'No fear, no favour'new-look FT goes back to the future

Financial Times editor Lionel Barber has revealed that he consulted a higher authority before embarking on the paper's first redesign (or "refresh" as he calls it) in four years this week.

Not God, but a god-like figure in UK journalism terms – the former Times and Sunday Times editor Harold Evans – who he describes as an "old friend and mentor".

"I've known him for many years; my father worked with him at the Sunday Times. I asked Harry to offer some thoughts.

"He said you've got one of the most valuable brands in the world because you are trusted and you are truly international.

You've got to make more of the brand; be confident about the paper because it's a great paper, and you've got to stand for something on the masthead."

This last point led Barber to reintroduced the old Financial Times' slogan "without fear and without favour", originally used when the paper launched in 1888, above the leader.

But the FT undoubtedly showed some "favour" – towards itself – when the launch of the new look was heralded on Monday with a promotional wrap around the main paper, a highly unusual move for a national title.

Responding to this point, Barber said: "It's a one-off. This is the first significant change in the design of the paper for four years. It's a sharper paper – it's a new-look FT, so we wanted to shout a bit. I don't think it is a commercial – the main news stories are still skylined on the paper."

And he responded with an unequivocal "no" when asked whether a frontpage wrap would ever be offered to an advertiser.

The refresh (see box below) has been chiefly the work of IT development editor Andrew Davis and 26-year-old US designer Ryan Bowman, a former FT man who left last year to join the Richard Addis-led project Shakeup Media.

Describing the thinking behind the new look, Barber said: "There's better packaging of stories, better organisation, better navigation between stories, clearer identification of priorities on the page and a sense that you can get around the FT quite quickly, round the world in 20 minutes, if you like."

The new-look FT appears to carry more analysis than before, but Barber insists that news still forms an essential part of the paper.

"I was a reporter for more than 20 years…I really am a news man and news really matters. If you look at the stories we have broken in the past month or so, we broke a world exclusive on Wolfowitz [World Bank president] setting the terms of the payment for his girlfriend, and the story on the comments from Lord Turnbull on Gordon Brown's Stalinist tendencies.

"These are news stories that generate huge interest and that's an essential part of the FT package. There's a temptation these days to write off news and say we just do analysis. No – you do both.

"A key part of our offering is that we select the most important, relevant stories for a niche audience. You are talking about 30, 40 stories – these are the must-read if you want to understand what's going on in the world and how it affects your business."

The FT is currently the only national newspaper consistently putting on sales year-on-year. Barber says this is because "we focus relentlessly on being relevant to our audience of high-earning, internationally minded business readers.

"We've devoted significant resources to writing about hedge funds, explaining complex but important subjects like credit derivatives.

"They seem specialist, but if you can corner that market, then you are developing constituencies that feel they have to read the paper".

But he adds that the FT also needs to be entertaining – which is the reason that new columns are being introduced, such as former FT magazine editor John Lloyd writeing on TV.

He said: "Wouldn't you like to read John Lloyd write about Big Brother – and about how politics is covered on television? John is one of the most respected writers on the media in this country. He's a cerebral writer – so I thought to myself, why not make him a TV columnist?"

Last October, the FT carried out what Barber describes as the most radical reorganisation of the newsroom for 15 years, "designed to create a seamless operation online and in print".

The shake-up was accompanied by the loss of 50 editorial staff, which he says were mainly in production and administration.

"This was not aimed at reducing the number of reporters. You can see some of the hires I've made since taking over as editor: like Paul Murphy, who was the business editor of The Guardian, Chris Hughes of breakingviews. All these people are really top-class writers and reporters."

Previous FT editor Andrew Gowers was forced into a three-year freeze on hiring new editorial staff during the post 9-11 advertising recession. Barber makes clear that despite last year's cutbacks, no such policy is now in place.

"I don't believe in hiring freezes.

I strongly support the recruitment of top-class talent – that's how organisations thrive.

"I think that we have brought in some really talented people who are going to have a big impact on the FT.

I'm acutely conscious of the need to manage costs and manage your budgets, but you don't do that through hiring freezes."

When asked what he looks for in a journalist, he said "Persistent curiosity and doggedness. People who are interested in the outside world, far beyond these shores, but who also know their roots.

People who are prepared to move around, understanding that they could be working for the FT in Tokyo, and learning Japanese, then going to New York and maybe London… flexible, adaptable and above all, curious and creative."

He points out that recent hires, mainly through the graduate programme, have included a journalist a-piece from the British Virgin Islands, America and Korea.

And although Barber himself has a traditional Fleet Street background – second-generation national press, Dulwich College and then Oxford – he says: "I've spent 10 years of my life in America, so I'm a meritocrat. We've picked outstanding people. They are certainly not English public schoolboys."

Barber says that more is now expected of FT staff – with journalists encouraged to file video and audio reports online wherever possible. But he adds that online readership can also be effectively driven by simply aggregating existing content.

Using the example of last September's coup in Thailand he says: "Around 4pm I asked, what are we doing online? And the answer was, we can't really do anything online for a while because our correspondent is in Vietnam and she needs to get back.

"I said, we'll take some Reuters copy and work on that, but we will then also add in the profile we did on [prime minister] Thaksin two months ago and our leader on trouble in Thailand, which was written presciently 48 hours before, and put them up immediately online.

Those items were among the top five most read the next day.

"That tells you that clever use of the news archive, finding and aggregating relevant information is what readers want: it provides context. In short, news, which we all grew up thinking was perishable, actually isn't."

• Lionel Barber has a 22-year association with the Financial Times and took over in November 2005, after his predecessor Andrew Gowers abruptly left, citing still unexplained "strategic differences" with owner Pearson.

• Since then the FT has enjoyed some positive news. Last month, the FT posted profits of £11 million on turnover of £238m for 2006. This follows a £2m profit in 2005, and losses of £9m in 2004, £32m in 2003 and £23m in 2002.

• Led mainly by sales growth overseas, the FT was the only UK national to put on paid-for sales year-on-year in March – up 2.53 per cent to 432,111 (the figure, including bulks was 461,033).

• Barber studied at Dulwich College and then Oxford. He began his career as a reporter on The Scotsman before joining the Sunday Times as a business reporter in 1981.

•Roles on the FT have included: Washington correspondent and US editor (1986-1992), Brussels bureau chief (1992-1998), news editor (1998-2000) and editor of the FT's European edition (2000- 2002).

•Before being made FT editor he was US managing editor for three years.

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