Succession planners in the corporate world should this week behold and praise the manner of the handover of the reins of the Financial Times editorship.
Lionel Barber stepped down and in his place Roula Khalaf will be taking over in January. If a newspaper is run like an army, with the Editor the general in command, this comms exercise was executed with military precision.
It was common knowledge for more than a year that Barber would be leaving. Longer in the post than the traditional 10 years, during his tenure the FT had been taken over by Nikkei, and moved to new headquarters to their historic base in Bracken House, back north over the Thames.
Four senior FT journalists were in the running – two men and two women – and it was made known widely to the FT’s stakeholders internally and externally who they were. Unlike much of business, the paper is reluctant to promote those from the outside to the top job.
Over a period of 18 months the Byzantine circles within circles of influence at the ‘Pink’un’ and their masters in the land of the rising sun would decide. One former reporter, on joining from Bloomberg said he had “absolutely no idea how the FT actually works”. But there’s a logic to this seemingly collegiate culture. It allows for a natural rise to the top of who is best, taking a prolonged period of time to debate and influence, arriving at a choice which most – if not all – agree upon and produce an apparently pre-ordained consensus.
It seemed inevitable this would be a woman. Why would the FT swim against the tide which has swept in Zanny Minton Beddoes at The Economist, Kath Viner at The Guardian, The Sun on Sunday’s Victoria Newton and Alison Phillips at The Mirror? Recent efforts to unearth corporate #MeToo misdemeanours under Barber perhaps paved the way for the selection.
The timing of the news meant the editor could execute a 6-week handover during the festive period with plenty of opportunities to give speeches to the great and good and leave elegantly in the new year.
Barber declared his stepping down with an announcement on Twitter, making public his internal note to staff, and 15 minutes later the new editor was announced. The usual flood of congratulations from journalists who had worked for Barber and presumably hoping to work for Khalaf followed. The key messages that this was a significant announcement in its 131 year history, and the paper was in great shape for the digital future having reached 1 million paid subscribers.
Does Khalaf’s appointment mean the days of the FT archetype – a slightly scruffy, jumper-wearing, affable, intellectual ex-Balliol college white male – are over? An American Lebanese with strongly held views on the Middle East, Roula Khalaf has never led a ‘big overseas job’, running the FT’s US operation, for example, but her background in Foreign rather than Companies and Markets mirrored that of Barber. Barber’s success and personal brand will be hard to follow, and he appears set for a glamorous new chapter in his career.
Her anointing may demonstrate what those in corporate comms sometimes suspect – that business journalism is a thinly veiled cover for hacks’ real interests – politics and international affairs. Challenges in the newspaper industry are manifest, from core audience disenfranchisement, attacks on free speech and the prospect of semi-automated news. The FT’s readership will wait to see if Khalaf is up to the job but if the manner in which her announcement is anything to go by, the paper is in good hands.