Why I Read the FT
I scroll through a few news websites in the morning: BBC News, The Guardian, The Times, maybe the NYT if I’m feeling a bit cosmopolitan. But I always end up at the FT, and I stick around there for longer than I spend on the other sites combined (unless we’re counting Twitter as a news aggregator, in which case I spend much more time there). Why? I think the main reason is that there’s less bullshit in the FT. I’m not sure that that’s to do with the writers and editors being any more virtuous or committed to truth than the writers and editors at the other websites, nor is it to do with particularly good investigative journalists (although - the ‘Inside WireCard’ reads were amazing). It’s just because the incentive structure for the FT is different to other newspapers: the FT’s readers are people in finance who don’t really need to read stuff that will make them rage at the latest saga in the culture war, they just need to know where to put their money.
The Big Read on the FT today, as I write this on the 9th of February, is this piece about Luckin Coffee. The gist of the article is this: Luckin Coffee is China’s equivalent of Starbucks. In 2020, there was a big accounting scandal at Luckin Coffee that led to it getting delisted from the NASDAQ, executives being fired, and everything you might expect that comes along with fraud at a huge coffee chain. Because it was a Chinese coffee chain, it became involved in all sorts of political narratives about the risks of Chinese stocks to investors - US Senators gave haughty speeches about how American investors had been schmucks to put their money into Chinese corporates. But in the last year or so, Luckin has done pretty well - revenues have doubled, the stock price is up by about 50%, and now has about 6000 stores in China. It’s an interesting and representative FT piece - it isn’t politically charged (it’s certainly not a jeremiad against Chinese companies) while remaining relevant to geopolitics, it talks about Luckin’s comeback in great detail and covers all the relevant US/China stuff to give you the background, and if you were thinking about investing in Luckin, it would be a good overview of the company.
The top opinion piece in the Guardian today is one of Marina Hyde’s usual sneering, jokey pieces about the British government. I’m no fan of this government, but I’m not sure that Hyde’s pieces provide much value to anyone other than to Guardian readers who just want to hear their own thoughts about the government repeated back to them by someone who read English at Oxford. The piece ends:
As we move into act 25 of the shitshow, then, it’s worth course-correcting to remember that the only person responsible for messing up Boris Johnson’s life and dream job is Boris Johnson. The rest are just bit parts – whatever they’d like to think.
It’s probably true, it’s sort of funny, but it isn’t very interesting.
The top opinion piece in the Times today isn’t so bad (much better than a lot of the stuff in The Times) - it’s an op-ed by Daniel Finkelstein that combines an insight from a fairly interesting Cass Sunstein paper (basically showing that people prefer music that they’ve been told other people have rated highly) and applies it to the current PM (people only like the PM because they think he is uniquely talented and appealing, and that the magic wears off after repeated scandals). It’s pretty good, but reads sort of like someone who read the latest Sunstein paper and wanted to shoehorn it into an article somehow - if you were forecasting/gambling on whether Johnson will go soon, I’m not sure that this piece would cause you to update much. Compared to the FT piece, you just don’t learn much you didn’t already know.
I think Amber A’Lee Frost made a point about the FT/NYT a few years ago in this article for CJR:
The FT does not lose itself in the mire of myopic American culture wars, which very rarely breach the surface of material politics and/or economics … The New York Times is the flagship publication for liberal triumphalism; it holds the line of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”—the notion that all serious ideological conflict crashed to a halt with the suspension of the Cold War.
The reasons for this are the same as outlined above, the NYT (or Guardian, or Times, or whatever) has a strong financial incentive to push culture war stuff. The FT doesn’t. One thing I’ve realised is that the examples taken from The Guardian and the Times today aren’t actually about the culture war, and there is some temptation to remove them and replace them with some of the many, many, many articles in the Guardian/Times that are about culture wars or other low level fluff, but I’ll refrain from doing that to try and remain honest about what was on the top of the Comment section of those papers today. But I’ve spoken to people who work at The Guardian (and I’ve written a couple op-eds there myself!) and it’s definitely the case that those pieces about culture wars get lots of hits, especially ones that lead equally to people being delighted and being pissed off at the piece.
My case for the FT is basically this: FT readers don’t really care about the latest culture war saga, they care about the truth about political developments and news about companies. I don’t really invest in anything except an index fund, but news about businesses often captures more interesting stuff about politics than do comment pieces about politics that have no purpose other than in-group signalling. I got more out of the piece about Luckin Coffee than I would have from a dozen Guardian op-eds about how bad the government are, or Times op-eds about how bad transgender people are. The FT also has an incredibly good data team - John Burn-Murdoch has made some of the best visualisations and resources for COVID data that I’ve seen. Their coverage of geopolitics is consistently very good, as are their interviews (this one with Lea Ypi recently was great), as are their pieces on macroeconomics.