A day at the FT: blogging, business models and journalism

The Financial Times today invited a group of bloggers, journalists and blogging journalists into its gleaming Central London offices to talk about the newspaper’s online strategy, blogging policy and how it interacts with its audience.

It’s “tin hat” time for bankers, short-sellers and traders in the City but an exciting time for financial journalists. FT.com has seen a 250 per cent increase in unique users in the last few weeks, compared to the same period last year. So what exactly is the FT up to in terms of its online journalism?

The business of business news

James Montgomery, FT.com editor, was our guide on a tour around the bustling newsroom overlooking the Thames and spoke about how the FT’s various blogs were a central part of its journalism. He also spoke of the FT’s much discussed business model for its online content, which has gone from free, to to part-paid-for to the current hybrid model.

Now users can read up to five stories, before having to register as a site user, and can read up to 30 before paying. It’s safe to say that the FT’s bosses are not shy of charging for what they produce.

“Like a lot of private sector publishers we have wrestled with the question of business models,” said Montgomery, a former news editor of the FT’s 40-strong New York bureau. “We are not publicly funded like the BBC and we’re not a tax-deductible loss like something in News International – we have to make money.”

He said the current system was “the best of both worlds” in between paid and free content – regular users, those who don’t mind paying £1.50 a day for the big pink newspaper, also don’t mind paying £98.99 a year for unlimited web access.

And occasional FT.com consumers, those who arrive via Google or from an aggregation site, blog or social networking site – an increasingly important stream of traffic – can also get their fix.

“It’s like a funnel: we want to convert frequent users into registered users and registered users into subscribers”, said Montgomery. “The registration level is very important because we can target advertising based on it.”

It’s going to plan – FT.com has gained 600,000 registered users since bringing in the new model last October.

Video

The FT makes about 150 videos a month which collectively receive about one million page views a month. Montgomery said it was a vital part of what the FT does, but highlighted a particular problem: you can’t summarise the freezing of international money markets in a two-minute clip.

“There is quite a challenge to FT journalists because the things we write about tend to be complicated…and that’s leading you to do slightly longer videos than most people are willing to watch,” he said, though journalists do manage to get their pieces down to three or four minutes at the most.

Tin hats and blogging the markets

One of the main channels of FT blogging is Alphaville, the minute-by-minute financial news blog, winner of the best business award at the 2008 Webby Awards. One of its journalists, Stacy-Marie Ishmael spoke about her job of dissecting, analysing and presenting market movements and deals into bite-size chunks.

“We have got to the point where we are overwhelmed by the amount of commentators,” she said. “And we get some spectacularly well-informed people. We get things like ‘have you seen what the Libor is doing?’

“Commentators are also not afraid of saying what they want to know about – and the bloggers are often happy to help.”

She also said the Alphaville team knows its output has to be good “because they will tell us if it’s wrong pretty quickly”.

A “6am Cut” Alphaville hits (free) subscribers’ inboxes each morning, a nightly round-up written from Tokyo designed to fill-in commuters on trains to the City after their world business news.

Perhaps the most popular element of Alphaville is the Markets Live blog– an occasional live blog on market movements that blends real-time share movements, analyst notes, general business news and reader comments.

It’s all written in an irreverent, cheeky but informative manner by Alphaville editor Paul Murphy and senior markets reporter Neil Hume that has proved a hit with readers (you can read old transcripts online).

The blog has its own set of emoticons, such as little tin hats representing dramatic falls in the value of companies that were frequently used last Monday, the worst day of trading since 2001.

All the FT’s journalism has some effect on business and the markets – and with Markets Live, the paper can see the effect of its journalism immediately, said Montgomery. “The old saying is that you buy on the rumour and sell on the fact – we’re letting people do both,” he said.

Though Montgomery was keen to point out that there was still a place for the “considered” view of the traditional web/newspaper round-up of the previous day’s news.

Collaboration

One thing Montgomery thinks could be a growth area is audience involvement – tapping into the undoubted expertise and knowledge of the world’s financiers, bankers and businees people who read the FT and FT.com. One idea he is keen on is employing readers to moderate online debates and live blogs.

But FT.com interactive editor Kate Mackenzie said it wasn’t just about quantity: “We don’t just chase numbers of comments no matter what the content is,” she said.

A problem: not many top level business people have the time to comment on web stories – and not many want to put their heads over the parapet to say anything, perhaps because for those that do sometimes find it backfires.

Online first and foremost?

I asked whether FT.com was the pre-eminent place to break news for FT journalists and whether web-first was the strategy for the paper’s many bureaux around the world. Not always, said Montgomery.

“It’s not a black and white issue. In print there is the issue of a print edition coming out somewhere in the world [the FT is printed in 23 countries]. It’s not like we have just one release time in print,” he says.

“In the UK we do sometimes hold things back for print because we don’t want out competitors finding something out, we do pay attention to competition. But, sometimes it pays to break a story online.”

In any case, even the biggest scoops, of which the FT has had many in recent months, find their way online by the early morning as the newspaper begins to hit the streets.

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