Does the FT have a web strategy? I just spent a bit of time clicking around

ft.com, and there seemed to be big

problems with the subscription firewall. If I clicked on a story with a blue

"s" for subscription-only next to it, one of two things would happen:

either I’d be served the entire story no problem, despite the fact that I don’t

have a subscription, or else I’d get a multiple-redirect error and essentially

exit the FT site entirely.

Much the same thing happens when I search for stories on Google News: if it

links to an FT story and says "subscription required", there’s roughly

a 50-50 chance that’s true. Sometimes you get a message saying you need to be

a subscriber, but often you don’t and can read the whole story anyway. I used

to think that Google News just put the words "subscription required"

next to all FT stories, even the ones you don’t need a subscription for, but

now it seems that even the stories which are meant to be behind the subscription

firewall are often, in fact, freely available – at least for some unknown

amount of time.

The site can’t even seem to decide which stories have the little "s"

logo and which don’t. The current lead Lex story,

on Compass Group, for instance, doesn’t have an "s" on the home page,

but does have an "s" on the Lex page.

The home page looks dreadful, too. Whose idea was that horrible scrolling ticker?

Philosophically, I think ft.com finds itelf torn between two contradictory

impulses. On the one hand, it’s the website of the newspaper – a newspaper

which justifiably prides itself on its editing prowess. The FT is thin: it gives

busy businessmen the news they need without stretching it out over 24 column

inches. Unlike newspapers in the US, there’s no feeling at the FT that if a

story’s important it has to be covered at length. Subscribers to the newspaper,

then, value it for its concision and its ability to pinpoint the most important

stories of the day. Oversimplifying, one might say that the Wall Street Journal

reports everything; the FT tells you what matters.

Yet ft.com clearly also wants to be a one-stop shop for financial information.

Subscribe to us, it says, and we’ll tell you everything you need to know. Do

the editors excise the less important stuff? It’s unclear. Certainly there’s

more original material at ft.com than there is in the newspaper. Is that because

the FT thinks that at ft.com more is more, even if at the newspaper less is


The FT also seems to have stepped up its attempts to restrict access to its

content, even as it sends very mixed signals on that front from its own home

page. Tim Harford reports

today that he will no longer be posting his FT column on his website:

Alas for free-riders, the Financial Times has asked me not to publish my

entire columns here. The paper does, after all, have to raise the money to

pay me somehow – and sadly, I don’t make the rules.

The statement raises more questions than it answers, not least how Harford’s

reprinting his own column deprives the FT of revenue. Are there really people

who will pay for an ft.com subscription just to read the Undercover Economist?

And even if there were, Harford himself notes that the column is usually freely

available online for at least a couple of days – and that half of the

columns pop up for free forever at Slate. Besides, clearly Harford does

make the rules to some extent, since he’s been able to reprint the column until

now, as well as syndicate it to Slate. It’s all very peculiar, but it sounds

as though the FT still doesn’t get the web. If people read and like Harford’s

FT column on his website, that’s good for the FT brand, just as Michael Gordon’s


book is good for the New York Times brand.

One of the reasons why there are so few financial blogs is that there are very

few free sources of financial information online. Think what would happen if

the FT gave up on online subscriptions and put all of its stories online for

free and forever like the BBC and the Guardian. It would immediately become

a bloggers’ darling, its traffic would go through the roof, and it quite possibly

would spawn dozens of websites around the world linking predominantly to it.

FT stories would start rising up the Google rankings to where they belonged,

and the site would become the first place to go for anybody looking for any

kind of global financial information.

Would circulation of the print newspaper fall? There’s only one way to find

out. But even if it did, that might be no bad thing, especially considering

the cost of printing and distributing it in the US. I’m sure the FT loses vast

amounts of money in the US – much more than it makes in ft.com subscription

revenue. Why not stop trying to pick your readers’ pockets, and start giving

them something for nothing instead? If ft.com was as well designed as the new

nytimes.com, it could become the home page of choice for businessmen from China

to the Czech Republic. Given that the FT is failing to make much of an impact

in the US, maybe it should concentrate its efforts on the rest of the world

instead – keeping the more internationally-minded US readers while doing


Even if it doesn’t go free, however, the FT needs to work out a web strategy

which doesn’t confuse people. If people don’t know whether they’re going to

be able to read stuff on your site or not, it doesn’t really matter if it’s

freely available: they’re simply not going to come. At the New York Times, there’s

a very simple rule. Stories are free for the first week, then they move behind

a subscriber firewall. (OK, there’s a blogger

exception, too, but let’s not get into that.) The FT should come up with

something similarly simple. Then people might actually read the stuff available

to them.

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4 Responses to FT.com

  1. Matt says:

    “it sounds as though the FT still doesn’t get the web”

    I have direct experience of dealing with ft.com while trying to sell them a pay-per-view system to complement their subscription revenues. If it taught me nothing else, it taught me that ft.com is a schizophrenic business reporting to a technophobic mother organisation. Not only do they not ‘get the web’, but I’d be surprised if they even understood that ft readers like concision. Instead they cut the text to save on paper.

  2. Lance Knobel says:

    Oh, don’t get me started on the shortcomings of FT.com. I’m a subscriber and I still have problems with it. I often click a link from the RSS feed and it fails to remember I’m a signed-in subscriber.

    Then, try searching for anything on the site. I’ve often read something in the newspaper and tried to find it online. There are too many times when that has proved impossible.

    I’m certain Matt is right in an earlier comment. There’s virtually no chance the people at the senior levels of the FT understand or have sympathy with the web.

    Lots of similar unweblike failings at Economist.com, which could also have an authoritative standing (although I worry about what the new editor might do to the magazine). The Economist is, of course, half owned by Pearson, owner of the FT.

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