Role models

Quality journalism is not enough: a conversation with Renée Kaplan

As the media landscape is changing rapidly, news organizations and media startups are looking for new ways to engage their audiences. Creating quality journalism does not guarantee commercial success. W Insight reached out to Renée Kaplan, the head of audience and new content strategies at the Financial Times to find out how to produce commercially viable stories.

What major trends do you see in how people interact with traditional news organizations and consume news?

Renée Kaplan, Financial Times

All traditional news media organizations are converging into creating journalism for different platforms. Although the Financial Times is still mostly about written content, we are increasingly thinking about all the different digital formats useful to people in their habits for consuming news. For example, we are producing audio pieces.

Increasingly people are doing many tasks at once: they’re listening to a podcast in their car on their way to work, or their subway commute via headphones, or at home when they’re cooking using connected speakers like Google Home, or Alexa. Increasingly, those new users’ needs are what is driving change and innovation in the industry.


Recently the Financial Times hit one million paid subscribers. What kinds of challenges come with this achievement?

Reaching a million subscribers is fantastic, symbolic and commercially very important. But now we need to keep that million and we need to keep the 800 thousand subscribers that we had had before we reached that million.

We really need to engage the readers more than ever before, because growth will continue. We now know how to do that. But now, we have to understand the needs of the new readers we just acquired. Are their interests, needs, behaviors similar to or different from the ones of the core readers that we’ve had for many years? How are we delivering our coverage? What are the format, experiences, products, stories, voices, and the different volumes of the different topics that we are covering? We really want to know this million, what’s valuable to them. That’s what we are going to be focused on, at least for the next six months.

The media landscape is changing rapidly. On one hand, everybody is consuming news every day, whether it is from social media channels or from traditional news providers. On the other, there is so much talk about the disappearing role of a journalist, with many people saying that everybody can make the news. What are your thoughts on that? Is there still space for quality journalism?

It really brings us back to the absolute core value of what any news organization, traditional or startup, can produce. And that is just one thing: high-quality, fact-based, reported, fact-checked and edited journalism. It relates to any news media organization, whether it’s traditional, 130-year-old, like the Financial Times, or brand new, like any of the startups launching all over the world today. If the most traditional product of all – professional journalism –  isn’t at the core, then that organization is not something which can be called journalism.

Can anybody create a content start-up? Sure. Do they have a chance of succeeding? Probably. And that is one of the complexities of the digital content landscape today, where unfortunately, commercial success is not necessarily connected to quality. But do you know what? Commercial success has never been exactly related to quality.

Bad journalism, tabloids, or frankly defamatory journalism – that has always been part of the landscape. So in reality, quality journalism is important today and I think it’s now even more important than ever. Because now, when you look at the public policy landscape, politics in Europe and in the US, it’s increasingly about the awareness of the need to support and possibly even create regulations that support quality journalism. Now, more than ever, there is space for quality journalism.

You started your career as a journalist – you’ve worked for CNN, CBS, and France24, among others. Now you work for the Financial Times, but you are not on the content creation side anymore, but rather the audience engagement side. How do you find the journalism experience helpful in this role?

I think it’s important to say that I’m still 100% a journalist. And I actually couldn’t do this job if I weren’t a journalist. Journalism, and a great story, and the understanding of what makes great journalism is still very much at the heart of engaging audiences. We’re only as good as the great journalism we create, but we’re creating it now in a landscape where unfortunately quality journalism or just journalism is not enough. We now need to have a strategy to make sure that we are able to reach and engage the right audience for that journalism. But it really starts with an understanding of the DNA of really good stories, of how newsrooms and journalism work, what is important and what drives journalists, what makes them get up in the morning and what motivates them, the things they are sensitive to. If I didn’t know that, I would not be in this role, which is essentially about creating strategies that help FT journalism reach and engage the right audiences. Even though I am not actually producing broadcast pieces, articles, or radio anymore in a direct fashion, I still am a journalist.

What would be your advice to people considering a career in modern journalism?

Think broadly and do not think traditionally. There’s definitely still space to learn how to report, produce, tell, publish and distribute a great story.

For me journalism today is more about this holistic process, almost like a production chain. About 20 years ago you could do just one part of that – you could just go to a university, or not, learn how to report and produce the story, whether it’s written, or audio or video and that’s all you had to do. It’s now much more interesting and fascinating to be a journalist. It can be all of those things – from conception to distribution, promotion, and interaction with the audience, or it can be just one piece of this chain. Think more broadly about which part of that inspires you most. And finally, try yourself in every part of that process, from the conception of an idea, all the way down to how to make it commercially viable. Exposing yourself to every aspect of the production chain of a great story is vital to succeeding in journalism.

Interview by Joanna Socha

Edited by Diana Asatryan

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