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Profile in two outlets – the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal – remains special for most financial firms. So it’s easy for any corporate communicator to become fixated with the weeds: is our industry’s beat reporter as experienced as the last one? Why does ‘Heard on the Street’ hate us?

But the broad direction of these papers also matters: in a fragmenting media environment, this affects whether they remain more than the sum of many parts, genuine newspapers that can appeal to a wide business audience.

Racing to the top

Ten years on from Murdoch’s purchase of the Journal and the FT’s paywall, the two outlets are changing ever faster. In September 2016, FT editor Lionel Barber told the inaugural Weekend conference that the FT would stop printing the weekday paper at some point, he just didn’t know when. Meanwhile the rapid decline in business coverage elsewhere increases the two papers’ importance.

The two are only direct competitors to a point. Most WSJ readers are in the US. Less than one third of FT readers are. Certainly they compete for esteem and talent. Both are digital first, and less purely business focused than a decade ago.

There are significant differences. The WSJ has a massive home market which now has essentially two national quality papers, one center-left in the New York Times (the real competition arguably) and the Journal on the right. Under Murdoch, WSJ has become more conservative, and more orientated to mainstream America.

The FT, in contrast, talks much more explicitly about serving a global elite audience, and its politics are more eclectic. It’s moved decisively away from the UK small cap world it still flirted with ten years ago.

Complex equations and bespoke analysis

Understanding who pays, who reads and who cares has become incredibly complicated for the two papers, as they have shifted to multi-channel.

Explaining this is critical to their commercial edge. If you examine how they each talk about their offerings, it must be said that the FT brags better. It makes the point that while readership surveys and audits give media buyers an audience guide, it’s not a single, unduplicated audience number.

The FT has therefore developed something called Average Daily Global Audience (ADGA) to measure net audience across channels, de-duplicating engagement via print,, the tablet and smart phone apps and mobile website. ADGA reveals that the FT reaches over 2 million readers every day. It’s the FT’s own analysis, but with transparent methodology and PwC providing an assurance assessment. The WSJ throws out bigger audited numbers, but 42 million digital readers a month doesn’t mean much without some understanding of what engagement this implies.

Both papers have strong parents, but the shift to digital – subscribers and advertising – is challenging. Print advertising fell more than 20% in 2016 for most major newspapers and hasn’t come back, leading in the Journal’s case to its print redesign to two sections only.

The digital subscriber story at both papers is impressive. Five years after FT digital subscriptions overtook print, the FT has over 600,000 digital subscribers, three quarters of total subscribers. The Journal added 305,000 digital subscribers over the last year to 1.2 million. Digital advertising growth at both papers is more tentative, but at the WSJ, digital is now more than a quarter of ad revenue.

The decline in international print editionsmay curiously make these papers appear less international – no longer on newsstands and in hotels – even as their digital subscribers grow. The Journal is about to cut its print editions outside the US, with an end to unprofitable “amenity deals”. In Asia it’s looking for a print joint venture partner in at least one big market – recognizing belatedly that even for business, Asia is not homogeneous. The FT has five regional editions, but many fewer printing sites than in the 1990s, and it’s less clear just how visible it is in print beyond Europe.

Staying strong

These two giants will keep us busy. Their leaders will continue to worry about the tech giants and muse publicly on the future of the news business. Some things to look out for:

  • The public policy audience – broadly defined, and including many in the private sector – willbecome more important, given that the size of the finance audience has stalled.
  • Both papers talk of shifting from standard 800 word stories towards short snippets and the sainted long-form journalism – but institutional caution may mean this happens slowly.
  • Social media outreach, not least through reporters individually, will be important for brand, but the subscription model is all about owning the relationship and the data.
  • People (less so millennials) lie as much about their media consumption as other things. Data unearths the truth, so stories will increasingly have to “earn their keep” by being read. Nevertheless, plenty of FT readers want to be part of a paper that reviews classical concerts, even if they don’t always get around to that story.
  • Community building will keep getting investment – look at how FT readers love meeting “their” columnists at events. But it’s hard to do this at scale. The WSJ+ membership brand has a strong US event calendar, but it’s hard to see a coherence internationally.
  • Reaching high net worth readers (not just western ones) is the lodestone for advertising – migrating that luxury advertising online may be the toughest challenge. But neither paper can easily challenge the other’s strongholds in this segment.
  • The FT has done well by pricing at a premium to the WSJ – that could re-emerge as a problem at some point. • For most readers, mobile and tablet experience will be more important than website speed and personalization
  • Both papers might play around with further reducing print at the margins. The Monday FT is a thinner read – would we really miss it in print?

In short: the FT has a good edge internationally for now, but can afford to make fewer mistakes. The WSJ has a vastly bigger home market together with a much patchier international presence – but it can afford to keep trying. Let’s hope both thrive.

Andrew Marshall is Cognito's deputy CEO