An Interview with Financial Times CEO John Ridding

Felicity Garvey 14 November 2018
Image credit: Alisa Molotova

John Ridding has served as the CEO of the Financial Times since 2006, and in that time, he has seen vast amounts of change – both in terms of the running of the newspaper as a business and the industry of journalism itself. When he visited Cambridge, the journalistic world had just been shaken by the killing of Saudi Arabian reporter, Jamal Khashoggi. John Ridding said of the matter: “The Khashoggi case is truly awful and shocking […] I do think there has been a broader trend towards pressure and persecution of the media, which is obviously deeply concerning for all of those involved in the media and well beyond.” He added that: “The media has a very vital role. What you can’t do is bow to risks and persecution. Clearly, I think that all reputable quality news organisations rightly feel that responsibility. What you can’t do is pre-empt or pre-consider risks […] What you do need to do is make sure that journalists in any situation are well prepared, well trained, well briefed about the risks. Turning away from covering a story, or covering the news, or covering events, is not the right response.”

The biggest change in recent years for the journalism industry is, perhaps, the shift to digital. “It has obviously changed fundamentally”, says Ridding. “When I was starting as a reporter, it was just print – and print was hard enough, frankly […] But now it’s a whole new world of complexity and skills and productivity, because now, frankly, a journalist is fully multi-media. At the FT it’s print, it’s digital, it’s online, it’s video, it’s audio.” Indeed, over 75% of the Financial Times’ customer base is now digital. While Ridding makes it clear he believes that these changes make the life of a journalist harder – with rolling news and never-ending deadlines – it is also apparent that he thinks this change is positive. “I think it’s a lot more rewarding, because it is indeed quite creative on all those fronts – and crucially, with digital, you have a direct, engaged relationship with readers that you didn’t have in the days of print. It’s a lot more dynamic, that relationship […] I think it is a much deeper, richer journalistic experience.” This shift towards the digital is not going to change, and in his capacity at the helm of the FT, it is part of Mr. Ridding’s job to guide the paper towards new areas of the market. “One of the areas we’re looking at now is audio, through podcasts. The real potential game changer is home assistants or voice assistants, whether it’s Alexa or in a car.” He adds, “That raises some pretty big opportunities and some pretty big challenges – and the challenges are quite subtle in a sense. If you’re on Google search, you get as many search rankings as you want, but on an audio device, you’re probably going to only get the top two or three, so you need to make sure you’re at the top of the list. What does branding look like in audio? Obviously, pink, which is one of our big branding things, is not a sound.”

Another change to the face of journalism is the shift to social media – as John Ridding points out, Facebook has more followers than Christianity. “On the one hand, the tech giants, social media, have created an opportunity for any news organisation or publisher to reach audiences on an epic scale that has never happened before… but there’s quite a lot of dangers and threats.” While Ridding notes the positive aspects of social media, from Twitter’s role in the 2011 Arab Spring, to the way it bypasses traditional gatekeepers, he also warns of the dangers for news. “They’ve pretty much destroyed the traditional business model of news media, they’ve taken all the advertising. They have also created a whole series of corruptions and distortions – and it has happened very quickly. […] So what do we do about it? Well, what the FT does about it is to be very determined to present a series of opinions and have a balanced exchange of viewpoints and ideas.” He also warns against partisan-ship. “When you go to the US, you do see that the media there has become more partisan than it used to be. And then you think that there’s a lot of opportunity there for an independent balanced publisher like the FT – but you also think well, maybe that’s also what people want. They quite like news as contest, they like news as sport, they like people shouting at each other from echo chambers. Which would be unfortunate, but there is that risk.”

Another key part of the changing landscape within journalism is the push for gender equality. “The gender pay gap at the FT is coming down… the trend is in the right direction. There’s a number of things we’re doing. Firstly, we’re not just doing it because it’s a reported statistic that people pay attention to, we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do because frankly, diverse organisations make better decisions. There’s a lot of research that proves that […] One of the challenges is traditional history. The FT, going back 30-40 years, was very male, readership was very male, and recruitment was very male. What we need to do is make sure that women rise up to the most senior level […] There’s a range of policies we’re introducing to make it easier for women to start, pursue, continue, to develop a career at the FT because the goal really is to ensure we have women in the most senior positions. There’s no quick win – this is about long term structural, determined change.”

Journalism as a business is ever-shifting, but despite the constant race for journalists to keep up with new technology and a changing world, John Ridding remains optimistic. “With an effective mobile format you can reach anyone on planet earth at pretty low cost, and you can see that in our numbers. We’re knocking on the door of a million paid-for users […] What that proves is that quality journalism can be a quality business. What that depends on is a business model not dependent on advertising – because frankly, Google and Facebook are hoovering all that up – but is dependent on a trusted relationship with readers. If you handle digital right, there is a very strong strategic opportunity.”