City AM, the new free daily for pinstriped movers and shakers, is a blueprint for the future of newspapers, editor David Parsley tells Lou Thomas
DESPITE BEING TEETOTAL City AM editor David Parsley still can’t kick the nicotine habit. As he searches his desk for a lighter to spark up his first of three Marlboro Lights he explains that he had previously given up on three separate occasions. “But then I launched a newspaper and that was the end of that.”
Now four months old, the free daily has quickly become a part of London life, given away by 150 distributors outside tube stations in the City, Docklands and Mayfair (where London’s hedge funds are based). It can also be picked up in airport business lounges, first-class train carriages and from distribution boxes at major City firms.
Parsley disagrees with sceptics who say the distribution network is not sustainable in the long term, claiming that although City AM is not yet making money “it’ll surprise everyone” when it does.
“To have the distribution on the street is vitally important and we will always have that,” he adds.
The fledgling title claims a distribution of 90,000 and an NOP surveyed readership of 1.4 readers a copy, meaning that more than 120,000 pinstriped movers and shakers get their financial news from the pages of the “new ‘un”.
Parsley cites an independent poll that shows 18 per cent of City workers read City AM – compared to the Financial Times on 14 per cent – as proof of the success of the model.
Offering some advice to his more established rival, he says: “A criticism of the FT over the years is that it doesn’t stick business on the front and has stopped doing what it was best at, being a journal of record.
It should probably go back to its principles.”
Parsley, 34, was headhunted for the job at City AM after four years as business editor at the Daily Express.
Before that he had a three-month spell as a business reporter at The Mail on Sunday and then four years at The Sunday Times in the same role.
The role of editor was a “big step up” he admits.
“Putting a team together from scratch, on a decentsized newspaper in a very important market: if you ever get an opportunity to do that, you’re lucky.”
It was a fluke he ended up in business journalism in the first place, he says – he wanted to be a political journalist, before landing a job at Property Week. But the Essex-born-and-raised Parsley showed signs of City-boy acumen during his schooldays.
“In the sixth-form we produced a magazine which we actually made money on because we managed to get advertising from local businesses,” he says.
Despite Parsley’s criticisms of the FT, his newspaper still has a long way to go to compete with the FT’s website which has been in profit since December 2002 and has 80,000 paying subscribers – City AM’s website is still a work in progress, Parsley admits, but says he wants readers to get used to the touch and feel of the newspaper before launching a website.
“It’s a priority in the first half of this year to get the website up and running,” he adds. “It won’t just be a site for the newspaper, it’ll be a lot more community-based.”
Podcasts are also in the pipeline. “The quality of the podcasts around is terrible for newspapers. If we do podcasts, they will be a lot better than what we’re seeing at the moment,” he says.
Late deadlines As a newcomer, the newspaper itself has come in for criticism. The distribution and catchment area of City AM means it doesn’t go off stone until 1.30am, and there have been allegations of story lifting.
“I have received emails from editors saying that we simply poach their stories. I think we did that five times in 77 editions,” says Parsley. “Every national has a night editor and the purpose of a night editor is to go through the pages at night and to check every other national newspaper. If a newspaper has a fantastic story, they’ll nick it.
“The FT and business sections in the nationals have never had a newspaper with such a late deadline with a night editor who can poach their stories. It’s about giving the reader as much information as possible from whatever sources are available.
“Sometimes, because of our deadlines, our sources have to be national newspapers. They also allow us to get closing prices on the stock markets; because of this we tend to cover a lot more US business stories than any other newspaper.”
City AM editions have been promised in Edinburgh, Leeds, Bristol, Manchester and possibly Birmingham, but Parsley refuses to give any specific launch dates, saying: “We should have coverage in most of those cities by March.”
Back at the newspaper’s London Bridge headquarters, four new journalists are being recruited in staff positions to join the existing 25 in the first quarter of the year. With more full-time staff and all those distributors to pay, can City AM afford to stay free?
“Yes. I think the future of newspapers is along the free route,” he insists. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if in a decade or so we see all the national papers at least considering it. You’ve got so much free information out there on the internet that to charge people for information – although it’s generally far better information in newspapers than it is on the internet – is a thing of the past.”