The FT and the WSJ matter more to financial services audiences than any other outlets (let’s talk Bloomberg another day). A piece I wrote comparing the two two years ago has proved popular, so here’s a check-in on our two favorite papers.
I’ve clustered my thoughts into five themes: commercial, products, news approach, journalists and leadership.
Relative to many other media owners, Nikkei and Murdoch can be reasonably satisfied. The FT has now hit 1 million paying readers, a year ahead of its target. Digital subscribers, three quarters of the total, are up 11% year-on-year. Digital growth at the WSJ has been faster at 23%, with around 1.7 million digital subscribers and close to 3 million subscribers overall.
The FT has a slight premium – it’s roughly 20% more expensive than the Journal – though the multitude of packages makes it hard to calculate. The WSJ discounts new subscriptions more aggressively, while the FT undertakes “reach and return” paid-for trials to lure new readers into its hard paywall (highly successful after 17 years).
Commercially the two papers only somewhat compete. The great bulk of WSJ readers are in the US, most FT readers are outside it. FT digital subscriptions in the US are however up 38%, and it’s pushing hard. Its internationalist, somewhat independent, positioning is apparently helping it in the current climate, not least as a complementary second paper. A new syndication deal with the LA Times also helps.
The Journal – unlike the FT or the NY Times – agreed to participate in Apple News Plus despite the swingeing 50% revenue cut taken by Apple. Subscribers will get a range of Journal news for $10 a month in your Apple News sub. The Journal says this is “more snackable” (awful expression) and doesn’t envisage cannibalization of its subscriber base.
Both papers are now complex universes with a multitude of additional products for different professional audiences. “Community building” is part of that, and the FT’s Due Diligence M&A service is now developing a members-only forum. The WSJ, beyond its established CFO and CIO titles, now offers premium news for bankruptcies, VC, Private Equity, M&A and cyber through WSJ Pro. Neither title is good at telling us how well all these services are doing (indeed they are rather discreet about what they cost).
Both are trying to build mass affluent reader communities. This may be easier in the compact UK, where the FT Weekend Festival has taken off, but it’s a formula that is hard to scale.
The FT keeps promoting a wide range of initiatives, including school subscriptions, the Long Story Short email, and its Tech Scroll Asia newsletter cooperation with Nikkei. Perhaps most significant is the FT’s Sifted, a new media site for tech entrepreneurs in Europe which is live and well-staffed from the core FT and beyond.
News approach and style
While the FT is different to many papers, its style is unmistakably British. This is news that can unapologetically carry a viewpoint.
The Journal has a style guide (available to buy) and a somewhat more formal way of writing news. Its op-ed pages have a more separate editorial board, as is common in the US. The FT’s writing often has more flair, though sometimes this can result in a news piece diving into analysis but forgetting to tell the reader a needed fact or two.
In terms of news selection, the Journal today has perhaps more comprehensive coverage of company results than the FT, especially in print, though neither paper now gives a lot of space to small cap stocks.
Both papers give out rough journalist numbers, but an accurate count, whether via LinkedIn or media databases, is hard due to factors like double counting, how to classify freelancers, video roles etc and so on.
The WSJ has roughly 900 editorial staff worldwide compared with around 680 at the Financial Times. On my calculation, about 66% of FT journalists are based in UK, compared with about 61% of WSJ reporters in the US. Despite those numbers, the WSJ is more of an American paper than the FT is a British paper. That’s both because the US is a continent, and because of the FT sees itself as an international elite paper that happens to be based in London. A poll of EU Brussels decision-makers found 62% rank the FT as a top influencer, way ahead of the WSJ at 38%.
The Journal has multiple journalists based in US cities beyond NY and Washington (16 in LA, 4 in Pittsburgh for example). The precipitous decline of traditional city daily papers across the US is creating opportunities for the WSJ (and the NY Times). The FT, in contrast, has just a couple of reporters in the UK based outside London, with light coverage of UK regional stories.
In many areas, the staffing levels at the FT and the Journal look evenly matched, such as financial services, technology, and markets. Both have invested in bigger investigative teams, as epitomized in the Journal’s John Carreyou winning the FT Business Book award for his Theranos book, and the FT’s writing on the Presidents Club and on Wirecard.
The WSJ brings strength to parts of the US markets that the FT cannot match, such as 14 people on the real estate beat, and sizable bankruptcy and legal teams. It also, surprisingly, has bigger teams than the FT in Paris and Berlin.
Alphaville – the FT’s markets insiders’ site – has been a jewel for the paper. The WSJ askews this level of informality.
The FT is undoubtedly stronger in highbrow arts journalism and in its coverage of the business of arts and the fashion business. Combined with the ad money machine “How to Spend It,” this gives the FT exceptional reach with international ultra-high net worth audiences. The Journal’s strength with US wealth audiences seems based more on its core business reporting (and its sister outlet Barron’s), though its magazine punches well in the crowded US wealth lifestyle media market.
Personal finance coverage is more domestically oriented for both papers, though FTfm covers institutional asset management Europe-wide in a way the WSJ does not match.
Here the difference between the two papers is starkest.
The latter days of former WSJ editor Gerard Baker were controversial in his newsroom and beyond. Rightly or wrongly, he was seen as soft on Trump, and the paper saw a fair number of departures. His departure last summer into a senior writing role seemed sudden, with his low profile deputy Matt Murray taking over (to be fair, a published author and WSJ veteran).
This is a big contrast with the FT, where Lionel Barber has been a high profile editor since 2005, giving punchy views on Brexit, Trump and cricket. Now that there are credible stories that he is preparing to step down, his City University speech in November looks like a swan song. He cited threats to financial journalism’s future, including “black PR”, legal gagging, new concepts of confidentiality, and the loss of transparency with the rise of private markets.
Barber has 68k Twitter followers and dives into issues most days, while so far the Journal’s Murray, with 14k followers, is much more reticent. The putative in-house successors to Barber are all less extrovert (and pugnacious) than him, and it will be interesting to see how the succession goes.
The bottom line
Overall the mood music seems much more positive at the FT, now just back in its historic City of London home at Bracken House, after a gap of several decades. Critically the FT seems better at telling its own story in the media and online than the Journal – perhaps because being owned by Nikkei is very different from being part of a quarterly-reporting News Corp.
Both papers put out hundreds of pages a day with multiple sub brands and products. Everyone has differing perceptions of the two papers. The FT often seems more nimble, but needs to keep scaling up from a small home base. The Journal has a very substantial international newsgathering operation that could do with more profile and more commercial and product maximization.
Andrew Marshall is based in Cognito's London office