Roula Khalaf interview: FT editor on diversity, Covid-19 and war

‘I live the news’: FT editor Roula Khalaf on war stories, sleepless nights and keeping her journalists safe

Roula Khalaf interview

Roula Khalaf grew up in a warzone and has spent much of her career reporting from areas of conflict.

“You adapt,” she says when I ask about her childhood in Lebanon. She sounds similarly unfazed when talking about the dangers she’s faced in her career. I don’t think I’ve ever really feared for my life.”

But as editor of the Financial Times, Khalaf does fret about sending other journalists into warzones.

“It’s a big responsibility from an editor’s perspective,” she says. “I pay very close attention to where people are and where they’re moving. I get regular reports on what every reporter is doing.

“Because, as you say, I know what it’s like. But when you’re doing it, you’re responsible for yourself. As an editor, I am responsible for the journalists.

“I take that very seriously. And I want to make sure that they’re always safe.”

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Khalaf was born in Beirut in 1965. Much of her youth was dominated by Lebanon’s civil war, which is estimated to have killed more than 100,000 people between 1975 and 1990.

When I start our Google Meet video call by asking about this period, she is slightly taken aback. “Umm… it’s been a long time since somebody asked me about my childhood!

“It’s interesting,” she adds, “because if you exist in a state in which turmoil is constant – so it’s not that there is one big crisis, a month of war and then it ends – you adapt.

“And this is sometimes the worst thing in the war, and the easiest thing in a war. You adapt to a state of being. And it becomes sort of normalised. You live in a war.

“So sometimes you may go to school. But sometimes you may not go to school because there is fighting on the streets. You expect interruptions in your life. Sometimes you may have to sleep in a shelter. Sometimes you have to move.”

I’m very ambitious, but I wasn’t planning my career in order to become editor’

Khalaf moved to New York for university, studying at Syracuse and Columbia. After graduation, she started her career at business magazine Forbes in the early 1990s.

During this period, she interviewed a young Jordan Belfort, now better known as the Wolf of Wall Street. She identified him as a “twisted Robin Hood”, he later described her as an “insolent reporter”. Years later, Khalaf was depicted, under the made-up name Aliyah Farran, in Martin Scorsese’s film.

Khalaf moved to London in 1995 and found a job at the FT. Over the years, she worked her way up through the company, first serving as North Africa correspondent and then Middle East editor for 13 years, a period that included the Arab Spring.

In 2013, then-editor Lionel Barber promoted her to foreign editor. After my interview with Khalaf, I asked Barber to talk about her rise through the ranks.

“Through the Arab Spring, she did an absolutely outstanding job in coordinating the coverage and also writing the main stories and analysis,” Barber said. “She was clearly good at managing people and taking a broad view of the stories.”

In 2016, after Japanese media company Nikkei bought the FT for £844m, Khalaf was named deputy editor to Barber.

“You want somebody who’s going to be loyal but also tell you home truths occasionally,” said Barber when I ask him what Khalaf was like as a deputy. “Roula is very good at expressing her view, not in a confrontational way but in a way that she argues logically and persuasively and gets you to do things. But also she knows how to play an effective, supportive and influential role. Everything I asked her to do she did very, very well. And I also took her advice, and she’s got good counsel. And she is a very, very good journalist.”

When, I ask Khalaf, did she first aspire to become editor of the FT? “I think the year before was the time when I thought, ‘Hmm. Maybe I could do this. Why not? Why don’t I put my hat in the ring?’ Without necessarily thinking that I had a very good chance.”

So it wasn’t your long-held ambition? “I should probably say that it was. Because that sounds better. But, no. I’m very ambitious, but I wasn’t planning my career in order to become editor.”

What, I ask, was the recruitment process like? Were there lots of interviews? “I had some interviews. And I had to submit a written proposal.”

What was in the proposal? “I can’t tell you that. It’s no longer my property,” she says sternly, before breaking into a laugh. “It was essentially how I saw the future of the FT and what I would want to do.”

I want all of our reporters to be digging very deep into corporate stories’

Photograph of Khalaf (centre) in an FT news conference (credit: FT)

Khalaf succeeded Barber to become the 134-year-old FT’s first female editor in January 2020. Within a couple of months, the pandemic hit.

“We ended up moving quite seamlessly to a remote environment and to remote working,” says Khalaf. “And I think that the fact that there was one overwhelming story – so everybody was focused on it – that in a way probably made the transition to remote working a bit easier. Because there was one massive story that everybody was covering – from Beijing to DC to South Africa.”

The FT was crowned News Provider of the Year (for the third consecutive year) at the 2020 British Journalism Awards. In a hugely competitive landscape, the FT excelled in its data-driven coverage of the global pandemic. Since Khalaf took charge, the FT has won other British Journalism Awards for in-depth investigations into Wirecard and Greensill Capital.

“I was very keen to take our visual storytelling to a new level,” says Khalaf, referencing the way FT journalists used data graphics to report on the global spread of Covid-19. “When I started as editor, one of my frustrations was… we essentially lacked the tools to tell stories in a more engaging way.”

Khalaf says she also entered the editor’s office with the ambition of “deepening our corporate reporting”. “I want all of our reporters to be digging very deep into corporate stories. And I think that we’ve done that… Greensill was a perfect example.”

Khalaf believes the FT’s image has changed in recent years. Partly, she suggests its in-depth investigative work has provided more “confidence”, and partly she believes the definition of an “FT story” has shifted.

“It’s interesting because we have a lot of discussions about ‘what is an FT story?’” she says. “And I think that we may have been too narrow in the past in what we consider to be an FT story. Because an FT story is a story that is relevant to our readers.

“And we can help our readers in telling them what we also think should be relevant to them. There was a time when a lot of readers did not like stories about climate change. But climate change became a very relevant topic for business.

“So it’s something that I often think about. And I’m often asked – what is an FT story? Is this an FT story? Can we really run this?

“Even during the war – is it okay to have a splash that is about what’s going on in the war? Well, yes, that’s the only story. If a country’s being invaded, you’re not going to look for another story that is more of an FT story. There’s only one story, and it’s that. And you just go with it.”

For a third-party perspective, I asked Alan Rusbridger – the former Guardian editor who now leads Prospect magazine – for his take on Khalaf’s FT. “I think the FT is essential reading; that she inherited a very good team and operation and has built on it impressively,” he said. “The paper has authority, shows tenacity and some courage in its investigations and has an excellent line up of columnists. It also has an unexpected light touch at times, belying its rather austere reputation.”

Additional areas of focus under Khalaf have been video – the FT now regularly produces short films to supplement its coverage – audio, and the United States. Around 100 of the FT’s 600 journalists live in the Americas, compared with 400 in the UK. Approximately 20% of its digital subscribers are based in the US, versus just less than 50% in the UK.

This year, Khalaf says the FT plans to enhance its coverage of technology and cryptocurrencies. “It is about being where your readers are, but also bringing the expertise and the authority of the FT to the topics that your readers are interested in.”

Subscriptions and the future of print

Earlier this month, the FT reached a major milestone – revealing it now has more than 1m digital-only subscriptions. This week, Khalaf and her team launched FT Edit, a £4.99-per-month smartphone edition that will seek to entice new subscribers who might not pay the full FT rate.

“I think that our journalism should be reaching a wider audience, which is one of the reasons that I have put some pieces – regularly during the pandemic but also during the war – as free to read,” Khalaf explains. “I think that that is extremely important to do as a public service.

“The Edit is not a public service. But it will introduce a lot of readers to FT journalism at a lower price. But also, perhaps in the future, they could become full FT subscribers.”

The FT’s newspaper circulation has declined significantly in recent years. Ten years ago, its print titles had an average circulation of more than 300,000. Last month, the FT’s average print circulation was just less than 120,000.

How much longer will the FT remain a six-day-per-week newspaper? “For a long time,” says Khalaf. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I had real concern about whether our Monday-to-Friday would survive. And I no longer have these concerns.”

How much of your job is editing the newspaper versus the website and online platforms? “I don’t think about it that way. I’m not an editor for the newspaper or for the website. The journalism is the journalism.

“I do look at the front page in afternoon conference, and we do discuss the front page, but I don’t think about myself as – am I print, am I digital? We really are just fully digital at the FT.

“When I wake up in the morning, I look at the website. The last thing I do before I go to bed? I look at the website.”

Sometimes the safety of my journalists keeps me up at night’

For UK-based publishers, the sort of in-depth investigative journalism that Khalaf advocates can lead to unwelcome and distracting legal battles. Kazakh mining group ENRC recently dropped a libel action against the FT and journalist Tom Burgis. But cases like these, even if successfully defended, can be time-consuming and stressful.

I ask Khalaf how concerned she is by strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) – do they keep her up at night?

“Nothing keeps me up at night,” she declares triumphantly, before correcting herself. “That’s not completely true.”

On SLAPPs, she adds: “The problem is that in the environment we are in today, investigative journalism is being hamstrung. And I don’t think that this is the purpose.

“One can always argue about how we got here. But I think that ENRC was a perfect case. The oligarchs’ case against Catherine Belton was another.

“I think that we’ve reached a point where we really need to talk about this, and I’m glad to see that there is a possibility of change.” (The UK government wants to crack down on SLAPP actions by strengthening the public interest defence to defamation lawsuits.)

So, if not SLAPPs, what does keep Khalaf up at night?

“Sometimes stories keep me up at night,” she says. “Sometimes the safety of my journalists keeps me up at night. Sometimes I just don’t sleep because I’m thinking constantly about how to fix a problem. But you should know that I’m a fairly good sleeper.”

What stories do you worry about? “You know, sometimes you’re up at night thinking: What is the angle? What more can we do? A lot of what I do is read – read the FT, read everything else that’s out there.

“So I live the news constantly. And I talk about the news constantly. So it’s something that just stays with me.”

How do you consume news other than through the FT? “I read a lot of our competitors, both local and international. I read the Journal, Bloomberg, The Times, The New York Times, the Post. I read some websites – Axios. I subscribe to some Substack newsletters. And I read a lot through Twitter – there are always good recommendations for stories. Sometimes threads are very interesting.”

Do you read the tabloids? “The Mail, yeah.” The Sun? The Star? “More the Mail. It depends, of course. There are sometimes stories – I might read the Mirror.”

‘I don’t want our journalists to be risking their lives’

Many of Khalaf’s recent late-night worries will have emanated from the war in Ukraine. The FT has staff in Kyiv and Lviv, and Khalaf chose to pull her journalists out of Moscow in response to Russia’s so-called fake news law. We wanted to see what that law really meant and how it would be applied,” she explains.

As North Africa correspondent and Middle East editor, Khalaf herself would regularly enter conflict areas. In a 2020 interview with Vogue, Khalaf told how she would attempt to hide from her two sons that she was travelling to dangerous cities like Baghdad.

What, I ask Khalaf, drove her as a journalist to cover these stories and travel to risky areas? “I don’t think that there’s something that drove me,” she says. “It was my job, and I was covering an area where there was constant crisis and constant turmoil. So I didn’t make a choice. It was my job.

“If a country is in turmoil, or there is a crisis that breaks out, I can’t suddenly make the decision I can’t cover it anymore.”

Did you have any particularly dangerous moments or encounters? “There were a few. But I don’t think I’ve ever really feared for my life.

“I think that, at times, I may have taken certain calculated risks. You can sometimes take calculated risks, but you have to also be very, very mindful that – I mean, I don’t want our journalists, FT journalists, to be risking their lives.

“I need them to cover a story, but not to go as far as risk their lives. That is the attitude that I took for myself.”

As a business-focused news outlet, the FT covers wars, but not in quite the same way as its more consumer-focused rivals.

“You don’t do frontline reporting,” Khalaf explains. “But you don’t ignore what is happening on the ground. You do it from a small distance perhaps – so our correspondents are in Kyiv and Lviv.”

Khalaf highlights for praise the FT’s Ukraine coverage focused on military analysis, politics, energy, business divestment, economics, currency, the “weaponisation of finance”, and China’s role in the conflict.

I’m a hands-on boss... I enjoy the buzz of the newsroom’

What is Khalaf like as a boss? “I think you should ask my colleagues that.”

Her predecessor, Barber, told me: “She knows how to manage people and get the best out of people and motivate people. Her judgement is excellent – her news judgement, her judgement on people.”

A current FT staffer said: “There’s loads of appreciation for how she’s made newsroom diversity a priority. Also the support she gave to staff in the lockdowns. The pandemic has probably made it harder for her to give her vision so far.”

Khalaf describes herself as a “hands-on boss. And I’m a boss who loves to be in the newsroom. I enjoy the buzz of the newsroom.”

As an editor, I ask Khalaf, what characteristics does she like to see in her journalists? “I like them to be curious, demanding, searching, tenacious – and to get the best stories.”

Not only is Khalaf a hands-on boss, she also proves herself to be quite a hands-on interviewee.

“Can I ask you about something that you did not ask me about?” she says as we enter the final ten minutes of our meeting.

When I joke that Khalaf is attempting to micromanage and edit her own interview, she laughs and offers an apology – “Sorry! Sorry, this is funny” – before pressing on regardless.

“One of the really important things for me – even before I was editor – is to create a more diverse newsroom,” she says. “It is something that I have been trying to do that I think everybody in my team is very committed to. And it’s important for me, as the editor of the FT, that I bring more diversity to our newsroom.

“I suppose I myself am a different kind of editor – at least I look different, given that I’m a woman editor.”

I tell Khalaf that I did intend to ask her about newsroom diversity, but suggest that maybe it’s a positive sign that this question was not at the top of my agenda. It certainly would have been if this interview was conducted five years ago – before organisations like the FT, Washington Post and Reuters had appointed their first-ever female editors.

“I know,” she says. “I agree with you, and I don’t particularly like that question. But it’s relevant to me, in the sense that working on gender diversity and diversity of background is something that I have spent a lot of time on and will continue to spend a lot of time on.

“We’ve made some progress. I like to think that we’ve made some progress, and I hope that people at the FT feel that we have made some progress. But we’ve still got a lot of work to do, I think at the FT and as an industry in general.”

Khalaf may have worked hard to make the FT newsroom a more diverse place. But, I ask, what about the FT’s readership? In a Der Spiegel interview last year, she acknowledged that the average FT reader is male and aged over 50. Is that changing?

“I think that we have many women readers,” she says now. “The issue is that they are not as engaged in our journalism as our male readers, so they don’t read it as often. We do have a project that is underway to raise the engagement of women readers.”

Khalaf adds: “What you refer to is not just the typical reader – it’s the way that people perceive the FT. I think the perception of the FT has shifted. It’s difficult for me from the inside to discern this as much, but it is what people outside tell me – that the perception has shifted.

“We have more women columnists who are very prominent. And we pay a lot of attention to what we put on our website. We are part of the 50:50 project [encouraging more diverse voices in the media] so that we can promote a lot more sourcing. More gender diversity and sourcing – that is a problem not only in [our industry] but certainly in the industries that we cover.”

In spite of her editor duties, Khalaf continues to write and report for the FT when she has the time. As editor, she has interviewed high-profile figures including Jen Psaki, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot, and Melinda Gates. “I wish I could do more,” she says.

So you miss writing, I ask. “Oh, yeah. I totally miss it. Of course I miss it. I think every editor misses writing probably.

“I had the privilege to write for a long time. And I can still write. But my job is to make sure that the journalists are writing their best.

“So there’s a lot of satisfaction in that as well.”

Quickfire questions with Roula Khalaf

Hobbies? Pilates, reading, walking, spending time with her sons

Favourite interview? Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, in 2013 “after the Iranian nuclear deal. And gosh, that was a long time ago given where we are today.”

Not Jordan Belfort? “No.”

Favourite newspaper apart from the FT? “That’s a mean one! My favourite newspaper apart from the FT is... the Washington Post.”

Magazine? “Can I say the FT Magazine? I love it.”

TV show? The Bureau

Book? L’Ecume des Jours by Boris Vian, and A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin

Music? Dire Straits

Top photo credit: FT

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