August 23, 2012

Financial Times Prepared For The Worst, And Succeeded

Five years ago I recall listening to the Financial Times’s chief executive, John Ridding, as he outlined his paper’s digital strategy. It was under way by then, of course, but the FT was moving faster and more enthusiastically than many papers – including its major global rival, the Wall Street Journal.

In practical terms, the FT’s transition from print to screen was highlighted by its integration of print and online operations. And the year before the FT had launched its live financial markets blog, Alphaville, which has since prospered by attracting a regular audience and winning awards.

These initiatives can now be seen in the context of what Ridding calls “the journey of transformation” during which continued experimentation has carried the FT to an important milestone. It was able to report last week that the FT’s digital subscribers have exceeded its print buyers.

Here are the relevant statistics of Ridding’s “growth story”: the FT’s combined paid-for print and digital circulation during the three months up to June this year was 598,698, up 2% year on year (and, incidentally, the largest daily audience in the FT’s 124-year history).

Breaking that down, the average global print circulation was 297,227 compared to the digital circulation of 301,471. It meant that the number of digital subscribers increased by 31% in that April-June quarter compared to the same period in 2011.

Just a couple more facts: the FT’s average daily global audience has grown to a smidgeon under 2.1m while print has stayed flat. There has been a 30% improvement to the online desktop audience and treble digit rises for both tablet and smartphone audiences (from low bases of course).

These figures bear out Ridding’s expectation that ink-on-pink-paper would continue its sales decline while the future was digital. He may not have been alone in foreseeing that, but he certainly adopted an internal strategy aimed at smoothing the digital path.

By erecting a paywall, while gradually increasing the cover price for the print platform, he also ensured a flow of revenue that has resulted in the FT making a profit every year since 2005.

No wonder Ridding is able to tell me that the digital strategy is working. The FT has survived what was undoubtedly an existential crisis to be confident of its future, well, as confident as any paper can be nowadays. “If we had not made those changes,” he says, “we wouldn’t have got through.”

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