How the FT is Losing the Financial Opinion Wars

Do you read the FT’s "popular and influential Lex column"? The phraseology comes from a Guardian story today, but it’s something of a journalistic cliché: the FT definitely considers Lex to be a flagship franchise. But in fact there’s a very good chance you don’t read it, and you’re not influenced by it.

WSJ editor Robert Thomson Thompson is taking full advantage of that fact, and poaching top Lex editors to build his own version of the property in-house, replacing the Breaking Views column the WSJ currently runs. The big loser here is Lex; only going free can save it now.

In the UK, where the FT holds much the same position within the financial classes as the WSJ does in the US, everybody (or everybody who matters, anyway) reads it, normally on the train in to work: it’s easily accessible on the back page, and comes in nice bite-sized chunks. But in the US, the FT still has a tiny print circulation of about 150,000 – compared to over 2 million for the WSJ. And in a classic case of shooting itself in the foot, the FT has made Lex almost impossible to read online: according to the version of the "product selection page" I get here in Germany, a subscription to costs $109, while if you want to add Lex to that, you have to pay $299. In other words, the marginal cost of subscribing to Lex is greater than the cost of subscribing to the rest of the FT combined.

Outside the UK, then, Lex isn’t remotely the popular and influential flagship that the higher-ups in London might consider it to be. Rather than sitting easily-accessible on the back page of your daily paper, it’s hidden behind forbidding subscription firewalls, and needs to be actively sought out if you want to read it.

As a result, the WSJ still has the stronger brand when it comes to such things. It’s called Heard on the Street, but – until now – it hasn’t had the verve and punch of Lex. Its authors consider themselves reporters first and foremost, with the opinion aspect often played down. Many people within and outside the WSJ thought for years that it should have a Lex-like column for informed financial opinion, but the old guard at the WSJ always resisted, partly on the grounds that having in-house journalists pissing off important financial sources could make it needlessly difficult to perform the paper’s core journalistic function.

So a couple of years ago, the WSJ decided on a compromise solution: it would have a daily financial opinion column, but it would outsource that column to Breaking Views, a company founded by former Lex editor Hugo Dixon. That way the WSJ’s readers would get a Lex-like column, but the paper itself wouldn’t be considered to be giving up its much-vaunted impartiality and objectivity.

While the compromise was in many ways better than nothing, it also had the unintended consequence of signalling both externally and internally, to its own journalists, that the paper’s top editors felt incapable of producing such a column themselves. The FT, for one, took great pleasure in thinking that it was the only paper able to produce a Lex-like product in-house: the WSJ was forced to join the likes of NRC Handelsblad, in the Netherlands, and syndicate content from elsewhere.

That state of affairs has now come to an end. The WSJ will soon stop carrying the Breaking Views column, and has hired the US editor of Lex, Thorold Barker, along with his colleague Liam Denning, to reinvent Heard on the Street as a replacement. The FT and the WSJ will now have directly competing financial-opinion columns – but the key difference between them is that while the WSJ’s column will land on 2 million desks each day, the FT’s will still be stuck behind those idiotic firewalls.

This is clearly a move by Robert Thomson to move the Journal in a British direction, and to turn it into a media outlet unafraid of having its own opinion. Whither the longer-form journalism in which Heard on the Street historically specialized? That’s not a priority any more, it would seem.

Meanwhile, Lex is suffering: it’s lost not only Barker and Denning, but also four other journalists since February, including former editor Tracy Corrigan and deputy Patrick Foulis. Lex journalists were never big fans of the Alphaville blog, but now they’ve hired Alphaville’s Helen Thomas to help plug some of the gaps in New York.

Where does this leave Breaking Views? The WSJ decision harms them at the margin, but not by nearly as much as you might think. Breaking Views’s syndication rights are a tiny proportion of its revenue, which mainly comes from bulk subscriptions from investment banks. In that sense, the BV newspaper columns in places like the WSJ and Le Monde are not primarily money-spinners (although they do generate some income for the company) but rather branding devices: valuable negative-cost advertising for the kind of analysis at which BV excels. But given the tiny audience of potential subscribers (BV doesn’t even make public how much its subscription rates are, they’re so high) the main job of selling subscriptions will always be done by the BV sales team, rather than through newspaper columns.

The new lay of the land, then, has Breaking Views at the narrow, elite end of the spectrum. The reinvented Heard on the Street is likely to have a lot of Lex DNA in it: while maybe not as punchy or as funny as Breaking Views, it will be short and smart and to-the-point, and it will have an enormous built-in circulation base, both in print and online. (Murdoch and Thomson, if they have any sense at all, won’t even think about putting up extra subscription firewalls around the new-look Heard content.) So the outlook there is pretty rosy too.

Lex, however, is in a much more painful spot. It will always have a lot of clout and importance in the UK, but in the US it will struggle to get much of a foothold. US investment bankers with access to Breaking Views – and direct access to Breaking Views journalists – are likely to prefer that to Lex, which still doesn’t carry bylines. The rest of the US market will be perfectly happy with Heard on the Street.

Which leaves the best course for Lex to be something I’ve been advocating for some time, except now it’s a necessity rather than just a good idea. The FT should buy, and put all Lex content up on it for free. At a stroke, Lex would become the only one of the three main financial opinion sources to be easily linkable, and it would have an instant global presence and mindshare that the other two could only dream of. The Lex brand is still probably the most valuable of the three, but it’s becoming increasingly less valuable by the day. The only way to reverse that course is to make all Lex content free.

This entry was posted in Media. Bookmark the permalink.