TOKYO/LONDON – For all the assurances by Nikkei executives last week that the Financial Times will retain editorial independence under their ownership, some staff at the London-based business daily are fretting about everything from journalistic standards to holiday allowance.
Most acquisitions cause workforce anxiety, but some of Japan Inc.’s overseas buys have foundered on perceived differences in corporate culture and values.
Nomura’s cut-price purchase of parts of failed Wall Street broker Lehman Brothers during the financial crisis caused tension and resentment, and hit the bottom-line. Gung-ho Lehman bankers champed at Japanese conservatism and bureaucracy, while Nomura veterans chafed at how much Lehman staff were paid.
Nikkei promises a far more hands-off approach to the FT.
“We will respect each other’s editorial direction and newsroom culture. If there are problems, we will discuss them frankly and make efforts to find points of agreement,” President and CEO Naotoshi Okada said Friday.
On the business side, Nikkei and the FT have much in common. Both are hard-wired to the financial world, seeking to “scoop” rivals on corporate and economic news, and both have been around long enough to be seen almost as part of the establishment.
“The Nikkei is . . . more pragmatic, business-focused and prides itself on the quality of the information it gets, particularly from Japanese corporate sources,” said Peter Tasker, a prominent Tokyo-based analyst at Arcus Research. “The FT is sort of sui generis (unique) in the UK. Accuracy and detail and quality of argument are more important (to the FT) than they would be for other (British) newspapers.”
Others, however, noted the potential for cultural collision.
Michael Woodford, the former CEO who exposed an accounting scandal at Olympus Corp. in 2011 by working with the FT, said Japanese media is “deferential and almost reverential to powerful forces,” and he wouldn’t have taken the Olympus story to the FT if it had been owned by Nikkei.
“I’m deeply troubled that the subliminal effect of being owned by Nikkei will make it (the FT) less willing to publish articles critical of corporate Japan, which includes the Nikkei,” he said.
Those concerns were echoed by one FT journalist in London, who asked not to be named. “With Nikkei, there are obvious concerns. They didn’t do a great job exposing Olympus.
“There’s a different culture in journalism and also in the readership in Japan. That question might be more acute for our Tokyo bureau. What happens when we have to be forceful and do our style of reporting on Japan PLC?”
Former FT editor Andrew Gowers said Nikkei’s long experience and tradition in financial newspapers makes it a good choice as buyer of the FT. However, he added, “this is a transition time. There are cultural differences between Japanese journalism and Anglo-Saxon journalism and it would be just good to have it acknowledged that the FT has its own way.”
For Nikkei and the FT, a meeting of those cultures is likely, for now, to not go far beyond the mutual publication of each others’ stories and a sharing of digital strategy.
Okada said there are no plans to cut jobs or merge bureaus, though he said separate Nikkei and FT bureaus might be brought under the same roof.
That may spook some at the FT.
“The FT is very good in terms of work/life balance, especially holidays,” said an individual familiar with the paper’s newsroom. “The Japanese are notoriously not. We get a starting six weeks’ holiday, and the Japanese have a rather different attitude to working hours.”
A previous, more limited, tie-up Nikkei had from the late 1990s with Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co., now owned by News Corp., was not a roaring success. The Dow Jones Newswires Tokyo bureau was put in a joint newsroom at the newspaper’s headquarters with staff from Nikkei QUICK wire service, but plans to forge a joint news operation were dropped.
Joint editorial meetings lapsed, with DJ journalists complaining of a lack of support and cooperation from Nikkei managers, recalled one former DJ staffer.
“I remember giving them a pre-publication WSJ scoop on the Federal Reserve so they could set it up to snap (alert) with us. The section chief put the story in his desk drawer,” the former staffer recalled.
On a more trivial level, tempers frayed among Dow Jones employees who were used to having chairs with armrests. At Nikkei, only senior staff had that luxury.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.