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The FT’s Asia coverage: Q&A with the FT’s Asia editor, Robin Harding

Robin Harding quote
Robin Harding quote
Robin Harding quote
Robin Harding quote
Robin Harding quote

This is the first of a two part series, where we discuss the FT’s Asia network with Robin Harding. In part one, we hear about Robin’s career from finance to journalism and learn more about the Asia editorial team and network.

The FT’s Asia network is headed up by Robin where he steers coverage across the region and manages the FT's award-winning network of correspondents. All whilst leading on strategic priorities and helping project the FT as a distinctive and authoritative voice in Asia.

Please tell us a bit about yourself and your work at the FT.

Robin Harding: I joined the FT — what is it now? — 16 years ago. I joined as a Peter Martin fellow. Peter Martin was former deputy editor of the FT and sadly died relatively young and the fellowship was created in his memory. It ran for several years, and it mainly recruited people with an economics background to work on the leader writing team in London.

So I started my career in London writing editorials for two or three years. Then I moved to Tokyo as a correspondent. A couple of years after that, I moved to Washington DC, and I was the US economics editor for five years, covering the Federal Reserve, the IMF, and the US economy more broadly. Then I moved back to Tokyo as the bureau chief.

Last summer I became the Asia editor where I'm responsible for all the editorial operations from Australia to Afghanistan. China, Japan, India, Korea, Southeast Asia also all fall in my area of responsibility.

What inspired your career in journalism and how has it evolved since joining the FT?

RH: My career began in finance where I worked in asset management and briefly in commercial banking, which I enjoyed a lot. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t culturally compatible with financial services organisations so when the opportunity arose to join the FT I entered through the fellowship program.

In my journalism career, I've bounced between being an opinion writer, that's where I started off in editorials and being a news reporter. My fairly extensive background in economics and finance has helped my news reporting to the fact that I can understand the kind of stories that FT readers care about and make sure we provide a level of technical sophistication and depth that our readers expect.

Tell us about your role as the FT's Asia editor.

RH: My role is 50% journalism and 50% management, so a mixture of two sides. So from reporting and writing, I write a monthly column about Asia, however it's really unpredictable what will come up on a daily basis.

Most of the time journalists can go and do their own thing but sometimes I need to manage a range of fairly exotic crises. For example: is it safe to send a journalist into Afghanistan? What’s the plan if we’re having issues with a government in a specific region? What if there’s an issue with some of our reporting?

Other than yourself, who is in the Asia editorial team and network?

RH: So we have a significant network in Asia and a real Rolls Royce quality network too. We have eight full correspondents on the mainland plus another three in Hong Kong, plus a team of researchers and support staff, which takes our total China complement to about 20, led by Tom Mitchell, the Beijing bureau chief, who is a veteran China correspondent.

So we're becoming a more Asian network in Asia as well and that just brings even greater strength because it brings a whole extra layer of local knowledge and local contacts.

We have significant operations in Japan. India, South Korea, Australia, Singapore and we have correspondents in Thailand, Pakistan, trying to think if I'm missing somewhere, I almost certainly am!

Most of our people in these countries are linguists who speak the local language, and often have long experience in that country. Increasingly we also have local staff who have become full journalists and we hope to promote further.

How have you seen the editorial team change and evolve?

RH: The team is becoming more and more Asian and that’s important. We just appointed Kana Inagaki as Tokyo bureau chief and she'll be the first Japanese woman to head our Japan coverage. We have reporters like Sun Yu in China, who is a superb correspondent with an amazing ability to report on what's going on inside China. So I'd say that's a very important shift in the network.

On a slightly longer timescale, the weight of China is growing. If we went back 20 years, the FT’s coverage in Japan and China would be roughly of equal size. Now in reality it's very heavily weighted to China which reflects what’s happening in the world.

So fostering the next generation of correspondents who have deep knowledge of Asian countries is also part of my job.

Much of the shifting and changing we do matches what’s happening in our regions and where the big stories are. For example, I imagine in decades ahead, as the Indian economy becomes more significant globally, we’ll grow much bigger there. But that is a very long term perspective, we need depth and understanding of these countries.

Tell us a bit about how you collaborate with other regional and global editorial teams?

RH: FT editorial culture is always described as being extremely collaborative and collegiate. It surprises people when they come in from the outside exactly how real that is.

We collaborate in so many ways. Whether we’re working in little email groups around themes or stories and linking correspondence around the world, collaborating is a big part of the FT’s commitment to moving people around the world.

I’ve been a reporter in London, in Washington DC and reported from Tokyo and most of my colleagues in the region have worked in multiple countries too. This helps ensure all journalists know each other and it creates really deep networks which helps with the collaborative writing process too. More and more our readers will see joint bylines from Asia as a very large number of our articles will have more than one reporter collaborating on the piece.

How do you see the FT’s Asia network of journalists expanding in the future?

RH: Asia is becoming an ever bigger share of the global economy. So more and more of the important stories are going to happen in Asia and we’ll want to have more correspondents here to cover it all.

We’ll see these journalists as a ‘semiconductor correspondent’ not necessarily a ‘Tokyo correspondent’ or ‘Taiwan correspondent’.

In the future, what is more likely to happen is that readers will see a more specialist correspondent based in Asia, rather than geographic or regional correspondent. I’m not very keen on putting flags on the map for the sake of it. It will be interesting to see what will happen down the line and I expect to see more technical specialist correspondents being based in Asia.

Through your work, how do you encompass a global perspective, whilst focusing on the FT as a distinctive and authoritative voice in Asia?

RH: Our readers are global and whenever anything happens in any country, our priority is to explain why this is important and why it matters to everyone — from a manager in Missouri, a trader in London to a bureaucrat in Berlin. So having that context is core to what makes the FT unique and it requires all our correspondents to have a global perspective.

Our job is to help readers connect those dots and understand what’s going on.

For example, recently in Australia they cut the budget and fuel duty and the same thing happened in the UK just weeks before. Our job as journalists is to connect the dots between those events. As a result of the UK’s events, this will help an Australian reader to understand what just happened in their own country. While the Australian reader will shed new light on what happened to the UK for a UK reader and both will be able to see that the same global pressures are playing out in their country — that’s how global and local perspectives work together.

How have you seen the importance of Asia coverage grow within the FT and why is this important to our subscribers?

RH: Quite simply, Asia contains a large majority of the world's population and it’s already the biggest region of the world economy and in 50 years time it will still be the biggest region of the world economy. It's where most of the growth in the world economy is and if you're in business or finance, then growth is what you care about — you need to go where the growth is.

One of the biggest stories, if not the biggest story of the 21st century is going to be the rise of China and the accommodations that it comes to or doesn't come to with the United States. Asia is where the 21st century will really take place, be it in business, technology, economics or in geopolitics. We’re just at the beginning of how big it's going to get and so I think that covering Asia will be at the very core of what the FT does, over the rest of my career and beyond.

In your opinion, why is it important that readers get a global perspective on news stories?

RH: You’re going to get things very wrong if you don’t have a global perspective. In almost every case, understanding that global perspective and getting your news from a global perspective is going to help you to understand what's going on in your own country better than you know.

If you just observe the goldfish bowl from the inside, you think that this goldfish bowl is the extent of the world. You go outside that goldfish bowl you'll find that the rules may be very different. So that's why I'd say it's always best to have a global perspective and I certainly believe that the FT provides that better than pretty much anyone else.

Discover more from Robin here and the FT’s Asia network here.

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