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John Thornhill on politics at the Financial Times

With the General Election so close, there is something inevitable about the starting point of our conversation. It appears almost impossible to escape its grasp at present and as we approach this most uncertain of elections, partisan loyalties have very much come to the fore.

Indeed, it is a tradition of British newspapers to express their support for one party or another and the Financial Times is no different. In the past, as a “liberal newspaper” in both an “economic and social sense”, the FT has “overwhelmingly supported the Conservative Party.” The FT did, however, in the face of considerable controversy, support the Labour Party in 1997, demonstrating the newspaper’s commitment to a liberal ideology rather than partisanship.

Thornhill notes that the paper “clearly backed the Conservatives in 2010,” but suggests that this year, the viewpoints of its journalists are likely to be more divergent.

“I think that the FT will have quite a fierce debate this year about who we support because none of the parties are economically and socially liberal in the way that is the intellectual heritage of the paper.”

He adds, “For the election, pretty much anyone who has a strong opinion on the subject can come along to a special meeting which we hold to thrash it all out and decide who we are going to back. It will be a very interesting debate this year because it is not patently obvious who we support at the moment and I think within the FT there are supporters of all three major parties.”

One of the most significant developments in this year’s General Election campaign has been the extensive use of social media by politicians and political commentators. The Financial Times has had to adapt to this new wave of social media; its readers demand not only an accurate and insightful print edition published every weekday morning, but instant information available through its website and social media about political and economic developments around the world.

“Like all news organisations, we are adapting as we move. It’s a bit like redesigning the yacht as you are sailing along in a gale: it’s a difficult thing to do.” Adapting to a fast-changing world is not without its difficulties but it creates opportunities too. “We are investing heavily in digital journalism and video podcasts as well as interactive graphics and data. That’s incredibly exciting because you can tell stories and present data in ways you could never achieve with a static newspaper.”

Other examples of the way that the Financial Times is adapting include Fast FT; a rolling news service that has a dedicated team of news reporters working from New York, London and Hong Kong. Whilst the FT “can never hope to compete with Bloomberg or Reuters and the comprehensiveness of what they’re doing”, Thornhill explains that the journalists at Fast FT attempt to “select news items that are the most significant in terms of economics and do fast, quick takes on those of around 200 words.”

Whereas BuzzFeed’s metric, for example, is the number of clicks its pages receive, the FT still prides itself on quality readership. Thornhill explains that the paper “wants to know who is reading what as that has enormous value to advertisers in particular. We are definitely out there in social media, it’s enormously important, but it is not the lifeblood of what we are doing.” Some change is necessary and good for the paper but the FT remains very much committed to its core values and Thornhill is determined to ensure that the foundations upon which the paper’s strong reputation is built are not compromised.

“The information that we provide has to be accurate. If people trade on the basis of the information that we publish, we have to get it right. People are absolutely unforgiving if we get things wrong, far more than a general purpose news site. This is one thing we will never compromise on. Our Editor, Lionel Barber, says that we should be right rather than always necessarily first. It is fantastic if we are first, and that is what we are striving to do. But we never want to be scrambling to publish for the sake of publishing material that we do not know is true.”

Given that people are increasingly using the internet in order to keep up with the news, the future of the printed newspaper seems more uncertain than ever. Thornhill, however, regards the printed edition of the paper as “still incredibly important for editorial and commercial reasons”. Circulation has continued to rise and Thornhill suggests that many readers only read the printed version of the FT.

“They see it as a fantastic snapshot of what is going on in the world at one moment in time. There is an extraordinary serendipity about reading a newspaper; you open a page and see what is going on in the Panama Canal for example. People know what to find and where they can find it.

“A lot of our readers love the newspaper and it remains very profitable in terms of the advertising and subscriptions.”

With the General Election approaching, considerable uncertainty surrounds Britain’s short-term political future. The future of the FT is somewhat less uncertain: its famous pink pages are here to stay.

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