FT CEO spots green in the red

October 13, 2008

When the markets go south and most people are losing, it’s safe to say that there are some others who are winning, or at least spotting opportunities. You could say that about the Financial Times and its chief executive, John Ridding, who is finding a business angle on what they say about the editor’s decision-making process: “If it bleeds, it leads.”The London-based FT is building up a pretty good head of steam, particularly in the United States, as the effects of the financial crisis ooze into yet more corners of Wall Street and Main Street (sick of the “streets” cliche yet?). Here’s evidence, some of which Ridding gave me when we had breakfast at Michael’s last week:

  • Newsstand sales rose 30 percent in the United States in September, and about 20 percent in Europe and Asia. That’s compared to August 2008, i.e., it’s a “sequential” gain rather than year-over-year growth. In the United Kingdom, Ridding said, “We basically couldn’t print enough copies and retailers were running out.”
  • The number of registered users of FT.com rose to 750,000 now, compared with 30,000 a year ago. Some of this growth of course, came from pulling back the curtain last November. But Ridding said a couple hundred thousand of those showed up in the past few months, as the mortgage and housing crisis in the United States deepened and then metastasized into full-blown world-market-crisis mode. (Here’s how registration and subscription works at FT.com)
  • During one week, Ridding noted, page views hit 25 million, more than double the normal amount. Ridding’s conclusion: “What [the crisis] is doing for our readership and audience is pretty remarkable. I think it really underlines this idea that at a time of turmoil, people really do need trusted guides, and are prepared to pay.” (The Journal, if anyone’s wondering, logged 21.7 million visitors at its website, up 110 percent from last year. It’s hard to tell whether the figure is comparable.)
  • During the week of Sept. 22, online page views were up 300 percent, and monthly unique visitors were up 250 percent compared with last year. The United States is pitching in so far, producing the largest number of unique users.

That’s all very good, but reader interest tends to spike during news events, and ebb afterward. Ridding suggested ways to retain the newcomers:Stick to paid subscriptions. Ridding noted that many readers have stuck with the paper through its newsstand sale price increases, and plenty of folks are willing to pay for not only the FT, but access to the Lex column too.

  • Do more video. People apparently like it as it’s resulting in more than a million views a month, Ridding said.
  • Get the paper on more formats. Press hard for online subscriptions as much as print ones. Get it on the Amazon Kindle electronic book reader. Use RSS and other tools — whatever it takes to get it out there.
  • Push online use as much as print. Ridding was proud to say that the FT’s dependence on print advertising has fallen to 42 percent, an important point to keep in mind as print newspaper advertising dries up. And don’t get worried about the idea that online use will “cannibalize” print sales, Ridding said. “The idea of online cannibalizing print is not just wrong, it’s the opposite. It’s proving to be a very effective marketing tool for the newspaper.”

None of this should indicate that the FT has figured out something that the rest of the world has missed, he noted. “No one has necessarily nailed the business model in media, but we feel that we’ve got a pretty strong vision and operation.”

(Photo: Reuters)

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