Summary:

The Financial Times stands out in the news industry for its clever and aggressive switch to a digital revenue model. But while the paper is an inspiration, it’s not an example.

A new profile of the Financial Times is the latest piece to hold up the company as a model for traditional publishers that want to create a digital-era business. It sounds great, but it’s not very realistic.

The piece in question is by media analyst Ken Doctor who notes the FT is the first newspaper to have “crossed over” by amassing more digital subscribers than print ones. As of February, the respective numbers were  316,000 to 286,000; the feat fulfills the FT’s prediction at paidContent 2012 that the cross-over would occur in 2013. (You’ll be able to hear more digital-media industry predictions at paidContent Live on April 17).

As Doctor explains, the accomplishment results from shrewd business decisions such as persuading companies to buy individual subscriptions for their employees: “Rather than leaving B2B customer sales relationships to aggregators like Lexis Nexis and News Corp.’s Factiva, the FT began converting corporate FT buyers to direct relationships.”

Doctor acknowledges that daily newspapers don’t have the same corporate opportunities, but says that they can follow the FT and Politico in creating a valuable niche: “If dailies’ news and information are as critical locally as the FT’s is to a global business clientele, why not test a new model? .. [Politico] Pro works several niches. Mr. and Ms. Publishers, what’s your niche?”

If a publisher can come to occupy such a niche, they may enjoy the same virtuous cycle as the FT where margins rise with digital revenue while distribution costs stay nearly fixed.

But it’s hard to see how the FT case study can apply to anyone other than the FT. Recall that even the New York Times is struggling to “cross over;” its digital revenues are rising but, overall, the paper’s overall operations are shrinking. The Wall Street Journal, with a similar global business niche, may be the only other publisher with a hope of crossing over this year.

Doctor also cites the FT’s 30-person data and analytics team as integral to the company’s digital transition. He points out that such teams can supply critical intelligence about customer targeting and revenue optimization. But do other publications, which can no longer afford copy editors, have the means to hire dozens of data scientists? Probably not.

How many other newspaper and magazine brands can you name that even stand a chance of making this crossover?

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