Financial Times aligns virtual newsroom, culture to new reality

By Tim Part

FT Strategies

London, United Kingdom

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COVID-19 has been both a blessing and a curse for the news publishing industry. This has certainly been the case for us here at the Financial Times (FT).

Lockdown exacerbated the decline in print circulations worldwide, but the appetite for digital news hit heights never seen before. At the FT, our events business has faced some challenging times (but responded brilliantly and innovatively), yet we have already beaten our audience engagement targets — for 2021!

Those are just short-term effects in areas of the industry in which familiar trends may return, albeit starting from a different base. However, there are likely to be some lasting effects on news publishing, some of which may fundamentally change the way the industry operates.

At Financial Times, teams took the opportunity provided by COVID-19 to upgrade platforms and fine tune communications to make the best of the situation.
At Financial Times, teams took the opportunity provided by COVID-19 to upgrade platforms and fine tune communications to make the best of the situation.

To wit, in August, Tribune Publishing announced it would permanently close the newsrooms of The New York Daily News and four of its other newspaper offices. A spokesman even said the company would “reconsider our need for physical offices” later as it steers its way through the pandemic and “as needs change.”

Digiday reported on this announcement as “the symbolic end of a publishing era,” but could the closure of physical newsrooms legitimately be characterised as a more existential threat to publications? After all, newsrooms are the source of a publication’s main product, the news itself; they are the heartbeat of the business.

Perhaps this is overstating the risk, but are publishers really going to take that chance? Their first task would be to minimise the effect of a newsroom ceasing to be a physical entity, but what if this turn of events also presented an opportunity to improve?

Here at FT Strategies, we have been looking at how publishers might make the most of the situation. It goes without saying that communication is key but, crucially, we think content is just as important as the method of keeping in touch with each other.

It’s good to talk

Most of us are familiar with the implications of working from home (online messaging, e-mail, video calls … repeat ad nauseam). But newsrooms, as natural hives of activity that thrive on being in the office, may not be as accustomed to this way of working.

You don’t need us to tell you that setting up on Slack, Microsoft Teams, Trello, or your company’s communication/organisational platform of choice should be your first port of call. That is the easy part. Considering how your newsroom adapts to this new way of communicating is the hard part.

The FT editorial department realised the secret to success in this regard was that an online platform should only replicate casual interaction rather than all processes in the newsroom wholesale.

The FT newsroom was already well-versed in using Slack to communicate, however we supported this by replacing our old CMS tool, Methode. The new tool, Spark, enables our journalists to collaborate more on articles. It means the messaging platform is less cluttered.

The audience engagement team also beefed up its existing daily e-mail communications to ensure this remained the place to keep track of the many new initiatives the FT has launched during these unprecedented times.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we realised that while the twice-daily newsroom conference had been transplanted to a video call without any loss of impact, the conferences themselves were supplemented by more informal chatter around the main news desk. Dedicated Slack channels were set up to replicate this as much as possible, whilst recognising that, no matter how hard we try, virtual collaboration cannot be as good as in-person interaction.

Speaking a new language

As well as setting up a means of communication, the FT also focused on the nature of the information it shares with the newsroom. Thanks to COVID-19, this has also undergone a significant change.

Firstly, our dashboards changed. We already know the importance of finely tuned dashboards in the newsroom. Ensuring these reflected the new reality was vital. We saw significant changes in audience behaviour over the past few months. For example, the commute has disappeared, leading to a flatter level of consumption, but one which starts an hour earlier and finishes an hour later. Journalists need to understand these new patterns and be able to produce content tailored to them.

A more significant change in the type of information we deliver in these dashboards came with the introduction of reader lifetime value (LTV) as a key metric reported in them. Long ago we realised the story of reader engagement was a better one to tell to the newsroom compared to a simple volumetric yarn about pageviews. Quality reads and RFV (revenue, frequency, volume) scores have long been embedded in the newsroom, but it was important to move toward LTV as a key metric as this supports the business’ overall North Star framework.

It may seem to be verging on madness to make this move during such unusual times, but we have found this new currency, properly communicated, has given everyone involved a new sense of purpose at a strange time.

In summary, we think the FT has done a pretty good job. With our FT Strategies hat on, we have come to appreciate the power of data in the newsroom and the benefits that a strong culture, aligned to a macro business goal, can bring. The times may be changing, but our journalistic and commercial missions must continue and can even come out the other side in a stronger position.

About Tim Part

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