The Wire Service Lives

By | March 3, 2006

A powerful speech by Tom Glocer, CEO of Reuters, as blogged by BuzzMachine , indicates the news agency is headed by someone who really understands what’s going on. This is good news: I left Reuters 9 years ago, in part because I felt they weren’t interested in the Internet and didn’t understand the challenge it presented. Those days seem to be over. Glocer makes clear in his speech that he sees a different role for Reuters — and other wire services, I suppose — now. If I understand Jeff’s post correctly, it’s the decline of the news service as publisher, and the rise of its role as a ‘seeder of clouds’:

  • crossroads: stop being a producer and distributor of news, and instead provide the user with the tools to create their own version of the news. Stripped down, this means Reuters would still provide the news, but to individuals wanting to ‘mash up’ their own websites, whether it’s on MySpace or NewsVine or wherever. Reuters might make its money on this through advertising, by providing (I think) software and places for people to do this customizing. These would be open tools, working across websites and with different content. “We are the go-between providing the structure and support… between the information provider and the consumer, even if today they are the very same person.”
  • the blogger is a diarist, the citizen as journalist. Glocer takes a historical view (very refreshing) where he compares the blogging of 7/7 with the first accounts of the Titanic — both events were covered first by witnesses who happen to write down their experiences. The blogger and the citizen journalist, he says, are our friends and allies. Glocer, according to Jeff, uses the Tsunami and the Concorde crash to show how citizen journalists and professional journalists together tell the story more quickly and completely. “There’s no monopoly on being in the right place at the right time.”
  • media companies will be “filter and editor.” He says that “the good stuff will rise to the top” online. reputation is the edge: Clearly Glocer is still sticking to the long-time Reuters mantra that the brand attached to information is important. In a world with so much information, “the consumer gravitates to trustworthy brands.” He points to Google and China: “Reputation is hard-won and easily lost.”

This is powerful stuff, and it’s tremendously reassuring to see that Reuters, which still attracts some of the best journalists in the business, now has someone so articulate and smart at its helm. But questions remain:

  • One commenter to the post claims that “two prominent bloggers for high traffic blogs who are Reuters employees and have been told point-blank that they will be fired if they are discovered blogging (even outside the topics they cover for Reuters).” I don’t know about this, but if it’s true it needs to be sorted out. I can well believe that the vision at the top may not have percolated down, but it should. It’s not a natural reflex for Reuters editors, but they have to let go of the reins on this, and realise that the more Reuters journalists who blog, the better for the company.
  • Glocer cites the tsunami as an example of great eyewitness news, when working together with professional journalists. This is not quite the same as relying on blogger accounts, and I think papers over a serious crack in the citizen journalist model. I didn’t cover it myself, but many of my friends out here covered the tsunami in Aceh, the hardest hit and hardest to reach area. They were up there like a shot, but they needed a lot of logistical support to get there, get stories out, and to be able to survive up there for more than a day (shipping in food, water, shipping out stories etc.) Sure, it’s logistically relatively easy (for witnesses at hotels in Thailand and Sri Lanka to video the tsunami from their hotel windows (I’m not talking about the traumatic impact, or the safety issues; I’m just talking about the logistics here) and then find an Internet cafe that’s not been deluged.
    But it’s a nightmare to get to a place that is remote and has no infrastructure whatsoever. In a purely citizen journalist world I’m guessing Aceh would go to the back of the queue. In a news agency world, there will be journalists and editors and photographers and cameramen who will book choppers, use their contacts to get on relief flights, hire boats and set up convoys of vehicles in order to get to the story and to get it out. This is something that Reuters, and other wire services, do well (although the tsunami also exposed the weaknesses in wire service communications, something a tech-savvy blogger might have been able to help them with). Money is not a factor (well, not a huge factor.) I’m not sure where this model fits in the new model. I guess Glocer’s answer would be that it’s a mix: our reporters in Aceh, tourists in Thailand.
  • I think he’s dead on that reputation is still very important. Google and Yahoo need to figure this out if they are to be content providers. Reuters and other news agencies would pull out all their front teeth rather than compromise their coverage politically or otherwise, although there are interesting anomalies you will only get to hear about if you buy a journalist a beer or six. But the funny thing is that despite Reuters rising as a recognised brand in the online world (pre online, everyone thought they were plumbers) I’m not sure most people know exactly how the agency works, and what it represents. We know NYT, we know WSJ, we know The Guardian. But what is Reuters? I think Glocer’s challenge here is in raising awareness online about what Reuters is. Not just a London-based news organisation, but how its journalists work. How news is gathered, how it’s checked, how it’s filtered.

This brings me to my final point (thank God.) One of the oddities about the blogging/citizen journalist revolution is that it’s largely based on a misconception: That news is easy to get. Sure, if you’re in front of a car crash, you can snap the photo, get a few details and post something to your blog. Maybe you’re the first; maybe someone in one of the cars is famous. You’ll have a scoop.

But most news isn’t like that. It’s digging, sitting through hours of press conference to find something that is significant, to know the right questions to ask. To know about balance, to know not to take things at face value, to confirm facts. This is not to deny the impact that some bloggers have had on the news, digging stuff that journalists missed, or pushing stories that traditional media dropped the ball on. This is all useful stuff.

But Reuters also got its name because it got the news right. There’s no room (well, little room) for Reuters to get a story badly wrong. Heads roll for that kind of thing. And one final thing. It, and other wire services, also got their name because they cover the world, not just the Beltway, or Silicon Valley, or the City. In the end, when all the mashups are done and the photoblogging gets a little tired, it might just be Reuters and its ilk that are still standing, still churning out reliable reports that others can quote in their blog.

3 thoughts on “The Wire Service Lives

  1. Alan VanderMolen

    You and Jeff at BuzzMachine hit on many themes from the Reuters CEO speech. The two most interesting for broad business consumption need debate: Employee bloggers and legal risks associated with them. Certification of citizen journalists — ie, bloggers that don’t have MSM brands to protect.

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