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Focus on FT Digital Business with editor Peter Whitehead

FT Digital Business is the Financial Times’ technology and management report, published sixteen times a year. Editor Peter Whitehead talks to FeaturesExec about the publication, PRs and his bands.

About the publication:

Who reads the FT Digital Business?
It used to be mostly CIOs and IT departments but now it’s the general business reader. We probably don’t go into IT deeply enough to satisfy the IT experts. Our role is to explain the importance of IT, how it is used and managed, and what it can do for businesses. Hopefully it will be of interest to the IT world itself because they need to know what the point of their role is and the point of the product and services they’re providing. We try to tie those two things together, helping businesses understand what technology is and what it can do, and helping IT departments understand why they’re doing the things they’re asked to do.

What subjects do you cover?
The section is focused on management as much as technology. It’s about how you manage technology and how you use it rather than the technology itself. We don’t look at technology companies themselves, for example, we don’t look at one company’s take over of another company, that’s handled in the company pages of the FT. So it is about what technology can achieve for business. We go from the heavy end IT subjects such as grid computing, virtualisation, storage, right through to customer management, e-recruitment and individual technology. Consumer technology isn’t really covered anymore unless it’s a business tool. It is about technology that will help you in your business.

What makes you different from the other publications in your sector?
We have a distinct audience; business decision makers. We try to write in a way that is readily understood and easily digestible by a non IT reader. Dedicated IT publications can go more deeply into these areas. Other publications focus on more consumer individual technology. How we differentiate is our target audience and the way we address the subject, we focus on use and management.

How many staff writers and freelance writers are there on the team?
At the moment I have between seven and nine main freelance writers and a few staff writers who write regular columns. I try to get as many staff writers as possible, although there are more freelancers than staff writers. There are also one or two industry contributors or one-off opinion pieces as well.

Who writes the synopses for the reports?
I write the synopses about three to three and a half months before publication.

Can you tell me a bit about the Digital Business Podcast?
It’s just over a year old, we started it last September and we’ve done about eighteen. We do sixteen print issues a year (ten in the first half of the year and six in the second) and we try to do the same number of podcasts. We tend to put up a new podcast one week before the next print issue is due. Last year what we covered was quite closely related to what we covered in the print issue. This year we have decoupled the podcast from the print issue in terms of subject matter. They still may coincide but they don’t necessarily coincide the way they did before. There may be a cross over between the two in content but most of it is original. It’s good because if we can’t include something within the paper we could possibly include it in the podcast.

Do you have anything new planned for FT Digital Business?
We reoriented it last September. I think it’s had quite a lot done to it in the last few years so any changes now will be incremental, introducing new columns and shifting the focus of the content into areas which are of current concerns.

About PRs:

Do you work closely with PRs or do you keep them at arm’s length?
There are some PRs who I’ve had a great working relationship with on particular projects but it is a bit of an unfair battle as it’s physically impossible to respond to everybody all the time. Some good ideas have come in where if I had more time and space I would include it. There are also things which I print out and keep, so at a quieter time I can take a look.

What are you looking for from PRs and what information is most useful to you?
We’re looking for ideas on how we can test drive different technology and chief executives of big companies (not necessarily IT companies) who will talk to us about their role in technology, how they relate to the IT world and IT director and what they know about technology. Research is always good and useful for any feature. If a PR is going to suggest a meeting between me and a CIO, chief executive or marketing director, they need to know what the purpose is and what both of us will get out of it. Recently I’ve had some great encounters with some really interesting people, who are full of ideas and with a story to tell.

Do you have a PR pet hate?
My biggest bugbear is when PRs ask about information that is available on Pretty much what I know is on Those who don’t understand what the section is about and ask pretty basic questions, if they had read it a few times they wouldn’t need to ask.

When and how should PRs contact you?
In terms of getting ideas for big pieces into the synopses, that should come to me and they shouldn’t expect to see much fruit from it for at least several months, unless it’s so compelling and immediate that we have to move quickly and get something in straight away. Because the schedule is fairly fixed it makes it difficult to accommodate late moving stories. What I’m after are ideas for long term pieces and features. However, we have regular topics that we cover, such as security, mobility and columns so that takes up most of the section and makes this approach quite difficult.

Should PRs contact writers directly?
I commission writers about six to eight weeks before publication. Once I have decided who is going to write what I update the synopses on Digital Business, then I send out an email message to everyone who is on my mailing list to let them know it is on there. From that point on it makes sense for the PR world to go directly to the writers rather than go through me as it just lengthens the process. If there is no name against the synopsis it’s because there is nobody allocated to it. As soon as I know I put it on Writers need facts and figures, and comments on the subjects they are covering so that type of thing can go to them.

What is your deadline for contributions?
In terms of ideas they should contact me as soon as they have got the idea, but if they have something relating to a contribution already on the schedule then they could go directly to the writer, at least six or seven weeks prior to publication or as soon as the writer’s name appears.

What advice do you have for PRs?
PRs should be aware that the writers and I get completely bombarded with emails for ideas, suggestions and pitches. It’s not always going to result in anything because there is such a huge volume of interest which is great but it’s a difficult management job so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a response. Unless it’s urgent don’t bother phoning because I communicate only by email. A lot of the success of PRs depends on luck and timing (it’s a seasonal thing; we go quiet in the summer and the middle of winter but the rest of the time is busy).

About you:

How did you become editor of FT Digital Business?
When the previous editor decided to leave to go into financial PR I had been FT Reports editor for about four years and wanted to get back into hands on writing and commissioning. I took over FT Digital Business in March/April last year.

What interests you most about your job?
It allows me to be creative and be a hands on journalist. I get to meet people and take ideas from people who are passionate about what they do. I am still constantly amazed at what business can achieve with technology. It keeps me fresh and I am constantly learning.

What was your first job?
I was a reporter at the Northampton Chronicle and Echo. I joined the FT in 1987 as a subeditor and held the positions of editorial training manager, deputy Weekend FT editor, and FT Reports editor before becoming editor of Digital Business.

Where do you expect to be in five year’s time?
I’d like to stay within the FT but I’m not sure if I’d like to go back into a management role. Maybe another role might crop up that is completely unexpected that I might go for. I’d like something to keep me fresh.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what one thing would you hope to have with you?
My guitar, so I’ll have time to learn to play better.

I love the picture, are you in a band?
Yes, I’m in two bands. The band in the picture is formed mostly of FT people. We play quite heavy rock music but we haven’t played much in the last year because the bass player went to New York and one of the guitarists retired so it ended up with just two of us, but we’ll carry on doing music. The second band is a group of us based in Surrey.

[img|jpg|Peter Whitehead performing in his band]
[lnk||_self|FT Digital Business]