The view through pink spectacles
In the decade that Richard Lambert has edited the Financial Times, there has been no dumbing down and no cost-cutting. So how come its circulation is still rising?
Tuesday 10 October 2000
Regular readers of the
Financial Times must have had a surprise yesterday when they picked up their pink papers and found, for the first time in the title's history, a round-up and reports on the weekend's sports fixtures. With the latest England football collapse reported in detail, it marked the latest surge in the
FT's relentless expansion drive.
Regular readers of the Financial Times must have had a surprise yesterday when they picked up their pink papers and found, for the first time in the title's history, a round-up and reports on the weekend's sports fixtures. With the latest England football collapse reported in detail, it marked the latest surge in the FT's relentless expansion drive.
"We thought we'd experiment on a Monday to see if our readers would like a reaction to the weekend's sporting events," says Richard Lambert, the paper's editor. "The broadsheets do a stunning job on sports on Mondays and there's no question we're trying to compete with them," he adds, perhaps a little disingenuously.
Sports section aside, conventional wisdom has it that Lambert has done everything wrong during his decade-long reign. Many of his peers (and their proprietors) seem to have concluded that keeping up sales involves some combination of dumbing down, cutting costs, slashing foreign coverage, despising the euro and jumping on populist bandwagons.
Lambert, who is Fleet Street's longest-serving editor, has done the opposite. Over the past decade he has increased his number of staff foreign correspondents to 150, added reams of dry informative text to his paper, campaigned vociferously for the euro, lambasted fuel protesters and thoroughly ignored the likes of David Beckham and Liz Hurley - even though some editors would happily include them under the umbrella of "businesspeople".
The end result is that Lambert is presiding over one of the most rapid increases in a newspaper's circulation. The paper's total worldwide sales have leapt by almost 20 per cent in the past year, to 458,898 in August 2000. Circulation is up in every region the FT has targeted, including 10 per cent in the otherwise stagnant UK market. It has been helped by investment, from parent company Pearson, that other editors can only dream of, at around £100m for a global expansion of the newspaper, its web operation, FT.com, and all the associated businesses.
"We have ambitious plans for increasing our circulation even more over the next few years," Lambert says, unable to suppress a grin. He is sitting in his office, a claustrophobic cube on the lower level of the FT's building by London's Southwark Bridge with a view of a wall. "The figure we're talking about is 750,000 by 2005."
With his thick, tidy grey hair and metal-rimmed glasses, Lambert looks like an academic - an economics don, perhaps - and talks like one, too, with quickfire bursts of strategy and statistics. When he is talking about the circulation rise, there is a hint of bemusement on his face, as if he can't quite believe what's happened.
The new sections continue to arrive. Today sees the launch of Creative Business, a tabloid section aimed at media, communications and design professionals - the kind of people who read this section or the media pages of other nationals. But is it aimed at the senior managers or the workers? "No, we want it to be read by everyone in the industry, not just the chief executives," he says.
"We are a specialist newspaper, and the majority of our readers also take another paper," Lambert continues. "But we are broadening our net a bit. The days are over when we ran steel-production figures as our front-page splash." Lambert insists the plans to expand the UK readership are not aimed at the expense of the "white" broadsheets. "Look at what we don't cover: showbiz, crime, the Royal Family; and we look at politics through pink spectacles." .
Despite the surge in sales, there are a few criticisms that are sometimes levelled at the FT. The first is that it is aloof, aimed at captains of industry and Eurocrats and not ordinary people running businesses. The paper is vociferous in its support for the euro and was critical of the recent fuel blockades - even though some of those involved were, presumably, in small business themselves.
"In our leader columns during the fuel crisis, we said the country should not be held to ransom by people blockading oil refineries," Lambert says. "I'm not embarrassed by that at all." Weren't their grievances just? "They had a point about the fuel price. But I don't think the thing to do is to run a blockade. I don't see it as our job to campaign for our readers."
And what about the EU? The FT is the most unashamedly Europhile of all the British newspapers, repeatedly chastising the Government for not moving fast enough to join the euro. As a consequence, it is virtually obligatory for Brussels fonctionnaires to have a subscription.
Lambert is unapologetic. "From my point of view, the euro is a sound way of running monetary policy and Britain joining it would lock us in to our main trading partners." What about the corruption and the undemocratic nature of it all? "That's a slightly different argument, as I certainly agree in some cases," he says. He cites the paper's arguments against the Common Agricultural Policy and the sugar subsidy. There will, though, remain those who believe the FT might be an even better paper, albeit perhaps with a slightly smaller circulation, if it used its resources to offend some great institutions rather more.
Unlike its great rival, The Wall Street Journal, which is effectively three newspapers produced by overlapping sets of staff across the world, the FT is one global paper with the order of stories juggled around for different continents. As with news agencies like Reuters, this means correspondents' writing needs to be shorn of wit and cultural references. It certainly isn't a fizzing read. Lambert is unrepentant. "We are in the information business, not the entertainment business," he says. He is a strong believer in the philosophy that a business news story is as interesting to a businessman in Wichita, Kansas as to one in Woking. With US sales up 37 per cent in the last year, he's probably right.
Lambert says that maintaining a "single global editorial idea while catering for different markets and getting it right" has been the biggest challenge he has faced. The fight with the Journal is intensifying in Europe, where both companies have launched German-language newspapers in a tacit admission that English is not yet the global business language they have sometimes claimed it to be. FT.com is now developing a powerful brand as a trusted, and well-edited, business news source. Dot.com journalists sit side by side with their print counterparts in the newsroom.
Lambert is a thorough, rigorous man with a reputation for hard work. Though keen to talk about the newspaper, he gives away little about himself. How does being the longest-serving Fleet Street editor make him feel? "Nervous," he says, only half-joking. What about rumours that he plans to retire soon? "Absolutely not. I'm enjoying myself far too much."
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