Columbia Journalism School

Lionel Barber, Knight-Bagehot Anniversary Dinner

November 10, 2005


Business journalism in the digital age Speech to the 30th anniversary Knight-Bagehot dinner, New York

Thank you very much, Dick, for that kind introduction. It’s been exactly a week since my appointment as editor of the Financial Times, and it already feels like a year. But, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, Knight-Bagehot alumni, I say this: it is the job of a lifetime.

As editor, I have to manage budgets and fellow journalists – which, of course, isn’t always easy – in fact, it’s a bit like… herding cats (PAUSE) and apparently, based on reports in the British press last week, I have to further behave on the tennis courts AND tuck in my shirt. But, above all, I will serve as the guardian of editorial standards. This, no doubt, will be the hardest task of all, as you can see from this selection of headlines that appeared around the world in 2004.

  • Iraqi head seeks arms.
  • Panda mating fails – veterinarian takes over.
  • War dims hope for peace.
  • Man struck by lightning faces battery charge.
  • Astronaut takes blame for gas in spacecraft.

and my all-time favourite:

  • Typhoon rips through cemetery: hundreds dead.

Don’t let these headlines fool you, my subject tonight is business journalism in the digital age. But, allow me first to say a few words about Walter Bagehot, in whose memory the Knight-Bagehot programme – which does so much to raise standards in business journalism in this country - is partly dedicated.

Bagehot was a master wordsmith, a distinguished economist and constitutional philosopher. He was one of the first to describe the concept of the business cycle. He developed a new theory about central banking. And he spoke truth to power and to his fellow scribblers. He once said, “The reason why so few good books are written, is that so few people who can write know anything.”

Now we business journalists are never in the business of speculation – of course, not – but I wonder what Bagehot, a true Renaissance man, would have made of the digital revolution and its impact on media today.

For this revolution challenges our business model, our working practices, maybe even our raison d’etre, if you happen to be, like me, in the newspaper business. In my 27 years in journalism, nothing is remotely comparable to the generational change now underway: not the transition from hot metal printing to cold type, not the launch of free-sheets, nor the explosion of cable television.

The digital revolution is fundamentally changing the way in which we consume news and information. As Rupert Murdoch remarked in a speech earlier this year:

“The next generation of people accessing news and information, whether from newspapers or other sources, have a different set of expectations about the news they will get, including when and how they will get it, where they will get it from, and who they will get it from.”

Mr. Murdoch calls this: news on demand. The consumer is king – or queen. I suppose he or she wants more control over “their” media, and more products tailored instantly to their individual needs. The new media offer that choice: news and comment can be segmented – or intermediated – in fresh and exciting ways.

Now, Bagehot also said: “One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea.” (PAUSE)

Never have these words been truer, as this digital revolution proves profoundly unsettling for traditional news media, so I offer some guidance on understanding the impact of this metamorphosis, as well as how we should respond.

First, the Internet has broken down the barriers to entry and dramatically increased competition. But it has also armed readers and viewers with a tool to answer back. Blogs are one manifestation, but so are the discussion forums and communal activities, which are integral to the web.

Second, the Internet, along with the proliferation of 24-hour cable television, has crushed the news cycle. Not so long ago we talked about “putting the newspaper to bed”. Today, there is simply no downtime. This increases pressure on news organizations exponentially.

Third, the Internet poses a direct commercial challenge. To date, we have focused on the migration of advertising to the web and the serious threat posed by powerful search technology to traditional distribution channels; but we also need to be aware of rival content. Look at how - for example - Yahoo is quietly putting together a mini news organization, as well as the expansion of Google News.

Now by this stage, some of you may well be thinking that I am starting to sound like a cheese-eating surrender monkey from the Old Country. Wrong.

I do not wish to defend an untenable status quo. The digital revolution spells liberation.

We must embrace this fundamental change, but we must also be alert to the pitfalls.

Business journalism has – thankfully - moved from the backwater to the mainstream in an increasingly integrated and interdependent world economy. Our response therefore should be in favour of open markets and open minds.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a big challenge because it requires fluency in languages, a grasp of economics and an appreciation of risk in financial markets. But as I once told a bemused Wall Street banker, “I’m not PAID to be an economist… I just work for the Financial Times.”

Still, in this digital age, it is crucial that business journalists do not lose sight of the essential disciplines: accuracy, authority, credibility, context and relevance. Let me touch on context, for a moment. Now, more than ever, context matters. It is the precondition for sound news judgments and ultimately balanced reporting, in an increasingly frenetic news cycle.

In my opinion, too much attention has been spent on distribution and format and not enough on content. We in the “traditional” media have to find a happy medium between sludge – (commodity information) – or Drudge – (entertaining but not always reliable news).

I reckon in some ways we are the anti-blogs: the people who put facts ahead of opinion and report without fear or favour.

Ladies and Gentlemen, during my career, I have been fortunate to spend more than 16 years abroad as a foreign correspondent, with almost 10 of those in the US. In that time, many events happened that I certainly could not have predicted. These include: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the launch of the Euro – on schedule – and of course, the terror attacks on US soil. The lesson here is that reporters and editors must always be ready for change AND the responsibility that it conveys.

Colleagues, this is why Knight-Bagehot is so valuable. It is a programme that deliberately sets out to improve the knowledge and skill-base for mid-career journalists, who then go on to hold important roles in their own organizations and uphold editorial standards. The fact that so many distinguished Knight-Bagehot alumni are here tonight speaks volumes, as do their respective achievements. Without Knight-Bagehot we would be a whole lot worse off, in this country.

Indeed, it is most encouraging that there are other signs that news organizations and universities are taking seriously the need to strengthen training for journalists. Look at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, which will open next year under Steve Shepard’s able stewardship, and the recent handsome contribution by the Sulzberger family. Look at Nick Lemman’s exciting new courses at Columbia Journalism School.

These will all contribute to good governance inside ALL news organizations and a governance quality that journalists have often considered lacking in their subjects but which is now central to the integrity of our business. It is time, my friends, to practice what we often preach.

As I prepare to leave New York for London, and believe me I’m going to miss New York, I want to pay tribute to all these efforts.

And to another disciple of Bagehot, a man called Sir Gordon Newton, the editor of the Financial Times between 1949 and 1973. Newton was a forbidding figure but he set the gold standard in business journalism in Britain.

Newton once declared, memorably, that the FT’s friends were the honest businessman, the bona fide investor, the respectable stockbroker, the genuine director, and the legitimate speculator, and its enemies likewise: the closed stock exchange, the unprincipled promoter, the company wrecker, the “guinea pig” the “bull”, the “bear” and the gambling operator.

These words of wisdom will be the yardstick of my editorship at the Financial Times. They might also serve as a useful precept for all of us privileged to be members of the wonderful profession of business journalism.

Thank you very much.

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