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Towards the end of the 19th century, the City of London was close to the pinnacle of its power. It was, as one commentator remarked, the greatest shop, the greatest store, the freest market for commodities, gold and securities, the greatest disposer of capital and credit, and the world’s leading clearing house.
Yet something was missing. For all its imperial strut, the City lacked reliable sources of information. This was the context for the launch, in 1884, of The Financial News and, four years later, The Financial Times, the two newspapers that later merged to form the heart and soul of the modern FT.
Today the FT celebrates its 125th anniversary. It still appears in its trademark pink printed format (a marketing wheeze conceived in 1893) but its news and views are now published to a global readership in real time on multiple platforms: the smartphone, the tablet and the desktop computer. The digital revolution has fundamentally changed the distribution and organisation of content but the FT’s editorial values – its liberal international outlook, lack of party affiliation and ironclad commitment to authoritative news and commentary – remain unchanged. Indeed, in the age of the internet, where information is abundant, the FT’s concise journalistic style, its authority and its editorial independence are priceless assets.
The story of the newspaper’s first 100 years is best told by David Kynaston in The Financial Times: A Centennial History. In the subsequent 25 years the FT became a truly global organisation. In 1997-98 we expanded intrepidly in the US, while also relishing our role as an underdog. Five years later, at the height of the Sars outbreak, we wrapped our pink pages around a skyscraper in Hong Kong, the staging post for a broader assault on the Asian market.
There is a sturdy optimism about these overseas forays that defies notions of genteel British decline. If not quite a national treasure, the FT has become an export success. Top editorial and commercial executives grasped, sooner than many UK rivals, that our business had to expand beyond its domestic market to survive and thrive.
For a brief period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was touch-and-go. The decision to launch a print edition in Frankfurt in 1979 was visionary – but it was driven mainly by the need to escape print unions holding Fleet Street to ransom. From modest beginnings on the banks of the Main, some two dozen print sites followed worldwide. International circulation soon outstripped that of the UK edition. Our horizons expanded, reinforcing our best instincts and building on the legacy of the FT’s most distinguished editor, Sir Gordon Newton (1949-73). Newton defined the FT’s mission: to reach those who make or seek to influence decisions in business, finance or public affairs around the world.
It was Newton, along with a brilliant young foreign editor, J.D.F. Jones, who built the network of foreign correspondents that today comprises the FT’s prize asset. It paved the way for an organisation with a uniquely international outlook and able to attract talent from around the world (check out those bylines!).
The FT’s ascent as a global publication over the past two decades coincided with stories that played to our strengths: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany; the creation of Europe’s single currency; globalisation and the quadrupling of the world’s labour market between 1999 and 2009 as China, India, Russia and large parts of Latin America became market economies; the birth of the internet and the dotcom bubble; and finally the most serious financial crisis since the Depression.
Crises offer opportunities. As Sir Richard Lambert – editor from 1991-2001, who personally led the launch of the US edition – remembers, the Asian financial turmoil of the late 1990s proved a blessing in disguise. “People wanted to know what was going to happen in Indonesia and what the consequences of a Russian default would be for American mortgage holders.”
At times, as I can testify, our assault on the US market was improbably audacious. We were heavily outgunned by the likes of The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. But we saw ourselves as nimble special forces, not stuck-in-the-mud redcoats. Rather than the scattergun, we employed the rifle shot, carefully selecting relevant stories and themes and selling them to a hitherto underrated readership category: “globally minded Americans”.
Robert Rubin, who served as US Treasury secretary and Citigroup chairman, was among the early converts. He once told me that the FT was invariably more useful than his daily CIA news digest. The celebrated investor Warren Buffett described the FT as an essential guide to currency and trade stories.
Above all, Americans welcomed the arrival of a competitor to the incumbents, notably the Wall Street Journal. Several heavyweight scoops followed. My favourite was a 1998 Thanksgiving exclusive on the merger of oil companies Exxon and Mobil that ruined our US rivals’ turkey lunch. Another eye-catcher, in 2002, completed after exhaustive research, was “The Barons of Bankruptcy”, a list of the top 25 executives who profited handsomely from selling shares ahead of the collapse of their companies after the dotcom boom.
Distribution in the US was more challenging. Sir Richard remembers being inundated with reader complaints after commercial colleagues unwittingly handed out his personal email address. “I rapidly learnt that American customers were quite demanding.”
During this period, the FT became much newsier and more readable. Traditionally, editorial executives preferred to be right rather than first with the news. (In 1974 Jurek Martin, then foreign news editor, wary of Richard Nixon’s “Tricky Dicky” character, insisted on delaying the front page on the grounds that the Republican president could not be trusted to leave office.)
The appointment of Alain Cass in 1989 as news editor changed the metabolism in the newsroom. Robert Peston, one of several bold hires and now the BBC’s business editor, speaks of a “revolution”. Suddenly the FT was leading the pack on stories such as the collapse of BCCI bank, the Maxwell pension scandal and the blow-up of Europe’s exchange rate mechanism that brought UK-German relations to a new postwar low and led, temporarily, to the severing of ties between the FT and Norman Lamont, the embattled chancellor of the exchequer.
David Lascelles, then banking editor, revealed the Bank of England dossier on BCCI, having been passed a brown envelope outside Threadneedle Street. “I couldn’t believe my luck – but of course it was part of a carefully crafted plan by the Bank to push blame on others, notably PwC [the auditors].” He adds: “We were under tremendous pressure to come up with scoops and once or twice we went over the top ... the cost of sharp news coverage is that you tread a fine line and the FT was not used to that.”
Nor was the FT immune to controversy. Our halfhearted endorsement of Neil Kinnock and Labour in the 1992 general election caused consternation in the City but not at Pearson, where our owners maintained their traditional respect for editorial independence.
We took too long to recognise that British membership of the ERM was neither desirable nor tenable, even if it was in line with our pro-European views. The same was true of our flirtation, since ended, with UK membership of the eurozone. But on issues such as the Iraq war, which we firmly opposed, our judgment proved correct.
The second cultural shift took place in 1989 when the FT moved from Bracken House, its imposing headquarters in the shadows of St Paul’s Cathedral, to One Southwark Bridge (OSB), then a rundown neighbourhood on the “wrong” side of the Thames, now a thriving area. The newsroom and printing presses were no longer housed on the same premises. This presaged the biggest cultural revolution of all: the launch of FT.com in 1995.
Sir David Bell, a former FT journalist and senior Pearson executive, recalls declaring that the website could one day be more important than the paper. “Most of those present looked underwhelmed by this idea and none of us had any idea how the internet would develop, let alone about tablets.”
The inspirational figure during this period was Peter Martin, one of several astute hires by Sir Geoffrey Owen, editor from 1980 to 1990, from the Economist. Martin, who served as deputy editor and editor of FT.com, understood better than anyone the power of search and how it could transform the reader experience online. In a December 2000 article, republished after his death two years later of cancer, aged 54, Martin reflected on the lessons of the dotcom bubble and the news business.
Web businesses were either technically flawed (“slung-together systems using the electronic equivalent of string, toilet roll cores and sticky-backed plastic”) or financially doomed (“nothing destroys value like misplaced capital”).
His conclusions were as prescient as ever – and just as relevant today: “Stable technology, more mature business models, interpenetration of the ‘real’ and the virtual world, the arrival of always-on broadband connections, and the creation of the rich, permanently connected handheld device all mean that there is at least as much interesting innovation ahead as that which lies behind. There just won’t be a capital markets frenzy to speed the process.”
Both Martin and Sir Richard agreed that FT.com had to share the same editorial values and judgment as the paper. An influx of tech-savvy webbies who moved into the FT’s headquarters at times begged to differ. Sir Richard recalls speaking with a new arrival who opined that if only the FT could stop being so boring everyone could make a mint.
As the dotcom bubble inflated to bursting point, it was decided in 1999-2000 to integrate the print and online editorial operation. Reporters were expected to work for both media – a controversial step that is largely accepted practice in newsrooms around the world today. Editors and production staff followed six years later, a tribute to flexible working practices.
The most important decision, however, was to charge for content. Olivier Fleurot, a French newspaper executive hired to run the commercial side, built the foundations of the subscription model that exists today. But the giant leap forward came in 2006-7 when the current management team led by John Ridding introduced a meter model for charging with dedicated web and mobile apps.
Users were given a limited number of free stories, then asked first to register their customer details and later to subscribe. In 2012 the number of digital subscribers (316,000) passed the circulation of the newspaper (300,000) for the first time. The total number of registered users topped 5m.
This audience is as influential as ever. The FT has followed Newton’s maxim of reaching decision makers, not only with relevant news and information but also with expert and incisive commentary, particularly on international economics. Samuel Brittan was the pioneer; Martin Wolf is the present standard-bearer. We have also covered the more delightful sides of life. Lucy Kellaway, the Weekend FT and How To Spend It have brought a distinctively sharp and witty FT take on issues ranging from daily office life to arts, culture and lifestyle.
The global financial crisis and its implications for western liberal capitalism have again offered an opportunity for the FT to connect the dots and cover a crisis spanning New York, London, Dubai, Moscow and Beijing. In this sense, history has come full circle. The City of London may have been diminished by the recent crisis but it remains one of the world’s great financial centres – open to immigrants, innovation and talent. It would be churlish to compare today’s bloggers with the unregulated tipsheets of the late 19th century. But in this – the second wave of globalisation – the premium once again is on accuracy and authority.
A Chinese ambassador in Africa was once asked by a colleague why he was carrying a copy of the pink paper. “We always read the FT in the embassy because capitalists never lie.” This may have been flattery; it is more likely that it was a testimony to the fact that financial publications live or die by the reliable provision of information.
In that narrow sense, 125 years on, the gold standard still applies.