The FT Group, which includes standout business newspaper the Financial Times, is being sold for $1.3 billion to Nikkei, Japan’s largest media company. Established in 1888, the FT has been lauded for its digital transition as the newspaper industry has declined. “Riptide” is an oral history project that was first launched in 2013 about what “really happened to the news business,” by John Huey, Martin Nisenholtz, Paul Sagan, and John Geddes—and it includes an interview with a former FT.com managing director about its beginnings on the web in 1995, and its decision to start out as a free website:
I have to say, I think, in the early stages, free was the only way that people knew how to do it. Just from a technical point of view, a free website is the path of least resistance. All you need is a CMS and an ad server and, hey, you’re in business. The other element within this was, I think that the leadership at the “FT,” and I think at publishers across the market as a whole, simply didn’t really understand some of the long term strategic implications of this stuff.
They understood that they needed to be involved in the Web, but I don’t think anybody had really thought through how was this going to play out, and at the time, it was a really pretty small part of the business.
They were presented with a proposition that said, “The quickest, easiest, simplest way to do this is a free website, and we’ll make the money through advertising.” That ticked the boxes, so that’s the way everybody went.
I don’t think there was a point where the whole industry sat down and decided, they compared all the models and advertising was the way to go. As I say, it simply was the path of least resistance.
The “FT,” had a reassessment on this, around about 2001, when the dot com bubble started bursting. At that point, we had noticed that there were some issues for us as an organization with the advertising model.