This is not quite live from the FT.com newsroom – I’m writing this a day later, but I did upload some photos during the trip.
Yesterday I attended a “bloggers event” at the The Financial Times, arranged by Ben and Drew from Hotwire PR. My friend and (now former) colleague Roo Reynolds had been to the previous one of these, so I was curious to find out what the FT would have to say to a second group of bloggers. Others in attendance were Alan Patrick, Adam Tinworth, Joanna Geary, Patrick Smith and Dominique Jackson; the FT.com team included James Montgomery (editor), Stacy-Marie Ishmael (Alphaville), Kate Mackenzie (Interactive Web Editor), Tim Bradshaw (Digital Media Editor) and Tom Glover (Deputy Director of Communications).
It does seem as though we covered similar ground to the last set of visitors. I say that without wanting to be unkind to our hosts… in all honesty I’ve not been an FT reader, so it was obviously worthwhile learning about the basics of the FT.com business model; and clearly we hadn’t heard the information before, so it was all useful background. James Montgomery kicked things off by talking a bit about the model that the FT.com is driving – trying to find a balance between subscription and free content. After that, the discussion widened out to cover a variety of topics, from their expansion into video, the reader and commenter demographics, the FT Alphaville site, microblogging and other social media, and some of the future technology plans.
The business model itself is a little different. Rather than an all-or-nothing free vs. subscription approach, anyone can read 5 articles on the FT.com site without any need to sign up. This makes the site search engine and blog link-friendly, and enables casual viewers a degree of access. After that you have to register, and can read up to 30 articles per month; beyond that, you should be subscribing, as the likelihood is that you are more seriously interested in the content. James sees the key plays here as the content, brand, expertise and accuracy of The Financial Times, and also pointed out that this model produced a certain quality of audience too. It would appear to be working – I note that the previous bloggers who visited were given a number of c. 450,000 registrations since October, and yesterday the number quoted was in the region of 600,000, so clearly there is some growth happening.
I’d never visited a newsroom before, so it was interesting to observe the setup. It’s big, and the team is obviously also distributed around the world, which resonated with me given that my employer is also a global organisation with people needing to collaborate across timezones.
Back to the social media stuff. The underlying technology is WordPress, although they are currently using two separate platforms for the main site and for Alphaville. Right now that means that the core search indexes are separate, but this will change in the future.
We talked a little about the expansion into video content, with around 150 items now being generated per month “we don’t want the website to be just an online newspaper”. This has produced some new challenges editorially as new skills are needed. I noted that the video production team in the newsroom somewhat unsurprisingly appeared to be using Macs 🙂
The discussion and feedback aspects of the site were covered at some length. I’ve observed that many journalists tend to view blogs as a means to post, but not to converse (the BBC blogs being a frequent example where a journo will post an entry, but not respond to reader comments). The FT are keen to find ways to engage “the wisdom of smart crowds” but there are challenges in their market where readers often have the inside scoop on a story and are therefore unable to comment. It was interesting and pleasing to hear that the journalists are generally aware of the need to respond. It was a surprise that it is not necessary to register to comment on the main FT.com site (although Alphaville does require registration) and the community is generally self-policing, with only very lightweight moderation required.
I’ve been taking a particular interest in microblogging lately. It’s surely a sign of the times that the first thing that we bloggers did was to exchange Twitter IDs… Joanna proceeded to Twitter from the event far more quickly and in more detail than I managed (this is probably a comment on the iPhone too… I just couldn’t type as fast or accurately enough to keep up). A couple of interesting angles came out. Firstly, the FT.com lists a set of Twitter feeds on their website, and I’m not aware of other newspapers doing this – quite progressive, but at the same time somewhat dependent on the success / stability of Twitter itself. We also talked about whether people reply to the feeds or whether anyone monitors the interwebs for references to the FT – obviously this would be a major undertaking, and the view was that people tend to view media feeds on Twitter as a way to consume the news, rather than to communicate with the newspaper. I also wondered whether the team had found microblogging to be a useful way of communicating internally… given the privacy constraints that they might be expected to operate under… several of us opined that a solution like Yammer was “never going to work” for internal communications, and the FT team currently exchange a lot of email and use Skype rather than having an internal social software platform.
I had my iPhone with me but the lack of free wireless meant that I was mostly taking notes with pen and paper… (tenuous photo tie-in!). I’m curious as to the mobile strategy. On visiting the main FT.com site before going for the event yesterday, I couldn’t see a way of getting a view optimised for my iPhone, although I’m told that there is a mobile version. Alphaville does have some automatic optimisation for mobile, and I’m told that there is a (Java?) mobile application for some phones too… I guess as platforms like Android emerge, there may be more interest in developing this side of things (I note that Bloomberg makes an iPhone app available for free… but would the FT do the same?). I guess the choice of video technology will become interesting here, too, since not all mobile devices can show Flash, WMV or whatever.
An interesting afternoon, and it was lovely to be invited. Delighted to meet the other bloggers, too. I’ll be following the evolution of FT.com to see where it all goes next.
Coverage from others: