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Number 1 Shimbun

What's Ahead for the Financial Times?

 

No1-2015-9FT

The sale of the business paper

has observers feeling hesitant

about what it all means.

by Justin McCurry

 

J

ULY’S SHOCK ANNOUNCEMENT THAT the Financial Times had been sold to the Nikkei Group raised questions about the Pink ‘Un’s future as part of an organization that is respected for its command of the minutiae of stock markets and Bank of Japan Board meetings, but which rarely sets pulses racing in the Fleet Street tradition.

In many ways, Nikkei was the safest of two possible suitors, the other being Axel Springer, publisher of the German tabloid Bild. After all, the FT and Nikkei’s flagship paper serve a similar readerships and a belief in the virtue of free markets.

Nikkei’s chairman and chief executive, Tsuneo Kita, quickly promised that in his hands the FT’s editorial integrity would remain intact. “We share the same journalistic values,” he told reporters In Tokyo. In an email to employees, Nikkei management said it was not planning job cuts and that the FT would “continue to enjoy complete editorial independence and freedom, just as all news organizations should have.”

 

But as FT staff gathered around TV screens

to digest the news,

some could barely conceal their disquiet.

 

The email continued: “We want the FT to be extremely profitable, and we want to achieve this through investments that lead to more customers and exciting new products, not through a reduction of the workforce.”

But as FT staff gathered around TV screens to digest the news, some could barely conceal their disquiet. Former Tokyo correspondent Ben McLannahan tweeted from New York: “Nikkei CEO: ‘we share the same journalistic values’. Really.”

His colleague in Washington DC, Alice Ross, noted: “Smug colleague is sending emails in Japanese #sigh.”

In contrast to the chatter in FT bureaus, Nikkei insiders say there has been surprisingly little newsroom discussion in Tokyo. Reflecting the sort of prudence that critics say informs much of the Nikkei’s solid, if slightly dreary, coverage, reporters and editors here appear to be biding their time until the US$1.3bn cash buyout is formally completed, pending regulatory approval.

BUT ONE JOURNALIST INVOLVED in Nikkei’s English-language operation cautioned against the idea that the new arrangements would see the editorial heart ripped out of the FT by risk-averse Japanese managers. “I think those fears are exaggerated,” the journalist, who did not wish to be named, told the No.1 Shimbun. “I doubt that Nikkei would have spent that much money on the FT simply because they wanted to change it.”

In buying the FT from Pearson, Nikkei has given notice of its intention to appeal to a wider, international readership, in contrast to its Japanese rivals, which appear content to soldier on in the domestic market, despite falling readership and ad revenue.

The deal was probably the best way Nikkei could realize its international ambitions without having to develop a strategy of its own from scratch, said Philip Brasor, author of the Media Mix column for the Japan Times.

“I don’t necessarily see a clash,” he said. “The FT’s reputation is pretty solid internationally, and I can’t imagine Nikkei wanting to mess with it. Nikkei’s ‘problem,’ if you want to call it that, is that its own ability to break news early is based on its close association with business insiders, but Nikkei’s content is also considered dull, the kind of stuff you have to read in school because it’s required.”

 

Perhaps too much is made of the Nikkei’s failure

to uncover the Toshiba accounting scandal, given that

all major Japanese media organizations were

guilty of falling asleep on the job.

 

Brasor, though, isn’t convinced that Nikkei’s stated laissez-faire attitude towards editorial policy will last. “The Financial Times staff seem to be relieved they weren’t bought out by a more similar media company, such as Bloomberg. But I wonder if in the long run Nikkei won’t try to change the FT workplace, especially if they see it as an investment first,” he said.

Perhaps too much is made of the Nikkei’s failure to uncover the Toshiba accounting scandal this summer, given that all major Japanese media organizations were guilty of falling asleep on the job. And it was the monthly business magazine Facta, founded by a disgruntled former journalist for the Nikkei, not the FT, which broke the news of similar corporate wrongdoing at Olympus in 2011.

Nevertheless, there is no question that the two organizations hail from very different journalistic traditions – the cut-throat, irreverent approach of many British journalists, and the more methodical, risk-averse methods preferred by their Japanese counterparts.

But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a clash of newsroom cultures, according to one journalist familiar with reporting in both countries. “The Nikkei doesn’t do anything to separate itself from a Japanese system that we know to be inherently suppressive of real journalism,” the journalist said on condition of anonymity. “So I wouldn’t single the Nikkei out as not sharing the FT’s values. I would say that the Japanese system of journalism, on the whole, does not resemble the system of journalism in which the FT evolved.

“In end, I think Nikkei are quite pleased they have now got something that’s going to be a mischief-maker. They want it to be a mischief-maker. They don’t want to be known as something that harmed the FT brand. It’s like if Yamaha bought Harley-Davidson, and decided that chrome was a bit too much. No one would ever take Yamaha seriously again.”

Justin McCurry is Japan and Korea correspondent for the Guardian and the Observer. He contributes to the Christian Science Monitor and the Lancet medical journal, and reports on Japan and Korea for France 24 TV.

 

 

Published in: September 2015

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