A gifted journalist
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Peter Martin, who died at the age of 54, played a central role in the development of today’s Financial Times.
As editor of the international edition in the mid-1990s, he drove the international expansion of the newspaper through a period of rapid growth. As deputy editor and editorial director of FT.com at the end of the decade, it was his vision and strategic brilliance that shaped the FT’s approach to online publishing.
And as the paper’s leading business columnist throughout this period, he created what was for the FT a new kind of commentary, bringing together an understanding of finance, business strategy and technology in a fresh and timely manner.
This combination of skills, as editor, strategic thinker and commentator, has not been matched in the FT’s long history.
His background was suitably eclectic. Armed with a first class degree from Oxford in Philosophy, Politics and Economy, he started out in television in 1970, first at ITN, then at London Weekend, and finally at Granada in its glory days of the mid-1970s. He moved into print at the Economist, where he became US business editor in New York. After a spell in US business television, he returned to London on the business side of the Economist, and was appointed managing director of the Economist Intelligence Unit.
He was an unusual recruit for the FT, which he joined in 1988. The paper tends to grow its own senior editors, and is sometimes too inclined to be driven by consensus. Peter came in as fresh blood and as a man who loved a good argument, and he retained the ability to thrust a stick of dynamite into a dull editorial discussion. But as features editor and then as financial editor he quickly won his place at the centre of the paper.
Of course, he was very clever. But he was also modest and decent. He was witty, too, in a quick but understated way.
At the beginning of 1994, Peter was given the leadership of what the FT called, only slightly tongue in cheek, the second Great Leap Forward. The task was to improve substantially the paper’s distribution in continental Europe and to develop a newspaper that would be better tailored to the needs of international readers and advertisers.
His big idea was that the paper had a unique opportunity to capitalise on the growth of English as the language of business, the falling costs of distribution, and the spread of globalisation. His vision was of a paper with a single editorial heart, but with what he called “grace notes” that would change from region to region.
Peter was engaged at every level. He would produce complicated charts, showing that a critical mass of readers and good road connections made it absolutely essential that the paper be printed in Madrid or Milan or wherever. And he would come up with a detailed study of stock markets in East Asia, to show that with only a few extra lines of copy the paper could pull far ahead of its rival, the Wall Street Journal.
Then came FT.com. It seemed essential that the editorial structure of the new medium should be fully integrated with the newspaper from the start. This was not the route taken by a number of other publications, but Peter believed that the FT brand needed to have consistent editorial qualities in whatever form it appeared. There followed what he later described as the most rewarding period of his professional life.
It was an enormous task. Large numbers of new journalists had to be hired and trained in FT values, and the existing editorial staff had to be persuaded that their future lay in this new integrated world. A new architecture had to be devised for FT.com, along with a different kind of journalism - one that was consistent with the newspaper but which was appropriate for a screen-based medium that allowed constant updating.
It was also a grinding responsibility. Along with the grand vision, there were constant problems with the production system to deal with, as well as rapidly changing commercial pressures. Peter was happy to move on at the end of last year to devote himself full time to writing. By that time, FT.com was already gaining recognition, and a realistic commercial prospect was on the horizon.
Despite all these achievements, it is as a writer that Peter Martin will be remembered most widely. His range of interests and experience were absolutely suited to the times. He was deeply knowledgeable about technology. He was astonishingly widely read a recent column on the breakdown of trust in business was illustrated with lines from both Matthew Arnold and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He understood finance and economics, and he had the ability to stand back from the detail and to present big ideas in a fresh and lively way.
He would also write with enormous speed and flair. On column writing days, he would sometimes seem uncertain about his subject until quite late in the day. A few hours later the piece would appear, full of insights, properly sourced, and with every word in place. To the rest of us, it seemed unfair. Although he was among the first to understand the possibilities of the digital revolution, he was never swept away by the financial bubble which it created. Two pieces in particular stay in the memory. One, exactly four years ago, compared the economic impact of the internet with that of the railways, and concluded: “The real profits of the railway boom were made not by the heroic engineers or even the enthusiastic developers. They were made by the promoters, the stock-waterers, the exploiters of bankrupt lines, the manipulators of freight rates.”
More baldly, he wrote at the end of 1998: “The seeds of future crises are sown in the good times, when providers of funds no longer keep an eye on where their money is going. That’s what is happening now. Pay attention!”
Peter continued to write as his health deteriorated through this summer. His final paragraph, published at the end of last month, somehow captures his personality. The column urged captains of industry to spend their holidays rethinking their whole approach to business, and it ended: “In the middle of a sea change in the relationship between technology, financial markets, shareholders and managers, now is the time to tackle some of those unthinkable issues. And if you have trouble in finding a suitable theme, I find those drinks with the little pink parasols have a remarkably liberating effect.”
Peter leaves a wife, Sandy, and two daughters, who were central to his life.
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