FT shares lessons about combining the newsroom + business

By Peter Bale


New Zealand and the U.K.


The Financial Times has become an exemplar of editorial focus tied to the business goal of growing subscriptions. Renée Kaplan has been a big part of that success and talked to me about some of the lessons she’s learned in her role and earlier posts for the FT. She’s often had to act as a critical bridge between editorial and product and editorial and the business.

It’s clear she never lost her editorial mission, and her job title still describes her as an editor. She “speaks journalist” but has been instrumental in contributing to a powerful engine for editorial innovation, experimentation, and ultimately commercial success at the FT.

Renée Kaplan, head of digital editorial development at Financial Times, shared her thoughts on newsrooms lessons learned.
Renée Kaplan, head of digital editorial development at Financial Times, shared her thoughts on newsrooms lessons learned.

Here are a couple of my key takeaways from talking with her:

  • Success in working with newsrooms depends on understanding group and personal motivation.
  • Take care forcing commercial metrics onto journalists; seek proxies that contribute to them.
  • Results from experimentation make a project you want to do hard for bosses to reject.

Here’s the interview as a Q&A so you can get the most from her answers:

INMA: A big part of the INMA Newsroom Initiative has been about cultural change in newsrooms, who drives it, and who acts as the bridge between editorial and product. You’ve been that bridge it seems at the Financial Times. What’ve you learned?

Renée Kaplan: If you really want to be driving change within the newsroom — editorial change and organisational change — then it’s critical that an ambassador of change or the missionary understands the newsroom culture. It would be helpful if this person were a journalist by training or had some editorial training or editorial experience. There can be a real sense of quite a closed culture and mistrust of non-journalists. These people need to “speak journalist.”

INMA: You talk about shared values in newsrooms, a combined sense of mission.

Kaplan: There’s usually a collective sense of what’s our most important topic or most important beat. How we do things and what we prioritise journalistically. Who we think we are, as a brand. Starting with those shared values and respecting those — and understanding how far you can take those things, how ready people are to change, and seeing who the key interlocutors are within those sort of sacred cultural pillars — is really important.

You also need to establish what’s in it for them, what drives their self-interest. Different roles and desks, functions, and levels of seniority will have different ways of being driven and motivated and finding value. You have to show what’s in it for the outcomes they care about.

INMA: How does that fit with a sense of urgency for change, the idea — made most famous perhaps at Nokia — of the burning platform?

Kaplan: Lasting cultural transformation doesn’t happen quickly. Structural change can happen more quickly than cultural change. Cultural change is one of the longest-term, slower-evolving aspects. It’s also one of the most important and durable. Getting, journalistically, a sense of urgency is probably not the optimal way to encourage change. One of the most important ways to encourage permanent, lasting change is getting buy-in. That comes from helping them understand where they need to get to and why it’s in their self-interest.

INMA: How can newsroom leaders use that understanding of their teams and motivation and convey that to the publisher or chief executive or other senior management?

Kaplan: By showing results. I think that’s where experimentation comes in, being able to show some — even small-scale — impact. Insightful results are the best way to communicate and try to get buy-in from possibly recalcitrant higher-ups. Results are hard to talk back against. It’s not personal.

INMA: What metrics have you found most effective to drive that process? What about giving editorial teams metrics that relate to commercial objectives?

Kaplan: From my perspective sitting in the newsroom, the metrics and the accountability have been above all editorial. If the metrics are able to derive revenue or show that they are better at subscriber retention or conversion, then that’s a good thing. But we focus on editorial metrics.

To a newsroom, engagement or retention means whether someone is getting value from the content. That’s where we developed a metric that has been successful in helping us get people on board and understand the value of something ongoing and the value of something new.

That’s the Quality Read. It’s a composite metric and arises from the understanding that pageviews aren’t enough in a world in which advertising-driven revenue is radically diminished. We’re trying to judge whether a reader or subscriber is getting value from a piece of content. It measures the percentage of people who clicked on a story and then stuck around to read at least half of it. We deem that if you read half of a story, you got value from it.

[There’s more on the Quality Reads metric on Adam Timworth’s blog.]

INMA: The FT got a lot of attention for its RFV metric: recency, frequency, and volume. How does that sit with these editorial metrics?

Kaplan: It is still very much alive, but it’s different. RFV was never an editorial metric. It was always a commercial metric because RFV looked at the engagement on a user basis, subscribers. The newsroom looks at the performance of the journalism, the performance of content. One of the things that drove us to create the Quality Read was realising we had a dichotomy across the business: The commercial side was looking at value and engagement from a user perspective, but editorial was looking at engagement and value from a journalism and content perspective.

We really weren’t aligning. It was that realisation that in order to get to the convergence of where a business wants to be to have shared overall objectives — the point where editorial objectives do converge with commercial objectives — we needed a metric to measure that. And that’s really where Quality Reads came from.

INMA: One of the things that comes up between the Newsroom and Product Initiatives at INMA is the tension between the cultures and approaches of journalists and product people.

Kaplan: When it comes to the cycle of product development, the transformation we’re still figuring out is how to best leverage what is always going to be scarce resource across the business — whether editorial or product. It’s about understanding how to create enough collective interest in a new project so that different parts of the business are willing to invest.

INMA: What about those bridge roles between newsroom and product?

Kaplan: I think there needs to be a collective understanding of what the key skills are. If that person comes from product or from analytics, then that person needs to have a really good understanding of newsrooms and journalism and content production, and those workflows, and the culture, and what matters to those people. Or they need to have acquired that through a lot of pre-existing collaboration.

(This interview has been edited for clarity.)

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About Peter Bale

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