When the 2002 advertising drought was at its driest, there were rumours that Financial Times journalists had been told to pick up free notepads and pens at press conferences to save money.
The story is no doubt apocryphal, but editor Andrew Gowers admits he told staff to “yank pretty tightly” on their belts that autumn and, among other things, take contacts out for coffee rather than lunch when possible.
His memo caused a certain “flurry” he admits, but the good news for journalists working on the FT is that now, according to Gowers, “lunch is on again”. The bad news for anyone interested in working for a paper reputed to be one of the best employers on Fleet Street is that the freeze on hiring started in 2001 is likely to last for another year.
An FT man since 1983, Gowers took over the top job in September 2001 – just as the newspaper industry was plunged into what he calls “the worst advertising recession anyone had ever experienced”.
Being in charge of the newspaper of choice for the pinstripe suit brigade, Gowers is perhaps more aware than most editors of the importance of the bottom line – and the little matter of losing £32m in 2003 clearly smarts.
He says: “It’s not the most comfortable place for a financial newspaper to be, but it’s a reminder of how strongly cyclical our business is and how tied in we are to the vicissitudes of the financial markets and business confidence.
“We took heavy knocks out of scandals, recession, war and SARS; everything came at us. The sectors that are particular advertisers in the FT are banks, telecoms, IT and companies wanting to create a particular corporate image or communicate something to investors.
All these things went into deep freeze simultaneously. We called it a perfect storm.”
He estimates that the FT, in common with titles such as The Wall Street Journal, Business Week and The Economist, lost 60 per cent of its advertising between 2000 and 2003.
The knock-on effect was cuts to editorial budgets, but Gowers takes pride in having avoided compulsory redundancies. Journalist numbers have been reduced by nonreplacement of staff and voluntary redundancies to a worldwide total of 531 compared with 590 in 2001.
Gowers expects to continue to “massage down” the editorial headcount this year by a “low doubledigit” figure.
He says: “We are climbing out of the hole, but it was a very deep hole and it’s going to take time. The signs in the advertising market are better, but we are not going wildly overboard.
“We have pretty good confidence that we will meet our targets this year and it will be a lot better than last year.”
Despite the downturn, FT parent company Pearson invested a claimed £10m on revamping the Saturday paper and expanding into Asia last year. For Gowers, the latter move was essential to the long-term strategy of turning the FT into a 24-hour global newspaper.
Launched in September, the Hong Kong-based Asia edition has an editorial staff of 35, and sells just under 30,000 copies. It followed the newspaper’s expansion into Europe, which started in 1979 with the launch of a print site in Frankfurt, and the £100m launch of a US edition in 1997, which has a staff of 69 and sales of 134,000.
The FT’s audited circulation for February was 439,035 (down from 451,799 a year before) with only 140,000 of those copies sold in the UK.
Gowers says: “A news editing hub in Hong Kong turned us for the first time into a proper 24-hour news operation.”
He adds: “When London goes to sleep, New Yorks picks up the baton; when New York packs up it heads on to Hong Kong, which already has a very lively file up and going when we come in at 10am in the morning London time.”
The process of turning the FT into a 24-hour paper began, says Gowers, in the mid-Nineties when he was deputy editor and the website, FT.com, was launched.
Unlike Guardian Unlimited, for instance, FT.com has the same journalists filing for print as online and Gowers claims to draw no distinction between the two.
Persuading old newspaper hands to start producing copy for an untested medium was difficult, Gowers admits, but he says they are coming round.
“When FT.com came into being the feeling was ‘that’s separate; we’re newspaper journalists and file to one set of deadlines in the evening’.
“The fear was if those people were dragged kicking and screaming into doing more for dot-com they would somehow dilute or worsen the quality of what they were doing for the paper. It’s understandable – comments used to go around like ‘we are not a news agency’.
“We found a simple device to start people thinking differently about this, which was to say very early on, ‘What is FT.com? It’s not a news agency, nor is it something completely separate from the newspaper. It is the online expression of the FT. It’s the same quality and it’s the same type of thing.’ “I saw a light go on in people’s eyes.
That was something they could understand and want to write for.”
After surviving the dot-com boom and bust, FT.com is now in the black with 75,000 paying subscribers and a further 3.7 million unique users a month accessing the free material.
While the FT has been concentrating on overseas expansion and the internet, competition in its home market has ratcheted up over the past six months.
Tabloidisation along the lines of The Independent and The Times isn’t something Gowers thinks would Editor Andrew Gowers talks to Dominic Ponsford about ‘the worst advertising recession ever’ work for the FT, although he admits a fondness for the Berliner format (midway between tabloid and broadsheet).
He says: “It’s great because it is a convenient size, but, in contrast to a compact, it gives you a good story count on every news page. But as I understand it there is no press in the UK that can do that for the next two years – so it’s not worth losing sleep over.”
Gowers is generous in his praise for The Indy’s switch to compact, saying: “Good on them. They’ve done it really well. I sent Simon Kelner a message on day one of the compact saying, ‘This is going to succeed.
Congratulations.’ “The reason is that they have matched form with substance.
They’ve produced a paper where the content is appropriate to compact – especially because they have taken a very strong political line. I think compact or tabloid shapes lend themselves really well to a feisty approach without damaging their quality.”
As for the efforts of his former FT colleague, Robert Thomson, at The Times, he says: “I don’t think it’s worked as well as The Independent- it’s a work in progress.”
While the invention of “compact” broadsheets may not have made waves at the FT, the crises caused by Andrew Gilligan at the BBC and Jayson Blair at The New York Times in 2003 prompted a widespread internal review.
Gowers says: “Both were failures of an individual reporter, but they were also failures of a newsroom culture and reflected two organisations undergoing stresses and strains.”
Renegade reporter Blair’s forays into fiction were of most direct concern to Gowers; he told his senior editorial team to read the analysis produced by The New York Times in the aftermath of the debacle.
Gowers then held a day-long session with staff to discuss it and has since produced new guidelines for reporters on the subjects of sources, freebies and the quality of newswriting.
When Press Gazette last interviewed Gowers in October 2002, he said: “I get out of bed enthusiastically every day. It’s a fantastic paper.”
So after weathering the perfect storm, does he still leap out of bed in the morning? “Since the beginning of this year I’ve had the biggest ball of all,” he says. “We’ve got loads of ideas for improving the paper down the track, we are introducing a new publishing system and the paper in terms of its reporting, news editing and editing all round is better than I’ve ever seen it.”
1980: begins career at Reuters as a graduate trainee aged 23. Works as a correspondent in Brussels and Zurich
1983: joins the FT foreign desk in London
1983: becomes agriculture correspondent
1985: appointed commodities editor
1987: promoted to Middle East editor
1992: made foreign editor
1994: appointed deputy editor
1997: spends a year as acting editor while then editor Richard Lambert launches the FT’s US edition in New York
March 1999: launch editor of the FT’s German-language edition
September 2001: sees off competition from the FT’s US editor Robert Thomson to become editor