Reports of newspapers' demise may be exaggerated: FT

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
Financial Times: See strong digital and print demand

Conventional wisdom has it that newspapers are in their death convulsions, but John Ridding, CEO of the Financial Times Group, said his company may never have been stronger.

"We have 629,000 people paying to read the FT across (all) channels. And that's the highest it's ever been in our 125-year history. More than half of that is digital, but print is still pretty important," Ridding told CNBC on Thursday.

To be sure, the statistics for the print industry are grim. According to a Gallup poll in July, 55 percent of Americans get their news from television, 21 percent from the internet and 6 percent from radio. Print accounts for just 9 percent.

(Read more: Newspaper bane: Nobody reads the stories)

But Ridding remains confident.

"People are looking at different formats for different usages at different times of the day. Quite often in the morning they use the newspaper for bigger analytical pieces and for shorter, sharper takes, readers are going online," he said. "The real phenomenon is mobile. We're seeing tremendous growth in our mobile usage. The multi-channel strategy we've developed is really giving us a lot of momentum."

The secret to the FT's success might be swimming against the tide telling publications they need to be free online.

(Read more:Newspaper anyone? Asia's most avid paper readers)

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke reads the Financial Times during the annual International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington, October 12, 2013.
Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

"That was one of the big challenges we had when we launched the subscription model online. People thought we were a little bit crazy," Ridding said, but he added, "It makes no sense to say you can charge for print and not online."

"Quality journalism costs money. We have a global newsroom of very highly trained, very experienced, very smart people. They don't come free. We needed to get a return on our investment," he said. "We were pretty confident we should be charging online and it worked."

Indeed, it may indicate the newspaper industry's struggles may result from the decision to offer its products online without charging readers.

(Read more: Billionaires' latest trophies are newspapers)

"People will pay online for anything that they value, whether it's a product, whether it's information," he said.

Ridding added that charging readers has become more important as print advertising sees a structural decline.

Spending on print advertising revenue has declined from a high of $49.4 billion in 2005 to around $22.3 billion in 2012, according to data from the Newspaper Association of America and Pew Research Center.

(Read more: Newspapers find ways to beat falling ad revenue)

But he noted the FT has been able to use the data from its digital operations to provide its advertisers more information about the success of their campaigns.

Even as traditional newswire services such as Reuters and Dow Jones are laying employees off, the FT has waded toward their traditional territory, launching fastFT, which offers real-time market coverage, in May.

In early October, Reuters said it would cut around five percent of its newsroom jobs, while Dow Jones eliminated jobs as its parent News Corp. prepared to separate its news and entertainment businesses earlier this year.

FT considers fastFT's launch a success as it is driving mobile readership and as around a third of readers stay on the site for more than 10 minutes.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter