How is the Financial Times adapting its publishing strategy? The paywalled site has recently been seen making concessions to publishing on other platforms and social acquisition as a whole, but the business publisher’s plans are more experimental still, and could have wider implications for how a paywalled site interacts with an audience.

The FT’s journalist Sarah O’Connor recently underwent a ‘Week of Wearables’, during which she was fitted with wearable devices to navigate issues around employee/employer trust and the potential for personal data gathering. The experiment was widely reported for its implications for the blurring of home and work life, but how that content was sourced and delivered to the audience were just as important for the FT.

Sourcing a story

The FT’s interactive data journalist Robin Kwong told TheMediaBriefing that while the perception of the FT as an authoritative voice is vital to its brand, it was limiting to an extent the type of content that it could produce:

“One of the drivers behind why we decided to do that was instead of talking one-way at our readers all the time could we… use them as a journalism resource. So we wanted to test those out with this project. So what we decided in thinking about this was, what’s most useful in terms of reporting is actual stories rather than people’s opinions.”

To that end, the team put out a call to the community on reddit and LinkedIn for their own stories about wearables in the workplace, something Kwong says is practically revolutionary for the FT:

“”This is really experimental for us…we think there maybe are certain types of stories, certain types of coverage where we can use this approach to readers to say “we’re interested in looking at this, and at this stage we actually might not know everything there is to know about the subject”.

“We have done some reader polls, we’ve done asking readers in the comments of our articles before, but I think certainly not in this scale and in this public, prominent way of putting call-outs on other platforms and sites as well”.

Delivering the story

The other branch of the experiment, says Kwong, is seeing whether publishing some of the content Facebook is a good way of reaching an audience interested in content that is just outside the FT’s normal purview. Though the content on the page is more in line with your standard Facebook posts than in-depth articles, Kwong says that is deliberate:

“When we decided that we were going to open the doors and say ‘we’re going to be doing this and Sarah’s going to be posting updates’ we realised that what we’re describing is really what a person does on Facebook. So we thought ‘what if we just directly did it as a page on Facebook which isn’t something we’d seen anyone else doing before.”

But, Kwong says, that idea ran afoul of the same thing many publishers had misgivings about on Facebook – that the opacity of the social network’s algorithms can be a barrier to getting that content shared:

“It’s been really interesting because in some ways it’s been really frustrating! You realise the way we’ve done it, you have very little control over how Facebook’s algorithms serve up their updates to people who liked our page. 

“You would need to write each post as a self-contained unit, you can’t rely on a progression of posts. One of the things we were really surprised with when announcing it to the world, and putting it on Facebook, were how many people contacted us with examples. We had initially thought this would be one of the reasons we wanted to do the story in this way was because it’s a difficult story to tell through traditional reporting.”

But Kwong believes that the Facebook page was as much an exercise in creating ‘behind the scenes’ content for fans of the project as it was a standalone product. As he says, the official final product from a journalistic standpoint was the round-up article O’Connor published following the experiment. 

Regardless of the issues with Facebook’s algorithms, Kwong believes the FT is likely to conduct similar experiments in crowdsourcing and publishing in the future. For a site with a relatively stringent paywall, whose brand is built upon the absolute authority of its writers on a given topic, that’s an exciting proposition.