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Troubled times for newspapers bedevil Times, Journal Add to ...

Lionel Barber, the newly appointed editor of Britain's Financial Times, is stepping into the breach in what the Chinese might call "interesting times" for the world's elite business newspapers.

His predecessor, Andrew Gowers, abruptly stepped down last week after steering the distinguished and distinctive business daily through four brutal years of losses, weak advertising sales and declining circulation in its home market.

Though the pink-hued paper has recently begun to turn those fortunes around, analysts argue that both the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal face particularly daunting prospects in a generally troubled newspaper industry.

Both newspapers rely heavily on financial and technology advertising -- which fell off sharply in the early years of this decade -- and both compete for high-end, specialized readers who have an increasingly wide array of information sources.

"In some respects, they face the same issues the smallest paper somewhere in Iowa must deal with: How do you transition to the Web? How do you make up for lost advertising," said Andrew Leckey, director of the National Center for Business Journalism at the American Press Institute. "But if you feel you are an international publication, you have to figure how do you cover the world. . . . It can be difficult to figure out who your audience is and how to appeal to them."

Mr. Barber, who has been the Financial Times' U.S. managing editor, takes over as the newspaper appears to have turned a corner. Advertising revenue was up 6 per cent in the first nine months, and its owner, Pearson PLC, predicts the paper will break even this year after a $16-million (U.S.) loss in 2004.

But paid circulation -- at 93,462 copies in its home market in Britain -- remains 35 per cent lower than when Mr. Gowers took over four years ago as the newspaper stressed its global ambitions and local competitors, notably The Times of London, increased their coverage of London's financial district. (The Financial Times has a paid circulation of 438,538 worldwide. The Journal's total paid circulation is two million.)

Neither Mr. Gowers nor the Financial Times is commenting on the "strategic difference" that led to his departure, though the paper recently has put more emphasis on British corporate news in an effort to lure back readers and national advertisers.

Both the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal have devoted significant resources to their websites, and both say they plan new measures to integrate the daily newspaper coverage more closely with their on-line versions.

But as they do so, they will face additional competitive pressure from on-line sources, including news services such as Reuters News Agency and Bloomberg News, and magazines such as The Economist or BusinessWeek.

New York University business journalism professor Steven Solomon said the Journal and the Financial Times are losing their proprietary claim on the international business reader.

"Traditionally, people have had to go to these publications to get the news they wanted, and they were required reading, Mr. Solomon said. "Now, there is a multiplication of possible sources that you can go to for information, including a lot of free sources that people are taking advantage of."

Still, both leading business dailies appear to be taking full advantage of the Web.

The Financial Times boasts that its free website, FT.com, is the world's leading audited business news site, with 3.7 million unique users.

The Journal has taken a different approach, charging full subscription price to the 764,000 users of its website. With newsprint prices soaring, the New York-based daily has shrunk its two Asian and European editions, and has announced plans to reduce the size of its North American paper by 7.5 centimetres starting in January, 2007.

While Mr. Barber's appointment may signify a more dramatic shift, the Financial Times has so far shown no inclination to tamper with a formula that includes short, fact-laden articles, packaged with sharp -- at times, cheeky -- commentary.

The Wall Street Journal, in contrast, has more aggressively sought to expand its readership base by adding feature and lifestyle content. It took a major risk this fall in launching a weekend edition, which combined hard-core business coverage with a lifestyle section and was provided free to existing subscribers.

As part of the move to a smaller format, Journal publisher Karen Elliott House is promising a better grouping of content; greater ease of handling with fewer story jumps to new pages; and greater "complementarity" with the website.

Both newspapers face outside pressure from disgruntled shareholders. Critics have urged Pearson PLC -- which is a major publisher of educational materials -- to sell the under-performing Financial Times, though Pearson chief executive officer Marjorie Scardino has ruled out a sale.

At the same time, Wall Street analysts believe the management team at New York-based Dow Jones & Co. Inc., which owns the Journal, has only limited time to turn around the profit picture and lift the company's moribund share price before controlling shareholders lose patience and sell their stake.

 

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