that we hold our heads above water and build on recent progress in terms of turning round our circulation. That's the thing I worry about most."

How the humble BlackBerry swayed the A-list

The BlackBerry, also known as the CrackBerry because users can't go without their e-mail fix, is a pocket-sized device that combines the best bits of a PDA and mobile phone and lets users send and receive e-mail on the move. Launched in America in 1999, it hit Britain two years later. It's now one of the leading business tools.

The BlackBerry was created by the Canadian inventor Mike Lazaridis. It is sold by a company called Research In Motion (less elegantly, RIM). It's either cute and curvy or metallic and angular, but its best-known guise is as a rounded, blue handset with a full, if tiny, qwerty keypad.

Owners can access HTML and WAP web pages and have e-mail, SMS text, phone, diary and clock, and even a game called Bridge Breaker. The BlackBerry means there's no need for time-poor executives to carry separate devices, and they can keep in touch with the office at all times.

Famous fans include pop stars, sports people and entrepreneurs ­ Oprah Winfrey, Joss Stone, Jade Jagger, Tom Ford, Thierry Henry, Victoria Beckham, Madonna, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and EasyJet's Stelios among them. The reason they can't be without their fruity phones is simple ­ RIM was the first to solve the problem of transferring e-mails direct to the device rather than making users go online to connect to their servers. Also, the device looks extremely pretty and is relatively simple to use.

The phenomenon started fairly slowly; it took five years to sell the first million, 10 months for the second, and three months for the third. Now BlackBerry is adding a million customers a month. It's used around the world, and is available from 95 wireless carriers in 40 countries. The models are divided into business phones and hand-helds. There are 15 different models, each designed for a specific user. Some, like the 7520, offer GPS and a wireless walkie-talkie mode. Older versions like the 5790 focus more on e-mail and don't have a texting facility. Although the BlackBerry is really a super-charged mobile, none of the models offers users a camera.

Cost-wise, the BlackBerry makes a lot of sense to corporate and private users. The average contract is £25 per month, with some deals as low as £17.50. However, businesses that want all their employees on BlackBerries will need to shell out for a special server at a cost of £1,000.

The device has inspired a novel called Martin Lukes: Who moved my BlackBerry?. Written by Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, it's the story of what happens when an odious executive's BlackBerry ­ full of damning evidence of an extra-marital affair with a dim PA ­ falls into the hands of his son.

So the BlackBerry has conquered the business world, is a necessity for e-mail freaks, and is a star of literature. It's a small fruit with big ambitions.

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