As digital FT subscriptions outstrip its newspaper circulation, the printed version seems doomed, but the numbers don’t add up
There’s a predictable buzz of futurology as the FT announces that its digital subscription circulation (301,471 and rising) has passed its print sales (297,227 and falling). How long will it be before pink paper and pounding presses are mere memories? Now, with subscriptions swelling, the FT looks far better placed for such online transition, a digital trailblazer by choice rather than force of circumstance.
Yet hang around for a few more earthbound moments. Nobody, to be honest, can be quite sure yet what such progress means in hard cash terms: the Columbia Journalism Review punches whatever numbers it can find and pronounces FT accounting somewhat “opaque”. It’s fashionable enough for struggling publications to talk of going online-only. Newsweek hinted at just that transition the other day. But digital existence can also be low profile, going on totally obscure. As predicted, Rupert Murdoch’s tablet newspaper The Daily is finding cyberspace a cruel pool for making a splash: no news-stand visibility, no TV or radio summaries, no copies passed from hand to hand. A third of The Daily’s staff were laid off last week.
It’s no accident that big digital advertising launches still happen on posters, TV or via print. And FT editions on newsprint or online are complementary, one defined by familiarity with the other so that, as you sit at your screen in Singapore or Tokyo, the FT you scan there is given a special value by the personality and record of the paper version you can also buy. John Ridding, the FT’s buoyant chief executive, may see a long-term strategy working, but he bridles at the thought of the paper being put to death. On the contrary, digital success had given it “a new lease of life” he told the Guardian last week.
Remember, too, that the FT’s closest competitor, the Wall Street Journal – is big in print and big behind a paywall: 2.1m copies purchased, one way or another, every weekday. Of course the Journal is benefiting from rolling its print and digital reach together, claiming convincingly that it is America’s top-selling newspaper: but there’s no sign of Mr M falling out of love with presses or satellite printing there. Would a digital-only FT be able to compete with an all-singing, all-dancing Journal? Could it keep a separate identity in a new world where Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters are the biggest beasts? And how will it cope with a declining but still crucial print sale as real transition starts to bite? It’s easy to talk about moving from one world to another. But look – more puce than pink – at the logistics of the leap.