Financial Times outlines its digital transformation

By Chandler Weiberg

Austin, Texas, United States

What does it take to transform an entire newsroom from being print-driven to becoming digital- and subscriber-driven? Lyndsey Jones led an entire digital transformation within the Financial Times newsroom, streamlining operations from print to digital. 

Jones, the author of Going Digital and former executive editor at Financial Times, discussed with INMA members how media companies can successfully execute a plan of change to become digital- and subscription-driven. 

In 2013, Financial Times was a print-focused newsroom. She explained the difference:

“In a print-focused newsroom conference, all you’re talking about is the front page of the newspaper,” Jones said. “If you’re a senior editor, you’re actually giving the message to the news editors to also think like that and they don’t change their ways.”

A print-focused newsroom looks very different than a digitally driven one.
A print-focused newsroom looks very different than a digitally driven one.

In a print newsroom, stories were being published online only after they had been printed in the newspaper, creating the mindset that print subscribers were first and digital subscribers were secondary. 

“If we compare this to a digital newsroom, the focus is on story performance online, and this dominates the daily news conferences,” Jones said. 

Digital newsrooms are data-informed, and editors are focusing on the audience versus primarily focusing on the top news stories in print. “It doesn’t mean to say that data is dictating what your news judgments are, but you are much more informed about what the audience wants and what their needs are,” she explained.  

Digital stories are also commissioned to deadlines that align with audience needs and not on print deadlines. 

Where FT started

Jones showed INMA members what the print-focused newsroom at Financial Times looked like in 2013. It had 100 sub-editors who worked at night in three large integrated print and online production teams, and print was always published before a story went digital. 

“We didn’t have data analytics, we weren’t thinking about audience needs, we were more or less publishing what we put in print and possibly writing print headlines on online stories,” Jones said. “There was no planning for digital storytelling, and this is a key thing for digital success. It comes into planning, social promotion, and partially with your news agenda stories.”

Jones then showed a graph of print and digital subscriptions at Financial Times from 2008 to 2013, showing a significant decrease in print subscribers, as the digital subscribers rose, creating a huge gap between the two. 

This gap meant changes needed to happen. What was needed to make these changes?

“You get your change agents,” Jones said. She worked as a change agent at Financial Times, in which her team was in charge of changing the print production operation. “That was the first key step the Financial Times had to take to get to a point to become a digital-first, subscription-first, audience-first newsroom,” Jones explained. 

“More than anything you have to communicate, talk to people on an individual basis, a team basis,” she said.

Jones also emphasised that teams need responsibility for the change and need to have expectations and be accountable for them. This is where communication is important. 

She shared some of the steps Financial Times took during the transformation: 

  • Simplified print production using a phased approach.
  • Launched single print edition. 
  • Introduced global broadcast schedule for print.
  • Created copy deadlines with a digital focus.
  • Reduced the amount of content published by 20%.
The FT newsroom looked significantly different in 2020 than it did in 2013.
The FT newsroom looked significantly different in 2020 than it did in 2013.

A new look

The Financial Times newsroom in 2020 looks a lot different than in 2013. There are only 20 sub-editors, who now work during the day in a small team dedicated to print-only, and digital skills are integrated throughout the newsroom instead of everyone doing a little bit of everything as it was previously. 

The newsroom now has an audience engagement team, which make data informed news decisions to drive reader subscriptions and revenue, and the newsroom is focused on the digital audience instead of the print audience.

“All the news desks have their own data analytics, and it’s part of a news editor’s job to understand those analytics and act on them,” Jones said. “Planning is absolutely key to being successful online.”

About Chandler Weiberg

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