Is the FT toast?

John Kay is a most excellent writer, who publishes a weekly column in the Financial Times. He helpfully also posts it on his personal website, which I get through a RSS subscription.

This has been redacted away in the meantime, but this week installment’s first paragraph, emanating surely from deep in the entrails of the FT machine, was a lament saying approximately, from memory: “don’t copy paste this, quality journalism costs money, link to the FT website instead (link provided)”. The link was to John’s article inside of the FT website which sits, unless you reach it via a search engine, behind a paywall (a registration page, with limited “free” articles). I hope the redacting means John Kay is within his rights to republish his own work and will keep on doing it.

Whether that message was addressed to the columnist or to his offsite readers, I find it interesting that the FT is resorting to begging. The herald of capitalism trying to convince people should buy their product because they’re nice guys doing nice things? And seemingly thinking that people might not bother if left to their own devices? Is this the beginning of the end?

The financial press is in a better position than most of the legacy press. Their core customers are almost price insensitive: they can charge a multiple of a regular newspaper’s price without much risk of losing many readers, and they’re quite conservative: boardrooms are dominated by older men, some of whom may still use a hired hand to move their mouse and provide printed reports on what happens on the interweb. So they should keep a fairly solid core customer base that’s relatively immune to technological change.

On the other hand they’re losing their function as fast as the rest: looking up stock and other financials prices in finely printed columns of paper is clearly redundant, and will go the way paper encyclopedia have. Regular newspapers have had a similar problem with their classifieds section. If the FT made any money charging the funds they published the price of, that will soon be gone.

Now let’s try to hunt for the “quality journalism” bit. What’s in the FT? Regurgitation of agency news and company regulatory feeds is already available online. Aggregation is possibly a useful function but cheap to do by anyone wanting a bit of attention online as well, and it’s easier online to have multiple aggregators so that each niche, each peculiar cross section of interest, can be better served than via a one size fits all paper.

Commentary is another staple, but the web is full of people having opinions. Most of which is rubbish, and I help as much as I can to add to the pile, but it has to be said the best of the blogosphere is now competitive with what you get in major newspapers, without the filling material produced by the straightjacket of having to produce a fixed word count on a clocked basis — columnist do get bad weeks, bloggers can keep quiet when they have nothing to say, though some of the latter haven’t realised this. The best opinion leaders also understand they need online visibility as well; and so, like John Kay, publish online simultaneously. So sooner or later most or all opinion that’s worth reading will be online and free to read.

So, is there some in depth journalism left? Occasionally, I presume that, yes, there is. They may do the odd investigation where they discover something that wasn’t published elsewhere before. At the best of times, it’s even a socially useful function. How much of the paper is that? 5% at most I’d guess. Do you need to have this function attached to a legacy printed newspaper? This is a problem all serious newspapers have. We don’t know for sure the exact institutional form that this sort of activities will take in the future; a mix of volunteers, foundations and independent state agencies perhaps; but I think the likeliness that it’s going to be funded by the cover price of the Victorian version of the tablet computer is remote.

So, yes, the FT is toast. They should be courageous and visionary and publish their last issue, wave the world goodbye, and move on to other things, individually, because legacy organisation rarely respond well to radical change. Better to start from scratch than get the old auntie to change her ways. Leave when the party is still going strong. Will they do that? No. They will be in denial and decline slowly for two decades, endlessly trying to convince uninterested former readers of their vanished utility; and eventually, when hardly anybody but people in the waiting room at the crematorium read it, the FT will go into liquidation. Its last contribution may be as a live study of why doomed organisations find it so hard to exit gracefully and economically.

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