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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Lionel Barber

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-05-02

"We're aggressively expanding in America," said Lionel Barber, managing editor of the United States edition of the venerable British newspaper, the Financial Times. "We've raised our profile here through some difficult times, such as a downturn in advertising."

"We're not Redcoats," Mr. Barber said, in an intriguing historical reference. "We're here to stay."

There's a certain elegance to his assertiveness. There's erudition in his conversation, and references to the Federalist Papers. There's a vignette or two about his interviews with President Bush, German Chancellor Schroeder, and other world leaders. There are suggestions of discreet meetings with Whitehall sources, including British ministers. There are anecdotes of exposes that revealed wrongdoing in high places.

"I've been very privileged, and very lucky to have had wonderful opportunities in journalism," Mr. Barber said.

Indeed, the tall and fit-looking Mr. Barber immediately conjures up in his interviewer's mind the image of the classic international correspondent - urbane, Oxford-educated, possessing a bespoke wardrobe, stints in Brussels, London and Washington, fluent in French and German, equally at ease in newsrooms, diplomatic salons and corporate boardrooms, as prominent on the society scene as on the broadcast-show and lecture circuit.

Mr. Barber, of course, is all of these things. Add to the mix, a wife, Victoria Greenwood, who's a criminologist, and two children, Dash - named after one of Mr. Barber's favorite authors, Dashiell Hammett - and Francesca. Add, too, the fact that he's won major journalistic awards, including Britain's "Young Journalist of the Year" in 1981, and fellowships at the Washington Post, the University of California at Berkeley, and the European University Institute in Florence.

Most of all, perhaps, there's the fact that the 50-year-old Mr. Barber is widely viewed as having made a hugely successful transition from an acclaimed reporter and foreign correspondent to being an editor.

While Mr. Barber did not volunteer the information, the reporter noted over lunch that he was marking two special anniversaries. Mr. Barber joined the Financial Times - or FT, as it's popularly known - exactly 20 years ago, after sojourns at The Sunday Times in London, and The Scotsman in Edinburgh, where he wrote investigative and business stories. He came to New York exactly three years ago to take over from Robert Thomson the American edition, which had been launched in 1997 by Richard Lambert, then the FT's editor.

Mr. Barber acknowledged that both Mr. Lambert and Mr. Thomson strengthened its editorial presence in America.

"It's very important to pay tribute to them," he said. "I've built on their work."

That modesty reflects an unaffected mien. The son of hard-driving Yorkshire journalist, Frank, he grew up in modest circumstances with his twin brother Stephen, who's now in finance, and younger brother Tony, now the FT's correspondent in Rome.

The four-fold growth in the FT's American daily circulation over the last 7 years to 132,000 today is due in no small measure to Mr. Barber's relentless efforts at enhancing the newspaper's coverage of this country by his staff of 65 in America, 45 of them based in New York.

"We're different," Mr. Barber said. "We're genuinely international, and we present news in a global context. We have correspondents in different parts of the world who work together so that we are able to offer excellent cross-border coverage. People expect the FT to offer analysis. We're concise. No story jumps to another page. Americans like that."

The American circulation of the FT, in fact, is now the same as its circulation in its native Britain. Worldwide, the FT prints 440,000 copies; its much-praised electronic edition - - has 80,000 paid subscribers, and gets 3.5 million unique visitors each month.

And were there surprises about his job?

"I'm pleasantly surprised at the access the FT enjoys at the highest levels on Wall Street, and in government," Mr. Barber said. "I'm also surprised at the amount of time spent on managing people. In this job, you have to work well with other people to get the best results. You can't do this on your own. You can't hand down edicts. You've got to be sympathetic to people's own situations. As an editor, you must also mentor and support young reporters. I suppose these are lessons about people, rather than surprises."

He first learned management lessons when the FT made him its news editor in 1998, after he'd spent 6 years in Brussels as the FT's chief European correspondent. "My wife said that Brussels was the right place to be at the time - and she was dead right," Mr. Barber recalled. "I covered the Maastricht Treaty; I came to understand the development of the European Union. I interviewed heads of government. I made lasting friendships."

The Brussels post had followed six years in Washington, where Mr. Barber made a name for himself covering the administration of President George H. W. Bush. The cold war had ended with the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union. The detritus of the Iran Contra affair was still around. Mr. Barber said he felt "the American press rushed to judgment - it was very fashionable to write off the foreign policy of the Bush Administration."

His approach was level-headed. "I made a deliberate effort to cultivate people, I went to top officials and said, 'You've really got to talk to us because through the FT you can reach a big and influential international audience,'" Mr. Barber said. "I never promised anyone anything other than a fair shake. And I think I made an impact in opening up foreign-policy sources for the FT."

His work in Washington and then Brussels was being closely followed at FT headquarters in London. The institution had a reputation for advancing bright young journalists since 1884, when its precursor, the Financial and Mining Times, was established. (The modern-day FT, distinguished by its pink newsprint, was formed in 1945 with the merger of two rivals, the Financial Times and the Financial News. In 2004, the FT Group had sales of $399 million.)

"I was ready for a management position," Mr. Barber said about his return to London from Brussels. In his job as news editor, he got the opportunity to set the agenda for the FT's daily report. He was then put in charge of developing the FT's European edition. Throughout this period, Mr. Barber said, he kept a special eye on America, a country that he admired for its open society and one that he wished to return to.

"I've never been one to plan my career - but I've always been determined to make the most of an opportunity," Mr. Barber said, referring to his return to America in April 2002. "I always tell younger journalists: Seize an opportunity, leave your mark."

And how did he see America now?

"I've always thought that America has essentially been a force for good in the world - the history of the 20th century bears this out," Mr. Barber said. "I'm somewhat troubled many people outside the US believe that's no longer the case. That, at least, is the perception. And while the American political system is extraordinarily robust, I worry that the system is being put under extraordinary strain. I'm also worried about the assault on judges, both physical and verbal."

In reviewing his remarkable journalistic career, was there something he felt was missing?

"It's a shame that my father didn't live to see me in this job," Mr. Barber said. Frank Barber, who transmitted his great passion for journalism to his son, died in 1999.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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