Lionel Barber: Moving the FT into the digital age

From dispensing advice to George Bush to taking the Financial Times into the digital age, editor Lionel Barber has stayed focused on success. Ian Burrell met him

Among the ranks of British journalists, who - other than Lionel Barber - can lay claim to having acted as an adviser to the US president? "I still remember the call," says the editor of the Financial Times, recollecting the moment in May 2001 when he was summoned for an audience with President George W. Bush.

"A senior White House official said would I like to come to Washington to meet the president to talk about Europe. I did think about it because it was obvious that one couldn't in any way quote or use the information directly. But I figured a chance to spend two hours with the president was too good an opportunity to pass up."

So Barber made the trip, along with British diplomat Felix Rohatyn, the historian Timothy Garton Ash, and two Russians. "The highlight was when I was told I would be flying Economy class," he jokes, clearly not used to playing elbow tennis with his fellow travellers.

"I tried to give [President Bush] a flavour of why the European Union mattered and how the US could engage with the European Union. This was one of the most interesting couple of hours of my career because you don't often get that amount of time to see a president up close and, despite what some people may think in Britain and Europe, the president is a little sharper than he may come across on television."

Barber was chosen for the meeting not just because he was then editing the continental Europe edition of the FT but because of his work in the 1980s as the paper's Washington correspondent, when he impressed, among others, the young woman who was later to become the US National Security Adviser. "It was really through my contact with Condi Rice, who I met when I was covering national security. I kept in touch and I think after considerable vetting I was allowed in."

Barber, who says American foreign policy is "one of my great passions", was actually christened Franklin after Franklin Roosevelt, the wartime president who his father credited with having saved Britain from fascism. He may have dropped the association with FDR, but Barber - partly thanks to a dresser he hired when living in America last year - very much cuts the figure of an Ivy Leaguer.

It is a damp October day at the FT's Southwark headquarters, and Barber sits on a deep sofa in the office he inherited from Andrew Gowers almost 12 months ago. Through the window behind him, the murky waters of the River Thames are churning, a reminder of the FT's London origins and a symbol of the complex and fast-moving world that the paper exists to make sense of.

Observers have detected under Barber's editorship a reinvigoration of its coverage of the City of London, following criticisms that the Pink 'Un had lost some credibility in the Square Mile, the bedrock on which its international reputation depends. Circulation shot up 30,000 in Barber's first months but has slipped back to a global sale of 432,036, which is marginally down year-on-year (-1.5 per cent). Circulation in the US is buoyant at 135,000 but in August the UK full rate sale slipped to a new low of 82,535.

Barber denies giving UK stories greater prominence. "We are an international newspaper. I'm not ashamed about that. I think it's a source of enormous strength. But we need to be very clear about where our roots are: in the City of London. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can be very good at British corporate news but also a global business newspaper."

He will seek to get this balance right by "not trying to cover the waterfront" and focusing each day on "around 40 stories that really matter", particularly those that resonate around the world, such as that morning's splash, the takeover of Anglo-Dutch steel company Corus by India's Tata. "We are in the age of globalisation and the FT is the paper of globalization. We get it like no-one else."

Barber announced his arrival in dramatic style when, eight months into his regime, he unveiled the "New Newsroom", a multi-media operation which integrated the production of newspaper and website but came with the cost of 50 redundancies. Staff morale - which had improved with the arrival of an editor of outstanding journalistic pedigree and the appointment of much-liked former deputy editor John Ridding as the paper's chief executive - was severely dented.

"That was a painful process but I think necessary," says Barber, firmly and unapologetically. "We don't believe we've harmed the editorial integrity of the product in any way. We had to create a platform where we could work seamlessly online and in print and meet the challenge of the digital age. The stakes were as high as that."

Nonetheless, these are significant cultural shifts at a paper which began in 1888 with the slogan "The Friend of the Honest Financier and the Respectable Broker". It has traditionally avoided compulsory redundancies and left editors in place for a decade or more.

Barber now demands that increasing numbers of FT staffers are at their desks at 7am. "I think we all realise that everybody's coming to work a bit earlier these days," he says, convinced news organisations need to adapt to survive. "Everybody in the news business today is having to think differently. You have to be more flexible, to work different patterns to the ones we've become used to, the 10.30am to 7.30pm shift say."

This need is most evident at times of breaking news. "On stories such as the North Korean nuclear crisis we can't wait 12 or 18 hours for some analysis. We have expertise in the building who can deliver a take after an hour," says Barber, who detailed defence correspondent Stephen Fidler to file a reaction piece on FT.com.

When news of the recent military coup in Thailand broke during afternoon conference in London, Barber asked the website to publish a previous leader highlighting political tensions in Bangkok and a profile of the deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, published two months before. "We put those articles instantly online, so you are looking at a 360-degree view of the news," says Barber, pointing out that users of the website flocked to these background pieces.

Barber would not "expect a chapter of Tolstoy" in a reactive online take, suggesting that "deeper original reporting...requiring more thought and more time" is the territory of print. Whilst the web is a fast-moving "lean forward medium", he says, leaning forward on the sofa to mimic someone at a computer screen, the newspaper is "lean back... a more reflective read".

He claims these cultural shifts are being embraced within the FT newsroom, partly thanks to the evangelism of executives despatched to the IFRA consultancy in South Carolina, which, on its website, bills itself as the place "where the futures of journalism and news technology intersect".

"They've come back to Britain as digital immigrants, they've got the fervour - maybe it was the South Carolina air." Barber claims that staff who had previously aligned themselves to one of two mutually exclusive outlets - newspaper or website - were now happy to produce separate work for both. "Suddenly we have production editors who have spent all their life in print and they've suddenly woken up to the wonders of the web. It has given them a whole set of new skills."

Today, as part of this evolution, he will introduce FT Alphaville, a digital news and commentary service masterminded by new recruit Paul Murphy, the former financial editor of The Guardian. Alphaville, as well as providing a late morning online discussion on movements in the markets, will send out a "6am Cut", based on reports from Hong Kong, edited and refined by Murphy for City workers so that "people will have something on their screen when they come into work".

The name Alpha is a City term for extra return on investment. It also captures the tone of Barber's leadership style. He graduated from Oxford in German and modern history and is fluent in both German and French. After joining The Scotsman in 1978, he progressed to the Sunday Times and on to the FT, where he has worked for 21 years as "poacher, gamekeeper, sheriff, outlaw, whatever."

As Brussels bureau chief he was one of the most effective reporters to have covered that difficult beat. In Washington, where he and his wife Victoria brought up their young family in a mainly African-American neighbourhood, Barber managed to penetrate American political circles previously out of the reach of British journalists. He is also a good tennis player, walks about his office with a self-confident strut and talks, sotto voce, with a smile playing on his lips.

If there has been a criticism of Barber's realignment of the FT it has been that he has not made more of the talents of women on the paper. The departure of global news editor Deborah Hargreaves (now business editor on The Guardian) caused upset in the newsroom and the well-regarded managing editor Diane Summers also quickly left.

"Women are playing and will play a very important role in this organisation," Barber responds. "I appointed a very talented woman, Chrystia Freeland [the former FT deputy editor], to take over from me in running the American paper. That's a pretty important job and I care about it passionately. We had the first White House correspondent (Caroline Daniel), who's a woman and very talented. I strongly believe women have an important role to play in the present and future of this paper and website."

But Barber's FT, which will be boosted by a DDB-devised advertising campaign underlining why more people should be interested in business, is still a work in progress. The night before, he was back to Oxford University, debating the influence of the tabloid press. "I talked to a lot of the students about the FT. They said you've got to read the FT. because that's the way you get to McKinsey. That's exactly what I want to hear," he says. "Then some said, 'It's a great paper but it could be made a little more easy to read in terms of getting through it.'"

Barber says that, as well as exclusives and fine analysis, he likes to "laugh occasionally in the morning when I read the FT". He laughs when he reads Lucy Kellaway's column sending up management fads. He doesn't, as he emphasised to staff in a memo, when he reads spelling mistakes.

"The paper's reputation rests on its accuracy," he stresses. Ahead of his first anniversary in the FT editor's chair next month, Lionel Barber describes his style with three words: "Fair... rigorous... focused." He pauses for a moment, then adds for emphasis: "Very focused."

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