FT’s digital shift attempts to answer question: What does a newspaper do in the digital age?

The Financial Times has just announced a major shift that will see it move to single global print edition, deadlines driven by peak web viewing times and print stories that focus on context and added value of major stories of the day, according to The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade.

Roy said it appeared “to be the penultimate step towards becoming a digital-only publication”, and he quoted FT editor Lionel Barber as saying in a memo to staff:

The 1970s-style newspaper publishing process – making incremental changes to multiple editions through the night is dead. In future, our print product will derive from the web offering – not vice versa.

And Barber added:

journalists will publish stories to meet peak viewing times on the web rather than old print deadlines.

That doesn’t mean that the newspaper will be neglected or de-emphasised. Instead, it is a simple recognition that the format has to change to meet the needs of readers in a digital era. The paper will create pages that add context and value by helping make sense of “the most important issues of the day”.

Most newspaper organisations have not had the confidence to rethink print. They have focused their efforts on transforming digitally while doing little to change the print model. One leader, Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of Deseret News Publishing Co and Deseret Digital Media in the US, has been the leading proponent of a dual transformation that sees major changes at the ‘legacy’ print and broadcasting business as well as the creation of a new ‘disruptive’ digital business.

Between 2007 and 2010, the Deseret News saw their display advertising drop by 30 percent and their classified ad revenue collapse by 70 percent. Gilbert changes after joining the company in 2009 have stopped the death spiral. Digital revenue has grown by an average of 44 percent since 2010, but more than that, he grew print circulation, growing weekday circulation from 69,519 in 2011 to 91,638 in 2012 and Sunday circulation from 93,658 to 176,096, according to the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. On Sundays, the company has begun to print a national edition.

This print transformation has been almost entirely overlooked by the industry. The newspaper industry in the US has lost $40bn in revenue since 2007, but it hasn’t rethought newspapers, says US journalism revolutionary Clark Gilbert. At the International Symposium of Online Journalism in Austin in April, he said:

In a post-disruptive world, why would anyone pick up a paper at all? There are answers for that, but if an organisation is not asking that question, there is no future for that organisation.

This question of the place of a newspaper in a digital world needs to be asked and answered by more industry leaders. To answer this question, Gilbert follows the advice of his former Harvard Business School colleague, Clayton Christensen, author of the Innovator’s Dilemma. In the Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen says that people have jobs that they want to do, and those jobs remain constant. What changes is how people do those jobs.

Like the FT, Gilbert believes that the newspaper of the future will have much more context and perspective. This isn’t opinion as much as it is analysis, content that makes sense of and explains events and information. This is content that relies on expertise and insight and moves the newspaper up the value chain; it will still be fresh the next morning after people know the breaking news from broadcast, digital and social media.

Print needs to change, and it is great to see that visionary leaders in the industry have the confidence to meet this challenge.