Lionel Barber: "Becoming a subscription-based newspaper saved the 'Financial Times'"

9 min
Lionel Barber, in an archive portrait provided by his British publisher.

Lionel Barber (London, 1955) argues that "there's life" after running the Financial Times (FT) for 14 years. It's hard to imagine when you read his book, The Powerful and the Damned, a fascinating look back of his experience as editor. The book – which will be published before the summer in Spanish – offers inside details of the newsroom, of the transition from an old paper-based newspaper to a new digital one, and also explains his personal relationships with the most powerful people on the planet. His best memory: a midnight interview with Vladimir Putin. His worst: Brexit.

You had high-level contacts with people like Mario Draghi or Hank Paulson [former US Treasury Secretary]. You even say that these kinds of relationships were "a vital part of my editorship". Can't this proximity to such powerful sources be dangerous for a journalist?

— Yes, it certainly can. Access is double-edged. You have to be able to win trust and get information, but always be aware that sometimes you may have to blow the source, not necessarily in a brutal way. It happened to me with Martin Sorrell [the founder of advertising agency WPP, one of the top executives in the advertising world]. He used to call me all the time. But when he resigned I had to task the editors with finding out why. I knew that there was going to be a massive confrontation and I would be threatened, but we had to do it. So yes, access to them is a double-edged sword. But at the end of the day, there are no friendships. I felt a personal affinity for some people, particularly Draghi, who I think is a very honourable public servant and did a very difficult job very well. But in the middle of a conversation he would drop something, perhaps that the reporter maybe didn’t get something right. And I just said: no, we can't get there

Is that what you said?

— Yes, he [Draghi] knew where the lines were, but at the same time it was important for me to understand, during the sovereign debt crisis, what the European Central Bank was thinking. This was very valuable! But I was always transparent with my colleagues and they knew who I was talking to. I said: this is what we have. But then, what are the other perspectives. 

In fact, I wanted to ask you if your journalists knew what calls and meetings you had with important people.

— Yes. I was completely transparent.

Otherwise, could it have backfired? Do you think journalists would have mistrusted you?

— Yes, that's right. Often I would write up or share privately some of these conversations with my colleagues. I shared them because it was about the FT, it wasn’t about me.

How did the book go down internally after you published it? Did your colleagues or former colleagues like it?

— A number said they liked it. That it was interesting, informative... and occasionally amusing. I tried to give an accurate description of some of the changes in the newsroom. But obviously I didn't explain the whole story.

Sadly for us!

— They have to keep doing journalism and running the business – it wouldn't help if the former editor tells everything! So I gave a story about the digital transformation, which is very important for the paper because we became a subscription business. And that's what saved the FT. The paper was in a mess when I took over. With colleagues we worked together. That's the important part of the story, and occasionally I make a joke at the expense of one or two colleagues... but they are adults, they can take it.

Some anecdotes with names and surnames are juicy. Very interesting for those of us who are gossipy, but I wonder if anyone got annoyed.

— They still talk to me. But I have to say that I also try to be self-critical. The book shows strengths and weaknesses, but the fact is that managing highly talented and creative people is an essential piece of being an editor. The people management is very important. Recruitment and retention are the two most important things, apart from maintaining the gold standard of journalism.

Lionel Barber with Javier Solana, during a visit to the Esade campus in Sant Cugat del Vallès, in 2012.

In fact, your bet was on quality journalism and scoops. Do you think you have proved that this was the right way to go?

— I would also say going deeper into subjects. I decided to keep a very long section called The big read. When I arrived there were people who told me that we should scrap it, but I said no. They said it was impossible to do because it was asking too much. The fact is it wasn't too much. It was a question of teaching people how to do it and planning ahead. They were technical things, but that was a statement of quality. Then, investigations were something which I felt increasingly confident about doing, even though there were legal risks. And lastly, the commentary. Commentary is something I identified early and that is really important these days. Because that's part of the brand. Martin Wolf, Janan Ganesh, Gideon Rachman, Gillian Tett... These are the voices in the FT that make people want to go there.

During your tenure you reached a million subscribers. Is the FT safe?

— It's up to the new team now, and they're very good. What we know is that they now have the platform. So the question they have to ask themselves is how to get to 1.5 or 2 million subscribers.

How many were there when you took over?

— We had 76,000 digital subscribers, so we increased that by more than tenfold. The circulation was about 420,000 copies, but some of those were just giveaways. And they also sold it below price. When I took over I was very clear: we had to be a premium brand. We had to raise prices, and the board agreed. As for the shift to digital, you have to give other people credit for that. It wasn't just me.

Moving from paper to digital is a cultural change.

— It really is a cultural change. I'm not saying we got it perfectly right. We probably should have done it a little bit faster, but the global financial crisis was a giant distraction. Probably, the things we did in 2012 or 2013 we should have done in 2009 or 2010. But we did them. What you mentioned was very important: it's a huge cultural shift to actually stop being driven by the factory process of the newspaper and getting people to really understand the opportunities that digital journalism gives you.

It must have been particularly difficult for a newspaper with more than 125 years of history.

— Yes, but also because we had a union. Unions have a role, definitely, but they have to be responsible and understand the need for change, and frankly some of them didn't. We had to negotiate with them, and that took time, and frankly the only time I went absolutely apeshit is when they said that the changes would damage the quality of the paper. I just went nuts. The idea that I would do anything that would compromise the quality because we wanted to reduce the number of editions going through the night! We were actually making it easier: Instead of having 60 people working until one or two in the morning, in 2015 people were leaving at six or seven in the evening! Because we reversed the whole production process and actually improved their quality of life as well as the quality of life of the newspaper

In the FT, who is in charge of putting the contents of the web into the print version?

— We have a newspaper team. We had templeates for the paper and so you could do it with basically about eight people.

So the reporter writes the story and posts it online and forgets about the paper?

— Yes. Obviously, digital and print sometimes have different ways of writing, so that would'nt always naturally fit in the paper. But in terms of the content, just with a decent editor it’s fine: You just change it slightly, you adapt it for the template and then it goes. We completely transformed the efficiency of the paper, so we were able to have more people working in the digital side. It was a true breakthrough. And it wasn't me, there were a couple of people who helped me explain this.

Let's talk about Brexit. According to you, your worst experience as an editor. It was a very emotional time for a lot of people. From a jounalistic point of view, how difficult was it to avoid being in a trench defending your opinions and being able to do a balanced reporting with emotions running high?

— Let me start with the campaign. I honestly would criticize myself and… not colleagues because I’m responsible. I think we did not listen carefully to the signal. We were distracted by the noise. And if we’d done more reporting outside London we would’ve picked up what was going on. Interestingly, the correspondents we had around Europe came to the UK and they all told us: Brexit will win. Because they were coming at this with fresh eyes. The second thing is: we were too rational. We looked at it in terms of economics and didn't understand the appeal of the message about sovereignty, immigration and money, however simplistic that is.

Could it be that this disconnect was also because your journalists are also financially better-off than many voters?

— We are part of the elite in the sense that we have access to powerful people. But in terms of salaries [laughs], FT journalists are not as well paid as journalists at many other British newspapers. And this became a problem. The Daily Mail... or Bloomberg, who call themselves Manchester City. I had to deal with Manchester City and I wasn't even Barça, I was bloody Valencia! No, it wasn't the salaries. It was more: get out of London! And by the way, there was also groupthink: we were all in favour of not leaving the EU. I hired a younger person who was clearly Eurosceptic, but even he moved – everyone was writing the same thing! I had to step in at one point and say: can we have something different? But they all wanted to put out what they felt as well as what they thought. 

And what happened after the campaign?

— We had a big meeting and I said, “We need to make some changes here”. We hired new journalists and did more reporting outside London. And I think we did some brilliant reporting thereafter: the decline of Blackpool, sweatshops in Leicester... we described much more vividly what was going on on the ground in the British economy. We should have done that before. On the other hand, I think we were attacked viciously – I was attacked viciously. The FT was the paper they had to attack all the time because we were the ones coming with the economic argument. But I take some responsibility: we should have been more alert to the threat of Brexit.

We had a similar situation in Catalonia, during 2017, around the 1st of October. Sometimes it was difficult not to feel that you were in a trench. It was almost impossible not to choose sides. Did you feel that way too?

— The way I looked at it was: we have to defend for certain principles. I believe very strongly, and I wrote some of the editorials, where we said that there were principles like liberal democracy and representative government. And that these are non-negotiable. So if you think it's okay to suspend Parliament for six weeks, as Boris Johnson did, you're wrong. Sometimes you find yourself in a trench and you have to say: right, we are on this side. But at the same time you have to report what the other side is thinking, doing, saying. You can't ignore them. They have to be represented somewhere in the paper. Because otherwise you're not doing your readers a service.

But it's not just that they have a space, it's how you present them, what headline you give them. It's not that simple, is it?

— Of course the headline matters. But what I'm saying is you have to keep talking to them. I descibe it with Donald Trump. When we interviewed him, he started the interview like Tony Soprano, saying, "You lost, I won." He was deliberately trying to intimidate. But to get that interview and explaining what he was planning to do, that's important. And so we needed to get that across. Sometimes I did say, I need to know more what Trump is actually doing, not what do you think about it!

What do you think of Brexit, now that we know better what it was all about?

— There is certainly a short term economic impact, the data shows that, and so it was an act of economic self-harm. I'm not sure we know everything yet because we've had covid, which has covered up tha damage. We won't see it all until next year, or the year after, I think. But what we do know is that the trade agreements that are being signed are essentially the same as the EU had. And along the way we will have disrupted relations with our nearest neighbours. This is clearly causing damage. So I still don’t think it makes economic sense. 

The case for Remain was so rational and so based in numbers – and not feelings. I never felt there was a sense of belonging to Europe. Do you think this was their weak point?

— It's true, and this is very, very important: when you look at Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Finland... they joined the EU for economic and political reasons. We didn't do it for political reasons, nobody made a political argument. They did half-heartedly. So that’s why people were completely ignorant about the EU. There’s no syllabus in the schools… nothing. So this is why this happened. Partly because didn’t care, they didn’t know, they were ignorant. And politicians were afraid of making a political case for joining or membership.