Interviews – Media – David Bell

David Bell is media giant Pearson plc’s director for people and chairman of the Financial Times. He tells us that the best journalists are inquisitive, individualistic and therefore ‘somewhat irritating’. Bell talks about his own career both as a writer and a recruiter and gives tips on how to land a job at Pearson

Where did you start your career?
I spent two and a half years as a journalist on the Oxford Mail which I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

What kind of things did it teach you?
Writing journalism is part skill and part instinct. You can’t teach the instinct. But you can teach the skill. The Oxford Mail taught me the skill. My old news editor used to say: ‘If you write a story the first paragraph has got to say what is the most important thing, and the second paragraph has to say who said it, where, and why. The third paragraph has got to contain the three next most important things, and then you go back to the most important thing.’

Is there any distinction between writing for the web and writing for a newspaper?
No. At the Financial Times we have integrated our web operation with our newspaper so our news operation is a single operation. Some write for the paper one day and for the website the next. There is a common editing core and a common approach. What’s important is authority, credibility, accuracy, reliability.

How do you see the balance shifting between print and online journalism?
There have been a series of communications revolutions over the last hundred years – radio after newspapers, television after radio, video after cinema – and the first assumption has always been one was going to knock out the other. What’s actually happened is nobody’s knocked anybody out – the market has expanded instead. For us at Pearson, the Internet has produced the biggest growth in new subscriptions to the Financial Times and the fastest worldwide circulation growth ever.

How does Pearson compete for graduates in this period of dotcom fever?
With difficulty. We are striving to be a clicks and mortar company. We’ve got brands that are old and of which we are very proud – and the way to screw it up is to pretend that you are a wizzy dotcom business. We’re not. However we would fail if we didn’t provide our people with systems allowing them to do what they want to do.

We have launched an internal website where anyone in the company can send in ideas. The board read all the emails. We have a $15 million fund to support exciting new business plans. Most of the people who have come up with ideas have never written a business plan before. They may or may not want to take charge of their project if it is put into action. They might end up running it.

Are Pearson’s traditional media businesses threatened by the Internet?
All the evidence points to the contrary. Each technology delivers a slightly different way of doing things. The Internet is interactive, immediate, individual-centered and therefore plays to people in a certain mode, at a certain time in a 24 hour cycle. Television and newspapers play to people similarly at different times for different reasons.

How will the Internet affect Pearson’s book publishing empire?
The net is a phenomenal opportunity for Pearson. As the world’s biggest educational publishers, we foresee a time when it will be possible to teach people using the Internet – because it is interactive, it can be tailored to individuals, it can go anywhere. It is offering us a chance to do things in an entirely new way, to reach an entirely new group of readers, advertisers, customers, alongside our traditional ones.

To what extent does Pearson intervene in the running of its individual companies?
All the board and Marjorie Scardino [Pearson’s chief executive officer[ and I are temperamentally opposed to homogenized businesses. We would not want to leverage the Pearson brand in the sense of making each of our companies the same. Pearson is on their side and has the same values.

As chairman of the FT group do you influence the content of the Financial Times?
The great thing about this company as owner of the FT newspaper is that it has never leaned or put pressure on the editor. For example, when the FT supported the Labour Party in the 1992 election some of our readers went completely mad, but I as the management, and Pearson as the owner, never discussed it with the editor. We never have. It’s entirely a matter for the editor.

What do you look for in employees?
We want people who are really turned on by this process of development and who absolutely believe in turning ideas into products. Above all we want people who are creative, who like ideas and like words, who like what words can be turned into.

What qualities do you need to be a journalist?
We look for people who are inquisitive, who understand that all news is fundamentally about people, who don’t ever accept what they are told, who are therefore rather individualistic – and as a result, somewhat irritating. People who believe that a newspaper must represent all sides of an issue and be fair, but will also lift up stones and find out what’s underneath.

What advice would you give potential recruits?
Firstly carefully research the company you are going to see. Never get caught out by someone asking what the circulation of the FT is and not knowing – it’s surprising how often that happens.

Secondly, be prepared to do anything. Recognize that when you are starting out the hours will be long and the work can be rather prosaic – but that’s the way the world is.

Finally, be interested in the world and what’s happening. Have ideas and thoughts about what’s happening. Be proactive rather than reactive.

You are quoted as saying you want to make Pearson ‘the best employer in its sector in the world’. As Pearson’s director for people, what is your secret in managing human resources?
Our task is firstly to demonstrate we are listening to our staff and secondly, that we are acting on what they say.

I have no background in human resources at all. I hate the phrase human resources because it implies human beings are just the same as any other resource. They are the only resource! We have to find, to inspire, to keep and reward the best people we can.

We now have a graduate programme in all of our companies. Commercial and editorial programmes, which have both been very successful. We’ve retained a high proportion of the programme’s graduates for a long period of time – a mark of its success.

Marjorie Scardino is a very good leader and very charismatic. She communicates with everybody through emails addressed ‘dear everyone’. She replies herself to the emails she receives.

We have begun to be a more inspirational company, but we still have a way to go. One of our goals is to help as many of our staff as possible to own shares in our company. Three thousand people at Pearson now have stock options; three years ago it was 144.

Many more of our managers have bonuses than two years ago – we are now very committed to paying by results. Our senior management has a reward plan that enables them to make large amounts of money.

One area that can be improved is what’s called ‘work-life’ – employing people in a sufficiently flexible way to enable them to have babies or whatever. Also, diversity – our company does not represent society as a whole. We have a task force working on it now.

Is there anything you would have done differently in your career?
No. I have been very lucky. For example, some years ago I switched from the advertising side of the paper to the commercial side when I accepted the job of advertising director. My friends thought I’d gone mad, but the job taught me a lot about the business and management side. It was important to learn about the interconnection between the editorial and commercial sides of a creative business – you can produce the best content in the world, but that doesn’t matter if you can’t sell it.

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