Something for the Weekend: 'FT' puts on its Sunday best

The paper's chief executive tells Margareta Pagano how it came back from the dead and outlines his plans for seven-day readership

Sunday 09 March 2008 01:00

The Financial Times is set to break the mould again when it relaunches its FT Weekend edition for Sunday readers with a big marketing campaign later this spring.

Already one of the highest-circulation Saturday newspapers in the UK, the FT is working on secret plans to make the edition work just as well on the next day.

"Our Weekend edition is our Sunday newspaper," declares John Ridding, chief executive of the newspaper. "Our move to grow Sunday sales is demand led. It has come from readers who've been asking their newsagents for more copies."

While the FT doesn't break down its sales, the Weekend edition is the highest of the week.

Ridding describes the imminent changes as "enhancements" – a refreshing of the edition rather than a bumper package featuring new supplements. FT Weekend editor Andy Davis is rebranding the paper with the Weekend stamp throughout the sections. Expect changes to Life & Arts while the magazine will be "revamped". New columnists are coming on board – star fund manager Anthony Bolton has just been signed up – to tempt readers to stay pink all weekend.

"That's all I can say for now," adds Ridding. We meet in his sixth-floor office at the FT's Southwark Bridge perch, with its fabulous view spanning east to west along the Thames. Quite rightly he's in the finest of moods: a few days before, the FT group had disclosed record profits and sales when Pearson, its parent company, reported results.

"Our Weekend move is all part of building our niche, global brand. There is so much in the edition which is relevant for Sunday readers. Take 'Lunch with the FT' – one of the best things we do – that isn't time-related."

There is good news at the daily FT too: it's the only quality newspaper in the world to be increasing readership. Sales are up 1.5 per cent to 140,000 in the UK, up 6 per cent to 146,000 in the US, and around the world it is selling 447,000 a day, with 470,000 on peak days.

The Pearson group never strips out the FT's profits and it's a "no comment" from Ridding. But informed estimates point to a doubling of profit to £30m on sales of nearly £300m – an extraordinary turnaround considering the FT's blood-red losses four years ago and falling circulation among its rivals.

Those predicting the death of newspapers have got it wrong, adds Ridding. "Look at us – we have proved that print is not dead. We have shown that if you invest in quality journalism, it leads to higher circulation – certainly in the high-end niche, global-business market in which we work. "Print now works alongside online, video and other digital means of journalism, with one feeding off the other. Our site [which charges for access] is bringing us new readers all the time. It's a virtuous circle."

Giving away newspapers or online content for free, he says, is neither necessary nor sensible. He doesn't name new usurpers, like City A.M. or competitors such as Rupert Murdoch's News International, the new owners of The Wall Street Journal, but his message is clear. Nor is the FT worried by Murdoch's purchase of the Journal, saying: "I don't see the move as a big battle between two media titans – us and them. The market is much more fragmented and competitive than that. We are a very different global brand."

However, he adds that Murdoch's predilection for hiring FT journalists to edit his papers – Robert Thomson, now at the Journal, and James Harding at The Times – only serves to "underline the FT's talent".

Ridding says the paper's circulation has been helped by the greatest business story of recent times – the international credit crunch – which informed its latest advertising campaign, "We live in Financial Times". But that's not the whole story. "People do read more and better comment and analysis when times are tough. But we have invested heavily in our journalists – we have more than 500 around the world – and we are still recruiting, in Asia and the Middle East."

It was not so long ago that the doomsters were calling the FT's own demise: readers were deserting it, the brand was tired while editorial influence was waning. Rivals argued that the paper had overstepped its territory, going too global and leaving behind its UK constituency – and that its cosy relations with contacts meant it rarely broke stories. There were attempts to buy the paper, including by wishful former FT journalists.

But Pearson's chief executive, Dame Marjorie Scardino stuck firm, refusing to discuss a sale. Instead, around two and a half years ago, she backed a clever hunch by making Lionel Barber editor, and then she moved Ridding from Hong Kong, where he was editor and publisher, back to London.

Ridding, indecently young for such a job at 42, had worked closely with Barber when he was in Brussels and Ridding was in Paris, and they continue to do so.

There is no doubt the pair have had a sensational impact, turning the FT from what was a duty read into a compelling one.

Ridding accepts 2007 was a turning point, if not the most pivotal year in the paper's 120-year-old history. "We had a failing brand, falling circulation and editorial was weak. Our global strategy was treated with scepticism, and many thought we were mad to launch in the US and Hong Kong. I have to say we do feel vindicated now, but we are careful to stay local too to our home market. But our world is global: if you are a UK businessman who wants to make shoes in China, you need to know exactly what is going on there – and vice-versa."

His work in Asia and Europe helped prepare him for the switch. "As an FT reporter for 15 years, I covered some big business collapses – in the telecoms and shipping industries. Listening to businessmen telling me about their work helped me think out my own philosophy."

Is there any bad news? Ridding can't think of any. Even if the world economy continues to deteriorate, he's confident the FT can stay strong. The paper been helped by growing new sources of income, making it less dependent on advertising – a third of all newspaper sales are subscription and there are fees from online services and other data. Meanwhile, China is a great example of how marrying online and print could work. The Chinese, which now has more than a million users, is creating a platform for when, and if, the market opens up for a print edition. "Even Lucy Kellaway's column works well in Chinese," says Ridding.

Advertising online is up by 40 per cent and monthly unique users on the site are up 30 per cent to 5.7 million. FT Alpha-ville, the daily markets blog, now has a regular 100,000 users a month, while television is booming too with 100 videos a month. "Business seems to love the immediacy of the TV interviews and journalists like doing them too. We hope we can double these numbers this year," he says. Other signs of the times include the £2,000-a-year membership of Executive Forum – a sort of grown-up Facebook-style networking club for media and technology types.

"It's about giving our global audience premium quality, great comment and news. No one seems to have a problem paying."

As for editorial, expect more breaking stories. Scoops are becoming a habit for FT reporters: they broke the story of Gordon Brown's "Stalinist" approach and unearthed details on Northern Rock. What this means for the FT's pinkish political stance, a move that choked the City when it first came out for Labour, is anyone's guess now.

Ridding won't say what position the paper will take, if any, at the next election. "That's Lionel's zone," he replies promptly. But he has been inspired by the excitement of the fight between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the US elections, and even watched Obama dancing during his chat-show interview with Ellen on US television. "God, I wish I could dance like that."

John Ridding

Age: 42

Education: First-class honours, PPE, Oxford

Career: First job at Oxford Analytica on the Asia desk.

Joined 'FT' in 1987, working as editor and publisher of 'FT' Asian, Hong Kong bureau chief, Paris correspondent and Korea correspondent. In Britain, he worked on the foreign desk and UK companies desk and is now chief executive.

Favourite book: 'The Road', by Cormac McCarthy

Football team: Leeds United, despite its troubles

Favourite holiday: scuba-diving, to escape mobile phones

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