The new editor of the FT has struck a blow for diversity. But are women reaching the industry’s summit only in time to see print slip away?

Despite its pink hue, the Financial Times has always been the epitome of the old white male business establishment. But not any more. In January this year, Roula Khalaf became the title’s first female editor and, in one of her first interviews in the role, she revealed she is determined to spread diversity more widely at the title. In the last few years, the FT has had a big push around gender and currently has gender targets of 50 per cent female reporters, editors and experts quoted in stories. “We have company-wide targets around gender and they’re about 40 per cent female in senior leadership levels this year. We want to get to half. Some of the leadership groups were already at the target and on another we will reach the target by the end of the year.”

But this is only the beginning. Under Khalaf, new targets are being brought in in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and the killing of George Floyd in the US. “Our targets on BAME are 20 to 22 per cent next year or the year after, but I want to set new targets in the newsroom and that’s one of the things I will be working on. We only started tracking this last year…”

How many BAME journalists does she currently have on her staff ? “Very few. On the editorial side, very, very few. It’s tragic that it is the aftermath of the George Floyd killing that is making us focus on this because it’s something that we should have been working on harder in the past. We have several initiatives on the trainee and internship level, and that’s been good. But if we are going to make a difference, if we are going to move the needle, it can’t just be at trainee and young talent level, it has to be at every level of the organisation. We can’t wait 20 years – we’re not going to wait 20 years to have a black assistant editor. So we have got to start recruiting new people at every level of the organisation.”

To show how serious she is about this, Khalaf revealed that she intends to appoint a talent acquisition manager to advise not just on recruitment with a more diverse brief, “but also raising awareness about the importance of diversity within the newsroom”. She explains that this governs lists of words to use and not to use: “When you use the word ‘riot’, say, and when ‘protest’. We have a lot of work to do. We have targets – I like targets.”

Given the current levels of diversity within the industry – optimists put the number of BAME editorial staff at about 5 per cent – this would be a major step change. It is a subject Khalaf feels passionately about because of her own background. “I’m very global. I grew up in Lebanon but went to a French school, then I went and studied in the US [Syracuse and Columbia universities] and then I moved to London, but I also covered the Middle East for a long time.”

She certainly sees herself as a “citizen of the world”. I am interested to know where she thinks of as  home. “London. We have Chelsea season tickets. I remember Theresa May talking about citizens of nowhere and I wrote a column saying I am a citizen of nowhere because I am comfortable in different settings. In Paris, I feel comfortable because I speak French fluently. Ditto in Lebanon, because I speak Arabic fluently, and I feel comfortable in the US as well as I lived for a long time in New York, which I always feel is a second home.”

Khalaf covered the Arab Spring for the FT and won a foreign reporter of the year press award in 2011. “I think in a very international way, which was why working at the FT was always my target. But I also think that because I grew up in conflict, that helped me to cover many conflicts. The big story is what attracts me – and I know exactly how to run it.”

She describes her news editor at the FT as the “master of the orchestra” and describes herself as the “director”. “I direct.” What does that mean? “I set the direction of the story. I’m the one who’s reading a lot, talking to people, so I know when the story is moving. From week to week, the story has moved and you have to know exactly what it is and what the readers want.” Every conference begins with a look at the data, which they assess for patterns. For instance, currently interest in Brexit is rising again. Is there ever a clash between her journalistic instincts and what the data is saying? “I get more interested when the instincts of me and my team don’t correspond to what the data is telling us. But I can tell you more often than not you know what readers want to read.” She smiles. “I have always been attracted by the big story.”

That is lucky, since this is certainly the age of the massive global story. Under Lionel Barber, the former editor, the FT was decidedly anti-Brexit in its coverage, banging the drum for Remain and running numerous stories about the huge risk to UK plc if we were to withdraw. What does Khalaf see as the biggest threat to UK plc – Covid-19 or Brexit?

“What a combination. Not only will we have to deal with Brexit, because we will not have a transition extension so there will be Brexit by the end of the year, but I definitely think Covid is the biggest threat. It will leave a lot of scarring and we don’t yet know what the recovery will look like. What we do know is there’s going to be a lot of suffering – a lot of people without jobs, companies that will not survive this, sectors which will be struggling for years to come. The repercussions of Covid will be with us for a very long time. We have to first diagnose the problems before we can even start thinking about solutions. So if you add Brexit to that, and the uncertainty of Brexit, and what kind of deal we end up getting…” At this point, there is an uncharacteristic pause before she recollects herself.

The pink ‘un gets a tinge of green

“My understanding is that the deal that the government is now seeking is a pretty limited trade deal. Hopefully, we will be able to get that. Without a deal, the pressure on business will be immense. But even if we do get a deal, it is unlikely to include services, which are the largest part of the UK economy – so any deal will only be the first building block of the future…but I do think that, for both sides, Covid-19 does focus the mind. Both sides recognise there’s no point in adding to the burden of companies at this time.”

Khalaf has been a long-term activist on climate change and is encouraged that much of the post-Covid stimulus packages “are tied to the greener economy so I think that on the issue of climate change we may very well get faster progress”, which might be a tiny silver lining to a very large grey cloud.

She admits that when she took the job as deputy editor to Barber, she was warned by many colleagues that it was the kiss of death to her career “because the deputy rarely gets the prize”. How does she feel about being the paper’s first female editor? “Well, I was mentored and trained for the job by Lionel Barber and we’re similar in the way we think about stories. I think the difference in being a woman is one of style. My style is more casual, which people notice and, I hope, appreciate, and I have different interests. I was told when I was setting out that I was too softly spoken and that that would not be good for my career. What that essentially meant, I think, was that I wasn’t a man.”

Do people react differently because she is a woman? “I remember very clearly when I was deputy editor and was taking conference and one day I was late and I said to everyone it was because my son just wouldn’t go into school that morning and had a tantrum. And several women emailed me afterwards and said it is so nice of you to have said this because this is how we feel, and they appreciated that I had similar experiences.”

It is often in talking about their own lives that female leaders can inadvertently have a powerful effect. When I interviewed Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, earlier this year, she said that she’d made a throwaway comment about leaving at 5.30pm to go home and have supper with her kids. A few weeks later, she received a bouquet from all the women at Yahoo, who said they were now leaving at 5.30 to see their children. They reckoned if it was okay for Sheryl, it was okay for them too. Khalaf agrees. “I suppose people take it as signalling that it’s fine to be late because you had a problem with your kid. But also that it is fine to take time off to go to school to see their teachers or go to their concerts. At the FT,
both men and women do this and maybe women feel more comfortable now.”

It is notable that over half of our national newspapers – seven out of 15 – are now edited by women, up from only one or two a few years ago. As well as Khalaf, Alison Phillips is editor of the Daily and Sunday Mirror, Victoria Newton is editor of The Sun, Emma Tucker is editor of The Sunday Times, Katherine Viner is editor of The Guardian, and Emily Sheffield has become editor of the Evening Standard. It is a shame that so many have reached the top jobs just as the financial guts are being ripped out of journalism – on some titles, print advertising since the start of the Covid crisis is down 80 per cent. Enders Analysis says revenues are down £1billion this year, that “journalism is on the precipice” and many media groups are feeling the squeeze. The Guardian recently announced sweeping cuts to its flagship Saturday edition and the loss of 100 staff, and Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News UK (owners of The Times, Sun, etc) has also warned of a round of redundancies to come. Meanwhile, Reach, owner of the Mirror, has made drastic cuts and the Evening Standard becomes ever thinner. Circulations have also been hit, with some falling 50 per cent because of the lack of availability during the Covid crisis. This dramatically affects print advertising revenue and cover price income on which most newspaper groups are still reliant.

What does this mean for the clutch of new female editors? Academic Mirella Visser, author of The Female Leadership Paradox, writes about a phenomenon in the business world called the “glass cliff ”. Researchers at Exeter University concluded that more women than men get appointed to high-risk positions: “the experiment pointed toward women being the preferred choice when a company is in trouble”, the study found. The Glass Cliff thesis is that women get the top job when times are rocky and then get the blame when things get worse. It is perhaps unfortunate that such a great crop of women have taken the helms of all these newspapers at a point of peak financial jeopardy for the newspaper industry. One very senior woman I spoke to said: “It’s fantastic to have all these female editors, but are they going to get the blame when, due to conditions outside their control, some of these titles fail?”

Writing’s on the wall for print newspapers

Khalaf too shares industry concerns about the future – even at the FT, where their million paying readers (paying up to £30 a month) are supported by lucrative employer-funded subscriptions because of the specialised financial content. She agrees that it is harder for other news groups that don’t have the FT’s specialist content advantage. “The news industry has been in crisis for a long time and the pandemic is only exacerbating that crisis. We are in for a tough time and those that survive will be the ones that already have a very good business model which they can build on. I fear we will see a lot of titles not surviving. This is already happening with the new digital start-ups which are having difficulties because you cannot survive on digital advertising.”

While the Covid crisis has seen more readers come to the FT site to read digitally (a trend mimicked across the industry in a rare beacon of light), raising digital revenues, there have been several days when even the FT news section has been bereft of any advertising at all.

Is there a future for FT print editions Monday to Friday? Khalaf shakes her head. “If you’d asked me pre-Covid if there would still be a print edition in the week in 10 years, I would have said yes, definitely. Now I don’t know. With every shock to advertising, less of it comes back, or you start again at a lower level. So every news organisation now needs to ask itself the question: how long will you have print? When it comes to the weekend, that is different. I’m confident there is advertising to support that for decades to come.”

The bigger, more existential question in a world of fake news and proliferating bogus information, she says, is that “people have to pay for good journalism. There is no other answer. I am worried about the demise of local journalism and am very supportive of new initiatives and philanthropic ventures which are trying to keep it afloat”.

What about the risk that quality information becomes another asset of the rich and the elite – leaving the general public at the mercy of fake news, with all the danger that poses for democracy? She cites the FT’s programme to provide the paper free to schools. “But what you cannot do is make your content free. You will not have a newspaper or a news organisation if you give your content away. You cannot survive on digital advertising. You have to pay for quality journalism, or you’re not gonna have it,” she says firmly.

Our conversation has taken a rather depressing turn. Given the number of young journalists listening in, I ask what advice she would give to a junior hack starting out now. Is journalism still a profession worth entering? Khalaf nods vigorously, eyes aflame. “Yes, this is a profession with a future. It would be tragic to say that is not the case to young people. I am confident we will find the way to deliver enough pay. And what we absolutely need, given the spread of fake and mediocre news, is the journalists. It’s the best profession you will ever have – it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.”

If anyone can make the case for news worth paying for and the adventure of journalism, Khalaf can. She has the charisma and energy to make the difference and, unlike many of the other female editors, arguably the most rock-solid business case for her newspaper. At Women in Journalism, we wish her and all the other new female editors, for whom we have been calling for a quarter of a century, all the best for the future. Women have finally smashed through the glass ceiling in journalism – let’s hope they can conquer the glass cliff too.

Eleanor Mills is chair of Women in Journalism, which has run a series of interviews with the industry’s most senior women. Recent guests have included the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, Today programme’s Mishal Hussain, Channel 4’s Cathy Newman and The Guardian’s first female editor Katharine Viner. @EleanorMills @WIJ_UK

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