DOING BRILLIANTLY. Roula Khalaf is the Editor of the Financial Times (FT). Born in Beirut, after studying in the United States at Syracuse University and Columbia University she first worked for Forbes magazine. From 1995 she was a foreign correspondent at the FT, and in 2016 became Deputy Editor to Lionel Barber, succeeding him as Editor in January 2020.
You can listen to the podcast of this inteview here.
Roula Khalaf, you became Editor of the FT just before the Covid lockdown in London in March 2020, and as if that was not enough Russia has invaded Ukraine. Speaking as a journalist, have these events presented you with both an opportunity and a responsibility?
It has been a big challenge, but also a privilege to be leading the effort here at such a historic time. As soon as we started hearing about vaccines we knew that there would be an end to Covid and that the world as we knew it would come back. Suddenly, just as it was coming back, there was upheaval on a scale never imagined in my adult lifetime. We don’t actually know what kind of world it leads us to.
How have you been able to continue to publish the FT every day?
We are mostly a digital publication, and between Hong Kong, London and New York it is a 24 hour operation, seven days a week. Obviously there was a lot of pressure on the teams, but I have an amazing group of great journalists and crises tend to mobilize and motivate journalists. When we made the transition to remote working, when from one day to the next we were all at home, there wasn’t a single glitch.
What was the most difficult part for you?
The journalists were working very hard, but people were also feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I had to be a different type of leader, a lot more empathetic. I had to mobilize, energize and motivate, and at the same time understand and be sensitive to the very difficult family circumstances that journalists were operating in. People were getting sick. Until today, every single day there are various people with Covid. For me the biggest and most difficult part was how to manage the staff.
How many people work for the FT?
About 550 in the editorial department. They are in many different locations and doing very different types of work, from the writers to the editors to the production to the digital staff.
The FT is a world newspaper, but in which country are there more readers?
45 percent of our readers are in the UK; 22 percent are in America. Europe, the Middle East and Africa are 20 percent; and Asia is 11 percent. The FT is truly global.
Who are your competitors?
The Wall Street Journal, some of the American dailies: The New York Times, The Post. Bloomberg is a competitor on some stories. In the UK the broadsheets are competition. In different markets we have different types of competitors.
As well as writing about finance and business, why are you also political and cultural?
Our core audience is definitely business and finance professionals but we also have readers in academia and government agencies who are interested in our take on politics and culture. The FT Weekend is probably the best product on the market for culture. We cover arts, fashion, travel, food, real estate, house and home, tourism, and I’ve got a great gardening columnist.
Do more people buy the FT in print on weekends than during the week?
Absolutely. The FT Weekend in print grew 13 percent since 2019, which is very unusual. Over the years we have made the transition to digital, and we’ve got more than a million digital readers, whereas the latest print circulation is around 140,000. Covid underlined to us that there is a much bigger readership out there which may not be able to afford the whole FT, nor need the whole FT. We’re just about to launch an app for smartphone users called The Edit, in which we put just eight stories a day at a much lower price point.
The FT was known as a newspaper read by men over 50. Do you have a different audience today?
It takes a very long time for your readership to diversify. We have more women readers now, around 30 percent of our subscribers. One of the priorities that we’ve had in recent years has been to encourage the engagement of women subscribers, and we have a specific target and a project to do that. I worked on this even before I became editor, because many women get the FT through their companies but weren’t reading enough of it.
As the first woman editor do you have a different vision for this over 130 years old newspaper?
Whether a woman is doing it or a man is doing it, it’s the exact same job. The style may differ, but the style may also differ between two men and between generations. I don’t think that it makes any difference, except in the way that you might deal with circumstances. It is shocking that it’s taken so long for women to be editors of major newspapers. Gender equality, whether in the media or elsewhere – and in the world that we cover in particular – has taken far too long. Before I became Editor I was very involved within the FT in trying to bridge the gender gap and to get more women promoted. Frankly I still have a lot of work to do, even on that.
“Our news pages, whether in print or online, have got to be the most trusted source of information that’s out there.”
Roula Khalaf leads the morning news conference at the Financial Times in early 2020
Roula Khalaf, you were born in Beirut and grew up during a civil war. Since 1995 you went to Algeria, Iraq and Iran for the FT and so you know very well what it means to be in the middle of a war. How do you feel about Ukraine?
It does feel less foreign to me, because I have lived under shelling. I know what it’s like to spend your nights in a shelter. I can feel the horror of this war. It’s not abstract. It’s very real for me. I understand how shocking it can be to Europeans, because we haven’t seen a major war of this kind in Europe. Of course we had Yugoslavia, but this full invasion is a last century type of conventional war. Cyber war was our focus, and suddenly you have this very old style conventional war with shelling and large convoys of tanks. I understand how scary it can be to go through an experience like this, and for Europeans to be watching and wondering how something like that could be happening, and my sense is that this will go on for a long time. I don’t think this is a war that will end easily.
What do you call a long time?
I don’t know. I grew up during a civil war where we had a ceasefire for nearly two years, and then the war was even fiercer than before! It depends on how long the Ukrainian army can fight, but also how long the Russian army can fight.
There is also the worry of a mistake involving a nuclear power plant, which could be very dangerous for the entire continent and indeed the world?
There’s an even worse case than this. For the first time, the prospect of the use of tactical nuclear weapons is not impossible. That is the greatest source of anxiety, because you can see a situation where – if he is either losing too badly or NATO gets drawn into a war – Putin resorts to the use of nuclear weapons. He has hardened since 2014 and he lives in this paranoid world, increasingly isolated. When I was in Paris just after Macron had been to see Putin, French officials were telling me that Macron had been very shocked by how different he seemed.
Some Russian soldiers weren’t told what they were doing and thought they were going on exercises. Will there be a move against Putin?
Most people I speak to, more expert than I am, think it is not very likely that after a few weeks suddenly someone is going to move against Putin. First of all, how do you move against Putin? He sees very few people. We don’t know what he’s thinking, but we also don’t know what the closest people to him are thinking. It’s not likely that he goes to war and the moment it becomes complicated somebody removes him, like in the movies. It doesn’t normally happen like this and he could be with us for a very long time. Or, within a year, given the losses, or if he tries to escalate even more, maybe then something happens.
What are the economic implications of this war?
This is the first time that finance and economics is weaponized to this extent. We have seen quite strong, harsh sanctions before – largely against Iran – but never on this scale. What happened was a complete mobilization of government sanctions on Russia and on Russians – including on the central bank of Russia, depriving Putin of the fortress that he had built with his reserves. The corporate boycotts have also been very striking. Hundreds of companies have taken write downs, stopped doing business in Russia, made political statements – and we’ve never seen this before. The West has shown both unity and the real power of financial and economic sanctions. This could have implications elsewhere – the Chinese are no doubt watching very closely. It sends a very strong message to China that this is what could happen if, for instance, they were to make a move on Taiwan.
Is it also a problem for the countries that make the sanctions?
The economic cost of sanctions has to be borne by those imposing the sanctions and by the wider world, and the general view is that this will still be manageable, even though all the projections of much faster growth after Covid are now being revised. In Europe it’s very possible that we will be in recession before the end of the year, including in the UK, but the impact would be exponentially bigger if there was a gas embargo – if Europe stops buying Russian gas or if Russia decides not to sell it. This is a weapon in both hands.
What about China’s position?
The Americans have shared information with their allies that Russia has asked for resupplies of certain specific military hardware from China and that the response of the Chinese has been positive, but we don’t know whether anything has been provided or not. We know that the Russians are looking for financial support, which is why the Americans have been warning China not to help. However, the Chinese and the Russians have a very similar worldview, so I don’t see how you move China away from Russia, politically. On the other hand, I don’t think it is in the interest of the Chinese to now be putting all their lot in with the Russians. If the leadership in Beijing is smart, perhaps it continues not to condemn Russia but economically doesn’t help Russia.
What economic problems do they have in China?
Right now the biggest problem in China is the lockdowns and Covid. The reaction to outbreaks is complete lockdown. Shenzhen was locked down and Shanghai may also be. That creates supply chain bottlenecks, which could again lead to higher prices elsewhere. We do have a perfect storm here.
Can Israel help resolve this picture?
The Israelis are quite close to the Russians and quite close to the Ukrainians. They are one of the main negotiators in the peace talks. They and the Turks are the ones who are the mediators.
“At the FT we need debate, especially in a world where the media is so polarized.”
Roula Khalaf, if there is high inflation will this bring riots in Europe?
The biggest risk is not so much in Europe, because governments are stepping in with fiscal support. In a commodities crisis the bigger problems are in developing countries, and this is where we will be watching very closely for social unrest.
How does the FT see the overall economy?
We’ve been looking for vulnerabilities that you don’t anticipate. Commodities houses are worried about their own liquidity and asking central banks for support. We don’t know if there are any oligarchs with very big loans that they won’t be able to repay. There are always surprises, but our teams talk to traders and market participants every single day. The experts don’t yet see anything that could lead to a massive crash.
In this world of fake news how important is it that people trust the truth of what you write?
That is paramount. Over the past two years I was worried that if we were all working remotely the communication may not be as efficient, so I created the new position of Editor for Accuracy and Quality, whose job is to double check. Our brand is completely tied to our trustworthiness. Trust is the currency. Without the trust of our readers we are nothing.
Are your own opinions very plural?
I try to be, it’s important for the FT to be a forum of ideas and debates. We have a house view in our editorials, but on our opinion pages we need our readers to be exposed to conflicting views as well. At the FT we need debate, especially in a world where the media is so polarized. You notice increasingly that news organizations have and defend only one point of view, sometimes to the extreme.
Fake news is horrifying, but isn’t it also interesting to see how much people believe it?
Some people don’t necessarily believe it, but pretend. A lot of people in Russia only watch Russian TV, especially amongst the older generation. In order to protect yourself, you almost force yourself to believe. This often happens in dictatorships.
Were you ever frightened for your own life when working as a foreign correspondent?
Probably not as much as I should have been! I became more frightened when my eldest son could read my dateline, so could read where I was. When I used to go to Iraq, I’d tell him “I’m going to Jordan.” But when my son could see “in Baghdad” by my name in the newspaper and knew that there was a war in Iraq, it scared me that he would be scared.
Do we now more than ever need to understand the importance of the free press?
It is very difficult to analyze a country without seeing, being on the ground and being able to report the story. We pride ourselves at the FT for telling our sophisticated readers what is really going on and how to analyze it. For that you have to develop a real in depth understanding of the country that you’re reporting on, speaking the language and knowing different parts of society, not only bankers or politicians.
What is the role of the newspaper in society today?
To inform and tell the truth, and help people get away from the noise and focus on what is really important. At a time when there is so much information it’s very difficult to tell what is real from what’s unreal. Some people believe fake news a lot more than they believe real news. We have to be the trusted source that readers come to, and know that what they’re getting is the reality, not colored either by bias or by inflaming opinion. Our news pages, whether in print or online, have got to be the most trusted source of information that’s out there.
View of Bracken House from Cannon Street. After more than 30 years away, The Financial Times moved back into its historic former home in the City of London in May 2019. Photo: Peter Cook.
Being printed in its distinctive pink colour is very important for the FT brand.
Over the years the FT has made the transition to digital, but even so the FT Weekend in print grew 13 percent since 2019.
Roula Khalaf interviews US secretary of state Antony Blinken at the FT Global Boardroom in May 2021
The new app for smartphone users called FT Edit in which the FT will put eight stories a day
FT Edit is designed to reach those readers who do not need the whole FT and is available at a lower price point
“You get very high engagement with visual journalism.”
Roula Khalaf, politicians have to weigh every word very carefully in this situation. Was it a lapse when Biden called Putin a war criminal?
Everything the US does on Russia, they have China in the back of their mind. As Putin escalates you have to also escalate, but you can’t escalate militarily so you have to escalate in different ways, politically and economically. Those are the tools. It is not necessarily going to be enough.
What is your opinion of the politicians in charge today?
I’ve been very impressed. I was in Berlin two weeks before, and I would not have predicted such a shift in Germany. Finally, after misunderstanding the politics needed to deal with Russia, Germany has moved. Geopolitically that is the most significant development that we’ve seen, and it is part of Putin’s miscalculation.
Italy, normally neutral, also went along with this.
Absolutely, and let’s not forget there are huge business ties between German and Russian and Italian companies. They are much more dependent than America or the UK.
Please give me some good news!
I have very good news about the FT; I think we’re doing brilliantly. One of our main recent investments is in visual storytelling, because readers want to experience journalism a lot more visually. You get very high engagement with visual journalism.
How do you decide the daily front page of the paper?
I have two front pages. The most important is where most of our readers come, to FT.com, our main website. This is our biggest news story of the day, which may change three times in 24 hours as it is handled in London, then in New York and then in Hong Kong. Then there is the front page in print, which we decide on at the end of the day, and this is static.
Do you double check them?
We do handovers. At the end of every day, we discuss and decide the print front page and what’s going to go on the home page the next morning. Typically this may change overnight, as two or three things may happen. Biden may say something. An event happens and they add it. Then maybe there’ll be something from China in the morning.
What is your job?
My job is to run the whole thing, but I’m not the news editor, I have news editors. There is a main news desk here and the main news editor has a team, and there are news editors in New York and Hong Kong. They suggest the priority, and typically pick the right things.
Is it difficult to put the front page together?
Not difficult but very interesting. We spend quite a bit of time on the picture, because the UK television news always shows the next day front pages of newspapers the evening before and this is very important for our brand.
Does the FT still do investigative reporting?
Yes, investigations are very important, because this is what the press is for. I have a team of several reporters who are working on investigations.
How much does the FT influence the stock markets and currencies?
I don’t know how you quantify this. The FT has got authority, but how decisions are made is difficult for me to be able to tell. I know that we’re influential. It matters what we write.
Is the dollar challenged as a world currency by the Yuan?
No, sanctions are based on the fact that the dollar is the most powerful currency. Taking away dollars from Russians has a massive impact on their economy. Some people call sanctions on everything, including your central bank, the nuclear economic option. As a result some will want to diversify away from the dollar, because if they were to come under sanctions the dollar would make them very vulnerable.
Is the sanctioning of oligarchs a big mess for Britain?
It’s good that they finally moved against the oligarchs. There was a lot of support for that.
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