Journo intel: Matthew Garrahan, Financial Times news editor on Covid, corporate smear jobs, and the ideal dinner party
Matthew Garrahan is news editor at the FT. He has worked for the paper for over 20 years and took over as editor early last year. Our media relations team recently had a chance to listen to Matthew’s thoughts on coronavirus, life at the FT, and what he looks for as an editor.
How have Matthew and the rest of the FT team been managing in the age of coronavirus?
Interestingly, Matthew said that he had been coming into the office all the way through the lockdown. Their reporters are all remote, although a few have started to return sporadically. They’ve had to be nimble to adapt, but with Google Hangouts and Slack, they have managed to keep connected.
When it comes to reporting on the coronavirus, the FT team were inundated with stories on testing, vaccines, infection numbers, lockdowns, and so on. They needed one focal point, so Matthew created a new virtual reporting team with a single editor, Barney Jopson. They also launched a daily blog, so all reporters across the FT can file reports on Covid from their respective countries or beats.
Matthew says that they have also tinkered with the subscription model. Now, a couple of stories are available to read for free every day, ensuring everyone has access to important stories – and of course, pandemic coverage is always free. In fact, their coronavirus tracking page has been the most popular piece of FT journalism ever produced, and their US election tracker is also killing it.
What does a typical day as news editor of the FT look like?
According to Matthew, they are staffed from 7am, and their colleagues on the news desk start at 7am and work until 3pm. His day starts at 8:30am, with a 15-minute call with desk heads to get a sense of the biggest stories of the day. He also meets with the world news editor, Anne-Sylvaine Chassany, the companies editor Tom Braithwaite, and the UK news editor, Andrew Parker. This leaves him with the top stories to think about as they formulate the home page. At 10am, he meets with Roula Khalaf, the editor.
By this point, he said, the companies, tech, and UK desks all have a list of stories and a sense of when they will be ready – and they’re also thinking about stories for the next day. Political and earnings news is usually ready from the off at 7am, or even earlier. The FT operates two different homepages, UK and international, and Matthew said that they aim to have the international page set up for the US at around midday GMT.
Matthew told us that most of the traffic is in the morning in the UK, Europe. and the US. Every afternoon and evening at the editorial conference, they put together a list for the next morning with scoops for the early morning rush, when most people are reading. Twenty years ago, journalists worked towards an end-of-the-day print deadline and that was it, you sent the paper off to the printers. Now, their organisation is engineered around hitting peak traffic points. The FT do still publish papers, of course, and Matthew said that at the end of the day, a separate print team pulls out the best stories and slots them into the newspaper.
How does he see the coronavirus crisis impacting the media market?
Matthew reported that the impact of Covid has been catastrophic. Generally, he said, advertising is in serious trouble and the free to air broadcast market is too. The shift away from normal TV viewing patterns toward streaming has accelerated. For newspapers, advertising has also taken a massive hit, which has again accelerated their push into digital. Matthew believes that print businesses without subscription models are in serious trouble.
This is a tough time for reporters to be making contacts, Matthew added. He said he has heard that some are going on socially distanced walks in the park instead of lunches or other sorts of meetings.
Fortunately, Matthew told us, the FT is doing well. Digital subscriptions were up by 12% in the first six months of 2020 compared to last year, and trial subscriptions doubled. Online traffic has gone through the roof, exceeding the previous records set during the summer of Brexit.
The pandemic has also reshaped news consumption in interesting ways, Matthew concluded. During the pandemic, the FT has found that there is a second surge in visits to the site in the evenings, so they freshen up the home page at around 5pm. They usually publish a new splash spot – a big news story of the moment – and a standalone – a secondary piece, usually a feature or piece of analysis – which will be there for several hours. He said he had recently noticed that Saturdays, which used to be a real dead-zone, are now attracting a significant audience too.
Where does he think the news business goes from here?
At the FT, they’re focussing on the new, post-pandemic world. Matthew says that they’re going to tell big stories in a measured way and break real news that readers want to read. Readers want to pay for that, and for analysis and commentary on the issues that matter to them.
As a news editor, Matthew is looking for news that brings people to the site. Long, well-considered work that reporters spend a while on usually does well, and he thinks that the pandemic has shown that there is an audience for good, strong journalism.
For instance, Matthew is proud of everybody’s work on the Wirecard story – especially since behind the scenes there was incredible pressure. A German regulator was suing one of the FT reporters, people were running smears and using private detectives on the reporters, and even trying to listen in on meetings. Lionel, the former editor, backed the reporters and the truth came out.
What’s his view on Sunday for Monday stories?
Matthew says that they still need them, since the FT still puts out a paper on Monday. A good Sunday for Monday is a great thing to have, he added. That said, he thinks less about the print schedule and more about the strength of the story. Josh Noble runs the desk Saturday and Sunday.
The FT gets sent loads of rubbish, Matthew said, but they’re always happy to hear when someone is reaching out on behalf of a company doing interesting things. If you think you have something for the opinion section, Matthew asks that you send it to their commentary desk, which is run by Brooke Masters.
If Matthew could host a lunch with anyone, who would he invite?
He had a good run reporting in LA, and he still pays attention to US politics, so he’d like to sit down with Trump. He’d also love the opportunity to meet with Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings.