Transforming the Financial Times – The Power of APIs

At New Bamboo recently welcomed John O’Donovan, CTO of the Financial Times (FT), to our offices where he revealed the strategy that is enabling the Financial Times to transform itself into a leading digital publisher.

At New Bamboo we recently welcomed John O’Donovan, CTO of the Financial Times (FT), to our offices where he revealed the strategy that is enabling the Financial Times to transform itself into a leading digital publisher.

It’s no secret that the newspaper industry has been hit hard by the rise of the Internet and the free availability of news online. At the Financial Times, the print circulation has dropped by about 100,000 in three years, to be about 250,000 today. While print circulation is declining, the Financial Times is unusual in that its print operation is still profitable, and it’s been able to replace the lost paper readers with 700,000 paying digital subscribers. Digital now represents two-thirds of its total audience, and showed a 30% year-on-year growth last year. The term “disruption” is often overused, John said, but it definitely applies here. It isn’t just that there is new competition: the original platform is disappearing.

The Financial Times was the first to introduce a paywall in 2007. The value of this, he said, was the relationship with the reader, which gives you an opportunity to think in the longer term about how you can build and deliver more refined services. Because readers log in to read the content, the technical and editorial teams can have a good understanding of how they consume it, including when they use multiple platforms. Interestingly, the desktop remains the most popular platform during the working day. Mobile peaks during commuting hours and the weekend.

The strategy of Universal Publishing (UP) underpins the Financial Times today. It’s all about getting services to customers in appropriate ways using whatever channels your readers want to use. You can’t simply reuse the print content in digital platforms. John referenced the Quartz Curve, a concept from the business news site Quartz that says people online want either short sharable content or long, scrollable content to get their teeth into. The worst length for online news is about 800 words: the length of a typical print story.

Publishing long content online might seem counterintuitive, but people are much more comfortable scrolling on mobile devices than they are using “next page” links. The Daily Mail even has a homepage that is 32,000 pixels deep for readers to scroll and peruse. If it were printed out, it would be about 8 feet deep.

The Universal Publishing challenge goes beyond responsive web design, because of the diversity of devices involved. The FT is now looking seriously at smartwatches, which could become a valuable way for people to speed-read the news. The devices will need a custom solution, though: you can’t just push web content to them and expect it to be useable. This adds another layer of complexity on top of a landscape that already includes thousands of different phones, social networks and apps such as Flipboard, which subscribers can use to read FT content.

The goal from a technical and editorial point of view is to build everything for syndication, and to focus on creating content assets instead of fixed stories. Different platforms might package these in different ways, and enable readers to take different journeys through the content.

The tactical approach to enable Universal Publishing is to develop an API, which acts as an intermediary between the back-end systems and any apps that need to access their data and content. John said there is a lot of technical debt in the systems that power the FT, and that parts of it are older than some of our team. You could spend all your time and money rebuilding the back end platform, and spend six months integrating each new app with the legacy architecture. But a more pragmatic approach is to add the intermediary layer on top so that new applications don’t need to touch it at all. As a result of developing the API, the FT was able to launch 12 new products last year.

Over time, the FT is migrating away from its old Solaris hardware and moving towards putting its data in the cloud, using Amazon Redshift. By the end of the year, it expects to be able to turn off its old hardware, resulting in cost savings and presumably greater flexibility too.

The change in reading habits has had a huge impact on the news room. Data shows that a peak reading time is 5am to 10am, when the bankers are on their way to work. The old practice of filing stories last thing at night for a print deadline has had to change, and the content is now produced by editorial teams around the world, following the sun and writing for audiences globally. In the news room, journalists can see how many people are reading a particular story, and even see where they are down to one mile accuracy. The number of print editions published in a day has been cut, recognising that print is always out of date, but still has a role to play in enabling people to catch up on important stories and analysis.

John provided us with a fascinating insight into how the news industry, and the FT in particular, have been challenged by technology, and how they are using it to create new revenue streams and new ways to interact with readers. “One of our editors described the FT as a software company now,” he said. “We’re more of a content company, really. But technology is the differentiator. It makes the content more than the sum of its parts.

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