Inside FT Labs, the Financial Times’ skunkworks

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Like many publishers, The Financial Times used to treat its error page as an afterthought. Readers would land on when an article couldn’t be found. It was polite and had utilitarian value, but was drab and lacked personality.

Last year, however, after a staff-wide competition, the British newspaper rolled out a new 404 page that espouses a clever list of economic theories why the page wasn’t found. (“Laissez faire capitalism: We know this page is needed, but we can’t force anyone to make it.”)

The page is a result of a new unit: FT Labs. Labs is charged with tackling projects big and small that don’t fit into the normal development processes, like the 404 page, or long-term projects that don’t have an immediate application but are seen as worth exploring.

“We had quite possibly the worst 404 page in the world,” says Chris Gathercole, who heads FT Labs, an ongoing technology team at the British financial newspaper. “It just screamed ‘We don’t care’ to whoever got it.”

Gathercole, with three developers underneath him, is exploring business development in new or so-far untapped technologies like VR, Amazon Echo and audio, and bringing together disparate departments to work on things together.

In a place where “there’s lots of Whac-a-Mole,” Gathercole says, “we’re going to look for long-term things that serve everyone.”

Its work also could have implications for Japanese media giant Nikkei, which bought the FT in 2015, and which is looking at applying lessons from Labs to the rest of the company.

Projects that FT Labs has worked on have run the gamut. The FT had a way to let subscribers share articles with friends who don’t subscribe, but the process was clunky. So FT Labs built a way to let subscribers share an article using their own personal email.

FT Labs also was involved in part of the FT’s response to ad blocking. In that case, it created a feature where certain ad blocker users would see various words of an article blocked out. It was part of a test that began in July. Other test groups got messages asking them to whitelist the site or were just blocked from seeing the article altogether. Sometimes, the FT Labs team takes on the projects that fell through the cracks, like the FT’s 404 error page.

But things haven’t always been smooth sailing. FT Labs is still figuring out how to make sure the work it does gets off the ground and gets carried on elsewhere. Gathercole readily admits that Labs hasn’t always succeeded. When it built web-based screens to display content around the FT’s offices, the publisher’s in-house communications team adopted them as their primary way of disseminating news to its employees. The small Labs team didn’t have enough people to run them and continue to work on new projects, but it couldn’t just switch off the screens. Lesson learned: FT Labs is in the process of turning the screens’ operation over to another department.

“It got really awkward,” Gathercole said. “It’s a thing that happens at hackathons. People have the freedom to go crazy for a couple of days, but then it’s, what happens next?”

It’s hard to get something like FT Labs right, says Andrew Betts, the former head of FT Labs and now a technology consultant at the FT. Publishers tend to assign product teams to work on big projects, but those don’t allow for much creativity. Ideally, a labs team has creative freedom to discover the next big thing, but has a team in place to hand the baton to.

“The biggest problem is having to pick the right projects and making sure they won’t take over,” he says.

Even Betts admitted he “never got” the FT Labs’ haiku project, which discovered the accidental Japanese poetry hidden in FT articles, whereas another initiative, Big FT, digital billboards that display FT news, is ongoing and has made it to the monetization stage.

Having a team that operates with a loose mandate has other risks. FT Labs has wide latitude to do things that focus on the long-term, but that presents a delicate situation. “A lot of dev teams would love to operate the way we do,” Gathercole says. “We’re conscious of not becoming this group of happy smiling people while the dev people do all the hard work.”

To that end, the labs team is trying to support the dev team by being an incubator for their ideas. It’s also thinking about building things that have a measurable benefit, like increased ad revenue or subscriptions, in order to not “disappear off in an ivory tower,” as Gathercole put it.

But the team still enjoys relative freedom and stability, having a budget in place. “Things are changing so fast, I think the company realizes you can’t just focus on the now,” he said. “It helps to have a few pairs of eyes focusing on the horizon.”

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