100-year-old Financial Times isn't budging from global focus. AN ELITE AUDIENCE

It's salmon-colored. It's edited abroad. And it costs $1 a copy. The London-based Financial Times is not your average newspaper, but then, it's not trying to be.

The daily, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last month, enjoys an elite audience in the United States. Although it is read most heavily in New York, the paper's US circulation is modest (less than 1 percent of the Wall Street Journal's circulation).

What distinguishes it from other business periodicals is its ``niche dealing with international business,'' according to Laurence Allen, the Financial Times's North American director and executive vice-president.

Though the paper has tripled its US circulation since 1985, most issues contain only one inside page of American news (from both North and South America).

The paper has six full-time writers in the United States - two watching the power flow in Washington, the rest (appropriately enough) watching the money flow in New York.

That would change if Rupert Murdoch were running the paper. The Australian publisher, who owns 20 percent of the Financial Times's parent company, said last month that he wants the FT to beef up US coverage and launch a special US edition that would ``attack'' the Wall Street Journal.

But the Journal's position is well entrenched. It has a 2 million-plus circulation that ``most recently ... has begun to creep up a bit,'' says J.Kendrick Noble Jr., a news-media analyst at PaineWebber Inc.

Financial Times sources see the two papers coexisting and serving individual audiences. Competition with the Journal apparently doesn't interest the British daily.

``We don't see it in those terms, and I say that honestly,'' Mr. Allen says. ``The cost of taking them on would be astronomical.''

Still, couldn't the paper make itself more attractive to an American audience if it cut back on international, and particularly European, news? Wouldn't it benefit from heavier coverage of the United States?

``It's a very interesting debate that goes on in the company on this issue,'' says Allen.

Whatever is being said behind closed doors, the paper so far has not budged from its global focus. In fact, that emphasis wins it heavy circulation among government people in Washington and at the United Nations, and praise from the business community.

``For me, it is a far superior international product than what I get in the Journal,'' says Charles Crane, a media analyst with Prudential-Bache. But, he adds, it's overpriced and ``perhaps a touch too esoteric.''

For example, fully half of the news section of one recent issue was devoted to the just-announced British budget - and most of the stories were the texts of official government statements on tax changes. Each day the paper's second section is devoted to exhaustive tables and reports on British companies, world stocks, currencies, commodities, and finance.

``The average reader is probably overwhelmed,'' Mr. Crane says.

At $365 a year (compared with $119 for the Journal), the FT does not come cheap. But demographics suggest that is not a problem for the US edition's readers. Besides being largely male (85 percent) and mostly American (72 percent), they are distinctly affluent ($138,000 average income, $1.4 million average net worth).

Allen defends the paper's cost: ``Pricing policy was deliberate, I am glad to say.'' Its upscale readers had the expense accounts to pay for it, he says, and FT research found that cutting the price in half would not double the sales.

What did improve - indeed, triple - circulation was timely delivery of the paper. The Financial Times had been flying some 6,000 copies to the US daily, but in July 1985 the management began beaming pages by satellite to a printing plant in Belmar, N.J.

Now the daily circulates 19,500 copies in the United States, though this is still a fraction of its 310,000 worldwide sales.

In Britain, the FT is printed at 9:30 or 10 p.m., London time. Thanks to a favorable difference in time zones, it's off the presses in New Jersey by 5:30 the night before the issue date.

Trucks are loaded with papers for readers in New York and Washington, and the rest of the copies are whisked to the Philadelphia airport and flown to 18 US cities for hand delivery the next day. In Los Angeles, says Allen, the FT is in the hands of subscribers before breakfast.

As for why the paper clings to its distinctive pinkish tint of newsprint, which was adopted in 1893 to distinguish it from a rival business daily, Allen says, ``We really didn't think we had an alternative. There is a cachet attached to that color.''

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