Darcy Keller loves the view of the Thames from the boardroom of the Financial Times. But sadly, the chief marketing and communications officer will not have much longer to enjoy it as next year the newspaper is planning a return to the pink-bricked Bracken House on London’s Cannon Street, almost 30 years after moving out to Southwark.
The Financial Times’ imminent return to its almost ancestral home, following its sale by Pearson to Japan’s Nikkei Inc for £844 million, is apt, coming at a time when the newspaper is reinforcing both its credentials and 130 year heritage.
A new marketing campaign challenges readers to think beyond ‘black and white’, and highlights how the FT takes readers beyond the headlines, providing high-quality and impartial news and analysis. ‘It has become very trendy for journalism to rely on opinion, sometimes they are qualified opinions and sometimes they are not, but what they aren’t either way is reporting,’ says Keller. ‘What the FT does best is reporting, which gives the readers the information as well as a range of views, so that they can make their own decisions.
‘People are hungry for quality information from quality sources that they can trust, and lucky for us we have been building that trust for 130 years. What inspired the brand campaign was an understanding that what makes the FT valuable is best pronounced through our journalism, and putting our product – which is our journalism – into the context of the wider world and what is going on.’
It was a challenging concept for the marketing team to achieve. Positioning marketing alongside journalism, when that is produced by arguably some of the best writers in the world, meant that the message had to resonate. ‘We actually collaborated with journalists on the concept, specific stories and angles, as we wanted to make sure the campaign did reflect what we say in our journalism,’ says Keller. Imagine the wrath of management columnist Lucy Kellaway if the wording was deemed too corporate?
The assertion that readers are ‘hungry for quality information’ is borne out by the facts. There has been a flight to quality over the past year as the world was rocked by momentous political events: the FT paid circulation hit record highs of 856,000 across digital and print in the first quarter, up eight per cent year-on-year. And digital subscriptions now represent three quarters of the paying audience.
‘In the weeks around Brexit, not only was traffic to our site exponentially larger, but we were acquiring substantially more subscriptions than average,’ says Keller. ‘We saw a 75 per cent increase in the weeks and months around Brexit and similarly [about 33 per cent higher] around Trump. Publications that are recognised as quality sources of impartial information are harder to come by than you would think, and that has absolutely been beneficial to the FT.
‘The marketing campaign is helpful because it emphasises something that people know to be true. It works because it doesn’t so much focus on the FT as it does the value that we have to offer you.’
But the FT was criticised in the wake of the EU Referendum that it had taken a Remain stance that initially barely altered after the result was announced. The paper has been seen to ‘row back’ in recent months. ‘There is a difference between reporting and opinion, and our leader [column] is distinctively a comment proposition. It all goes back to the respect that the FT has for its readers,’ defends Keller. ‘Despite what you think, and we will tell you what we think, we also want to present you with the facts and an impartial view. You may not agree with us, and we welcome that. Our real aim is to present a variety of views and be a forum for debate, especially around things that matter, and I don’t think people should be afraid of that. But the distinction between facts and reporting and opinion is important, and where the line gets blurred is dangerous.’
Opinion, she points out, is cheap. Journalism is expensive. ‘We have one of the most extensive foreign reporting networks of any media in the world,’ adds Keller. ‘It is expensive but it is absolutely an essential thing. No matter what changes the industry has gone through, and the FT has gone through a total transformation, that is sacrosanct. That is our USP: verified reporting work by very experienced journalists, many of whom have been stationed in various parts of the world and who have a unique perspective as a result. That is what our readers value.’
Keller believes that the FT’s editor Lionel Barber ‘deserves a lot of credit’ for his focus on preserving and developing a foreign news network during his tenure, at a time when other competitors have cut back on their overseas presence. ‘Foreign journalism is now more needed than ever with globalisation and the increasing connectivity of companies, the political landscapes and the economic landscapes. Our network positions us to cover those stories in a way that nobody else can. Our readers come to us for that global perspective; they want to be part of that global conversation,’ she adds. ‘Of course, we have local coverage in our home market, but it is with a global perspective in mind. We want to give UK readers a view of the world and how it relates back to them, and vice versa.’
The biggest challenge for any print publication is space, and judgments need to be made about what stories to promote and which to relegate to one-liners. In part, that is the skill of an editor. But, with complaints about social media echo chambers and algorithms that generate news items similar to those previously read, is there a danger that newspapers serve up the news their readers want to read, I ask. ‘People are busy. They are overwhelmed, and the FT seeks to serve as a sort of guide, a trusted one, that shares what you need to know today or at this moment,’ say Keller. ‘We now have the insights and the power to understand our audience better than we did in the analogue days. But Lionel has often said that we will not edit by numbers. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t know who our audience is and how they are responding to our content. Comments are important. They inform us, and that makes us better journalists.
‘At the end of the day, our readers (and they are telling us this in surveys and other ways) come to us, in part, for the judgment that our experienced journalists and editors have. It’s a balance. We do have to make decisions in the newspaper because there is a finite amount of space, and so that is very much the editor’s take on the most important stories that we can fit in. But I think all publishers are grappling with how we can recreate that finite editorial-led reading experience online, because we know that is what our readers like.’
Keller, who is based in New York, has worked for the FT for ten years, joining from the Paley Center for Media, a think tank where media leaders gathered to discuss the critical issues facing the industry. ‘It was a who’s who of people running global media, and, for three years, I got to be a fly on the wall when they all came together behind closed doors to discuss what they were grappling with.’ She swiftly realised that the biggest issue was digital disruption. ‘Journalism as a profession where you hone your trade over a lifetime is becoming harder, because of all the disruption, and there are only a few players that can now afford to keep those really experienced journalists,’ adds Keller. As a consequence, newsrooms are losing experienced journalists who acted as mentors to the younger generations or provided historical context for modern stories. The FT, however, is well known for its stable of long-standing columnists and journalists, such as chief economics commentator Martin Wolf, who joined in 1987, and Kellaway, who arrived in 1985. Indeed, many started their careers at Bracken House, although the new premises are likely to bear little resemblance to those they vacated.
‘The newsroom has fundamentally changed over the ten years that I have been here,’ says Keller. ‘Then we spoke about the newspaper, and that is what the journalists considered themselves as writing for. We had a good website, but it wasn’t the primary focus. Now if you attend editorial conference, they have data up on the screens. They have the audience insight group presenting. They have social media strategy conversations. They are thinking about multi-media. But for all that, the one constant – and it has been there for the past century – is producing quality, well-sourced reporting with judgments based on experience. Despite how digitally savvy the world may become, none of that matters if the journalism isn’t good enough.’