The newly published diaries of former FT editor Lionel Barber contain important lessons for the communications business. “The Powerful and the Damned” is a cracking read, covering Barber’s 15 years running the FT. It mixes lots of great stories about interviews with the likes of Putin, Obama, MBS, and Draghi, together with broader themes like populism and big tech. Running through it all is the battle for survival of major media outlets, and the FT’s successful premium strategy, hitting its target of a million paying subscribers in 2019. Reading it as a corporate communicator, there are some useful insights about media relations and the media business.
Firstly, it’s a powerful reminder that whenever possible, newspapers like to publish stories (unless a legal risk holds them back). Sure, a solid “off the record” is honoured, but in several interviews discussed in the book the ground rules were unclear, and in these cases (such as GE’s boss Immelt) the FT went for it. It’s no surprise that “relationships” don’t outweigh stories, though any FT editor is constantly fine-tuning hard juggling around access and confidences, as Barber makes vivid. The FT extends, uniquely, a courtesy to central bank governors to allow them to check their quotes. As their words move markets, without this, you simply would never get them on the record.
Journalists don’t like handlers getting in the way. Barber told Angela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry, that he’d rather she didn’t have a PR handler with her in future – and she agreed.
Barber on PR people: “As editor, I always tried to avoid PR people mediating between me and the powerful. A small number could be a useful bridge to CEOs, helping me prepare for interviews or the occasional bollocking.” This is a pretty standard view among journalists; it’s never going to be a smooth relationship (“Alan Parker is a pest”). Most of the time, when it comes to PRs sitting in, FT journalists don’t strive for the rules the editor can (sometimes) demand for himself.
Big companies clearly do put on real pressure at times, complaining to try and influence future coverage. Lloyd Blankfein called to complain about Goldman stories (apparently a Goldman view was that many stories about the firm were simply “clickbait”). Robert Swannell, chairman of Marks & Spencer wanted to get FT retail correspondent Andrea Felsted shifted. Prince Andrew, in his trade role, called to complain about the FT’s Simeon Kerr in Dubai. Most of the time, according to Barber, he held firm against such pressure, as you would expect. Probably in most cases it led to some editorial checking within the FT to be certain its approach was fair. This was probably all that most corporates complaining were expecting. My take would be – if you are big enough, it doesn’t any harm to complain from time to time (rather as Alistair Campbell constantly did about the Today Programme and others). But if you’re a small fry, it’s almost certainly counter productive unless you have extremely strong and specific grounds (check if others genuinely share your outrage at the FT’s coverage of you before picking up the phone).
The story of the FT’s sale to Nikkei in 2015, its first change of ownership since 1957, lies at the heart of the book. Barber had to keep the fact that the FT was for sale confidential for many months. Indeed, since a ten-year term has been common for FT editors, Barber was talking to his Pearson boss about succession back in 2013, with the sale really propelling him into a “third term”.
He rightly writes that a sale to Bloomberg would have “destroyed the brand”. My view is that Springer (the front runner until the end) would also been problematic: the countries are too close, with too many good English speakers on the German side. A German owner would have been problematic to the FT brand, at least in Britain, during the Brexit period.
Ownership by Nikkei seems to have worked well, perhaps because the cultural and physical distance has kept its impact on the FT brand limited. Kita-san, the head of Nikkei, lived up to his promises and bonded well with Barber, despite them not sharing a language.
Barber talks about the synergies with Nikkei. These are no doubt more visible in Japan or Asia than they are here in London. Secondments of staff and so on have probably had most impact in making the English language Nikkei Asian Review a more digital product.
The FT learnt much from Svenska Dagbladet about digital. Barber talks about an epiphany when he understood the Swedish paper’s “digital first” approach, with a distinction between “fast” and “slow” news.
Barber writes about annual “proconsular visits” to foreign bureaux. For the local correspondents, this was all about fixing up top interviews for the boss. You can imagine the pressure. In some cases, like Putin, interviews took years of diplomacy. James Anderlini in Beijing comes out well, as do many others. In general, you hear a lot more about the foreign correspondents than those covering companies or markets, but that is probably inevitable given the commercial demands of a book like this. The book comes as close to the weeds of how a newsroom works as it can for a broad readership.
The FT’s annual commodities conference is discussed as a classic example of a big moneyspinner, but one that need careful attention to keep conflicts between editorial and commercial in check. He also reports on the FT’s legal pursuit of Blackstone over its multiple password use to access the FT. You’d think it’s an organisation that could afford to pay. Barber seems to have got on well, after this was settled, with Schwarzman, not perhaps the easiest man.
Barber is convincing about the FT’s challenges in the early 2000s and the need to get back to “gold standard” journalism with a focus on international audiences. I would like sometime to hear more from Andrew Gowers, his predecessor who was fired after only four years. Barber’s connections with Robert Dilenschneider in New York also intrigued me. I suppose good journalists pick up many contacts. Cameron does not come well, but Barber is quite nuanced on the likes of Paul Dacre and Alan Rusbridger.
In his final musings about the future of news, Barber talks about the fact that news organisations will in some cases continue to have sugar daddy owners, but there may also be philanthropic foundations investing in journalism, and other funding models. After the FT’s considerable success with a subscription model (and some other revenue streams), this admission of the continuing challenges of media profitability seems a little strange, but sadly must reflect reality.
Andrew Marhsall is Cognito's vice chairman