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