Nikkei’s acquisition of the Financial Times isn’t comparable to Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post

Top: FT headquarters, London. Bottom: Washington Post headquarters, DC.
Top: FT headquarters, London. Bottom: Washington Post headquarters, DC.
Image: Reuters/Peter Nicholls, AP Photo/Manuel Barce Ceneta
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Former Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli responds to Steve LeVine’s article comparing the sale of the Post to the recent sale of the Financial Times: 

First, the Post and the FT are entirely different businesses. Both are journalism titans, still, as they have been for generations. But one has long been a metropolitan paper, albeit with a hallowed national reputation, the other was a business and financial newspaper with a global presence. Those different positions led to very different challenges and opportunities.

One serves a community of readers who have literally dozens of alternative sources of similar news, from local TV and weeklies, to Politico, The New York Times, Atlantic Media, and even the FT—and most of those are free. The other serves a community that has one or two plausible comprehensive alternatives—and the best of them, like the FT itself, are behind paywalls.

One has an audience with a socioeconomic profile that is terrific for a US metro paper, but not LVMH must-advertise material. The other has an audience that reads articles about $50,000 watches and then goes out immediately and buys them. It’s worthy of praise that the FT was profitable, but it’s even more impressive in a way that the Post, which as far as I know wasn’t broken out as a unit, but lumped together with other assets that may have accounted for some losses, provided cash, however modest at times, to its parent company.

Second, the Post’s print-readership decline for years was more moderate than many other big newspapers in the US. I’ll leave it to you to check, but was the FT’s? (Especially versus The Wall Street Journal, its chief global rival?) The Post went from being a near-monopoly local newspaper to having to compete for every reader and every dollar, and it did so pretty well. The Post’s digital audience at the time of the sale, including mobile, was about four times what it was in 2008. In other words, citing print numbers, which the Post held onto pretty well, misses the Post’s biggest accomplishment: It made a powerful pivot to digital, faster and better than any other big newspaper during those years.

I can’t tell you if it monetized those numbers better, but I can tell you that key members of the incredibly talented digital team at the Post in those years have gone on to create, NowThisNews and PowerToFly; to steer digital, audience development and video at places such as The New York Times, The Guardian, ProPublica, McClatchy, and even WBEZ; and continued to innovate and grow in a way the FT, as good as it is, probably would love to. (And the FT, it bears saying, has itself made a strong pivot to digital, more than compensating in numbers for the lost print readers.)

Third, the Post was never a national or global newspaper, unlike the FT. At its peak, it had about 25 foreign bureaus, and another half dozen domestically. By 2008, it had maybe 20 abroad and three at home. When it was sold, maybe there were only 18 or 19 foreign bureaus, and reporters in only a couple of places in the US beyond DC.

The FT took a different approach. As I recall, it placed stringers and contractors around the globe, though it didn’t staff that many foreign bureaus until the 1980s. Both papers built up bureaus in the 1980s and 1990s. The question became: To what end? Did having your own version of the story that the Associated Press or Reuters were already covering matter? Not for most general news, and certainly not in a digital age, when readers can find news easily from anywhere.

What mattered was covering the news the agencies weren’t, and adding your perspective. That, I suspect, was why the FT kept people doing business and financial news in those places. They had to have that content as part of their value proposition, and couldn’t count on getting it from someone else.

The Post never scrimped when it came to stories that were vital to its Washington audience and its value proposition: It put more than 100 people through Baghdad during the war there, and had reporters in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq long after anyone but The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or AP did. During the severe downturn of 2009, it shuttered general-news offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, but kept reporters in New York covering the UN, and in LA covering Hollywood.

For general news, where the Post didn’t bring value beyond what a news service would, it used news services. For stories central to the Post’s mission of covering politics, policy, national trends, security, or culture, it did what the Post has done for most of its history: it sent reporters. It even was a Pulitzer finalist for one such story on the Fort Hood shootings. (And, by the way, the seven Pulitzers the Post won in the five years before Bezos bought it were the second-highest total of any American newspaper; its finalists for Pulitzers were also at or near the top of the league tables. During that time, the FT entered, the Journal entered, other vastly richer news outfits entered. The Post kept winning, the others didn’t. Surely, that journalistic quality shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.)

So, why, really, did Nikkei pay a premium for the FT while Jeff Bezos didn’t? You’d have to ask Nikkei, but it looks to me as if the FT were a perfect fit with Nikkei’s apparent strategy of going global in the same premium-news product realms it dominates at home, under a new and ambitious leadership team that badly wanted to make a mark and have the company talked about the way Axel Springer is. You might better compare it to the News Corp acquisition of Dow Jones.

Bezos, on the other hand, bought a bit of a fixer-upper in terms of strategy, with some room for improvement in the journalism that money could buy. But, as the agents say, the bones were good, and the Grahams had done admirably and honorably in maintaining the newsroom, the brand, and the relevance of it. What they couldn’t offer was an easy path to growth or profitability or a strategic fit for any other media brand (or, sadly, their own corporate direction, which had shifted away from media).

But Bezos could offer money, an interest in experimentation and patience, things he has in abundance. And probably at least some interest in a bigger civic role in the country. Today, people talk about the Post as an innovative, digitally led product that keeps producing great news. I haven’t checked on the print circulation lately. But, as I’m sure your readers will observe, that’s hardly a measure of journalistic greatness these days.