Wed, Nov 22, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The `Financial Times' recipe leads to success

By Peter Preston  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

In media legend, news is a fleeting thing: here today and wrapping haddock and chips tomorrow. It is also a local thing, never more riveting than when there's a car smash down your road.

Remember the regional mantra of the UK newspaper publisher Johnston Press: life is local. Then forget it, because the news under discussion here is global, and the man analyzing it is Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times.

"News is not perishable," he says rather sternly, after a year in charge.

We're talking relevance here: stretching, enduring and clinical.

So reach for a copy of Barber's much changed Financial Times and -- apart from a highly relevant return to profitability, with ad revenues up 10 per cent over last year -- start analyzing what makes it tick.

Barber's five top reporting priorities are, in descending order, the US Federal Reserve, Wall Street, China, corporate internal policy-making and, possibly, Brussels.

Then, every day, he chooses a core list of 40 or so stories that will run from New York to Frankfurt to Hong Kong.

This isn't quite one paper serving one world, but it's getting damned close. And the Financial Times of a few years ago -- with its home base in the UK and with more sport, arts, and a London editor of its own -- is dead and gone.

The Financial Times doesn't want to be general any longer. It is news specific -- and audience specific as well. The essential 40 tales are tuned to business power in offices anywhere on Earth. They tell you about the German economy or Italy's failings just as single- mindedly as they chart Beijing's rise. They are what Barber thinks you need to know -- and, as a former European editor and US editor, he believes he knows what needs to be known.

This world of international decision-making has suddenly become a very small place, peopled by very significant movers and shakers. If you can gather 500,000 of them together each morning as, say, your US audience, then advertising follows in train. Maybe the Financial Times didn't get the rewards for going global to begin with, because advertising agencies themselves were still rooted in national campaigns. But that was then and this -- printing the paper in 23 different plants around the world -- is now.

Now Barber has 50 newsmen on his US staff because quality information makes its own way across any boundary. Now -- and this is arguably the Wall Street Journal's mistake in Europe -- there are only narrow European horizons left. Who wants little local stories, courtesy of a US giant, when you're straining to glimpse a bigger picture?

It's vital not to get carried away, of course. Barber's news wouldn't succeed in more conventional markets.

The fastest-growing national paper in Spain, El Mundo, also prints at 23 sites, but 22 of them are inside Spain, as edition content switches frenetically from town to town. Nothing on display here provides an automatic model for instant copying. This is an individual brand run to individual imperatives -- even by the standards of the business press.

Yet there is one huge threat to take into account, a threat that even registers at the Economist, where circulation soars far beyond a million: Is the press doomed to die from a burgeoning internet?

You might suppose so when you listen to some of the grisliest predictions, including the Guardian editor's prophecy that printed papers would be devoid of job advertising by 2020.

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