Friday, 4 May 2018

In The Pink

The FT Weekend Editor tells NTU media students that ‘fake news’ has created a new hunger for the real thing. Catherine Adams of the Media and Film Cultures research group reports.

The pink pages of the Financial times are no longer the preserve of stern men in bowler hats on the London commute. Described once as ‘dry and dusty’ by David Cameron, the FT now does Facebook Lives, animated trailers and even a festival. ‘Disruption’ is the key to keeping readers, according to the 51 year old editor of FT Weekend, Alec Russell. And that applies to the content too: ‘Surprise me, punch me in the throat, pull up my conscience’ one 30-something subscriber advised him. The FT still claims to be read by the agenda-setters. ‘The brains’ behind Trump, Steve Bannon, was snapped on an escalator on the Tube recently with FT Weekend under his arm.

                          “ It’s the golden age of long-form, deep journalism”

Alec was speaking to NTU final year students on the ‘Advertising, PR and Journalism (2)’ module co-led by his former colleague and Eastern Europe correspondent, Catherine Adams, of the Communication and Society team.After travel writing from Nepal, and with no formal training, Alec went on to report from Eastern Europe, Africa, USA and the Middle East. He’s written books on the Balkans and Africa and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. In a chatty presentation in the Erasmus Darwin lecture theatre among the cherry trees on Clifton campus, he insisted that this was a “golden age” for long-form, deep journalism and that ‘fake news’ and manipulation has “fed a hunger” for news. The ‘peril’ is how do you pay for it?
The FT was sold by Pearson to the Nikkei news organisation in 2015. 

While most dailies’ print sales are declining, Alec says the FT’s slightly rose last year. At weekends people still want to read in print, he says. There’s also a high readership for print in Japan, but he believes that “ultimately, print will die.” Most news has halved its print advertising and 90% of digital ads are going to the social media platforms: “News Advertising is dead. It’s all about subscribers.”He admits “ journalism is merging with PR somewhat,” with companies paying ex-hacks to design ads that look like journalism. Sponsored content or ‘paid posts’ are a growth industry: “We need the money. But if we lose the trust of our readers, no amount of paid posts will make any difference. We stand or fall on our reputation.”

Post-Leveson the FT has opted to self-regulate. “I’d argue that we’re most rigorous newspaper of all – we demand two sources on everything,” says Alec. ‘Live journalism’ is another way the FT is trying to connect to its audience – through ‘experiences’ like the FT Weekend Festival, the FT book group and the Live Leader Debate, where ticket-holders watch the editorial team discuss their leader page and chip in. It has tried to boost the online magazine with video clips. “How to make a gin-and-tonic” got 475k Facebook views. Quizzed by media undergrad Billy Holdsworth about “the most amazing person” he’d ever interviewed, Alec said that meeting Nelson Mandela under a tree in his garden had been “an extraordinary privilege” but that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had been a better interviewee – “so funny and smart.” To get into journalism, Alec advises people to come with evidence of active engagement and “a desire to do it.” The FT does paid internships on various ‘desks’ throughout the year and a graduate trainee scheme. He gets half a dozen stories sent to him every day ‘on spec’ by freelancers, but they are rarely suitable.

Would he still recommend working in journalism? “ Yes. It matters. The world needs journalism and people who are asking questions. And it’s fun.”


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