FT deputy: 'Papers might start considering charging online'

Newspapers may have to charge readers for online content as their business model “is not looking healthy”, Financial Times deputy editor Martin Dickson has told Press Gazette.

The FT – one of the few papers to charge for some online content – revealed yesterday that its online subscriptions had risen nine per cent year on year to 109,609.

Digital revenues represented 67 per cent of FT Group revenue last year, up from 28 per cent in 2000.

On a smaller level, the only regional newspaper to increase its paid-for circulation in the second half of 2008 – The Irish News in Northern Ireland – is one of the few to charge for online content.

Martin Dickson, the FT’s deputy editor since 2005, said other papers might have to copy their model – though not yet.

‘I think at the moment it would be very difficult for a white sheet to charge for content – although I heard a rumour an American paper might do it,’he said.

‘The reason is most consumers of news have got used to having it for free. They would baulk at having to pay.

‘We can charge, as financial news is somewhat different as it helps people do their jobs, and therefore they’re willing to pay for it.

‘As you go forward, the white sheets may be able to start to thinking about charging – the current business model is not looking at all healthy.

‘There may come a point where they have to say to readers ‘What we’re producing is valuable, you have to pay for it’. But right now, it would be a hard sell.”

‘Newspapers possess a lot of advantages – and can be used to light the fire’

But, despite their online success, Dickson said newspapers were a hardy product.

‘Over the long term, we’re prepared to deliver news in whatever platform our readers what,’he said.

‘Personally, I think newspapers will be around for quite some time to come. There’s a great deal of convenience using newspapers.

‘It’s very flexible, headlines are easier to read, you can turn pages – it possess a lot of advantages. And when you’re finished you can screw it up and use it to light the fire.”

Despite price rises – the FT is now £1.80 – its circulation remains relatively healthy. In January, according to ABC, it was 432,944, down 3.17 per cent year on year.

Dickson said recession was not good for the paper – but economic crises are.

‘Recessions aren’t good for financial journalists, or other journalists, as our readers suffer and find it harder to pay for their papers – and advertisers also suffer,’he said. ‘It’s also rather depressing writing about bad news.

‘But financial crises – I make the distinction from recession – are certainly good for us. As these awful events have unfolded, so our sales have gone up.

‘When there has been a big downturn in the markets our sales have spiked quite remarkably. From the journalist’s point of view, there have been extraordinary events, and that’s very exciting.”

‘Big brains brought in’

Those extraordinary events are the inspiration for the FT’s Future of Capitalism series, which begins on Monday.

Over four weeks, capitalism’s future will be discussed by what Dickson calls ‘big brains’– from both inside and outside of the FT. Guest writers will include Alan Greenspan, Tony Blair, Nigel Lawson, Robert Shiller, and Hank Paulson.

‘The idea is to create a debate about where capitalism may and should go after this very dramatic shock,’said Dickson.

‘To step back and take stock – not the day to day, more the big picture, what this means for the future of capitalism.”

Dickson added that the future for the FT was bright, despite cutbacks. The group recently announced 80 redundancies, including 20 journalists, and reduced pagination.

‘There clearly is a trade-off you have to make,’said Dickson. ‘We have been trying to limit our cuts as much as possible, but clearly as the market is getting difficult – and in some respects it has been for us, as there has been a dip in advertising in the final quarter – you have to trim accordingly.

‘Any successful business facing a recession would look at its costs, as that’s a sensible thing to do. What you want to do is ensure when we come out, we are still a strong newspaper, a strong brand.”

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