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FT in the digital age: Like 'walking and chewing gum at the same time'

By Clare Sebastian, CNN
updated 3:49 PM EDT, Fri October 19, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's Clare Sebastian goes behind the scenes of the Financial Times
  • She finds piles of newsprint, but an organization focused on the digital age
  • Filing for print and digital is described as like 'walking and chewing gum' at the same time
  • This can be done -- but it's not without risks

Editor's note: Clare Sebastian is a producer of Quest Means Business. You can follow her on Twitter. Watch Quest Means Business on CNN International, 1800pm GMT weekdays. The show is presented by CNN's foremost international business correspondent Richard Quest. Follow him on Twitter.

London (CNN) -- If there's one thing you notice in the Financial Times' sprawling office building on London's Southwark Bridge it's that there are newspapers...everywhere. Piles upon piles of trademark salmon pink paper, the fruit of endless days of hard work that even the most seasoned journalists can't bring themselves to recycle.

They fill every gap between desks, there are stacks on the floor, and in corridors, next to the odd cursory pot plant. There's a charm about it, that of a place with its priorities straight. Substance over style.

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Editor Lionel Barber tells me that when he started the Financial Times, the newsroom was full of "cigarette smoke and typewriters making a lot of noise." The typewriters are long gone and, with them, most of the noise. But, says Barber, "there is still something special about a newsroom."

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Twenty years ago the piles of newspapers may not have been so striking. Hard to believe now, but ft.com only launched in 1995. This year -- 17 years later -- digital subscriptions overtook print for the first time. This has undoubtedly changed the way the operation runs.

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Breaking news happens in real time, screens with 24 hour news channels hang in the newsroom, and the journalists have the concentration of greyhounds on the blocks.

Barber has an interesting view of this. "Working for the print newspaper and for ft.com," he says, "is a little like walking and chewing gum at the same time -- it is actually possible."

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Possible, and profitable. In 2001 ft.com became one of the first online newspapers to introduce a paywall, and charge users for its content. Chief executive John Ridding says people thought they were "a little strange, to put it politely", but they stuck with it, and it's worked. The numbers are proof enough. Over 300,000 digital subscribers and sales up 7% in the first half of this year.

And, Ridding says, there's an "accidental benefit" that has transformed the business. They don't just know how many people are reading, they know who they are and what they are reading. That "enables us to do a much better job of developing products and services and being relevant to our readers," he added.

The Financial Times' business is solid. The digital future, however, is not without collateral damage. CNN spent a day with the Financial Times in April, observing everything from the morning editorial meeting, to the evening frenzy at the east London print site.

In September, the owners of that print site, Newsfax, went into administration, and the Financial Times' subsidiary St Clement's Press had to step in to run the site.

Walking and chewing gum is possible, but not without risks.

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