Leaning back into the future
Friday 31 May 2013
What is to be made of the appointment of the head of The Economist to run Reuters?
The short answer is a more rigorous commercial approach to news and media. Andrew Rashbass, who takes over in the new role of chief executive this summer, is known as an ambitious and exacting executive who is comfortable with technology and pushes his team to meet aggressive profit targets.
He comes to Reuters with an admired reputation for having turned The Economist Group from a print and advertising-dependent business to a highly successful multi-media one with a significant digital subscription base and record profit. As chief executive, he presided over a period of growth - “especially in the type of deep-pocketed global readers Reuters covets”, as The New York Times put it. His hiring signals Thomson Reuters’ continued desire to turn its news business into a dominant and, crucially, profitable force.
“Our family’s commitment to news stretches back three generations,” said chairman David Thomson, head of the Canadian media dynasty that controls Thomson Reuters. “This key appointment underlines our passionate commitment to Reuters news. We are determined that Reuters news should not only fulfill its critical journalistic mission but also its potential in creating long-term value for our customers and shareholders.”
It doesn’t come much plainer than that.
Our family's commitment to news stretches back three generations
Rashbass, 49, moves in over the head of Stephen Adler, the editor-in-chief. Five months ago Adler’s responsibilities were broadened with his additional appointment as president of Reuters, giving him control of an integrated news and media business operation. It was part of a shake-up in executive ranks that a year earlier saw the departure of Tom Glocer and others, many of them legacy Reuters people.
Glocer’s successor as Thomson Reuters CEO is James Smith, a Thomson veteran whose cost-cutting mantra is focused on delivering better profitability for the family and other shareholders. He said at the time of Adler’s promotion that his expanded role was aimed at improving “operational and strategic alignment and a sharper commercial edge”. This has been translated into a leaner workforce – 2,500 fewer jobs, or roughly four per cent of the group’s 60,000 employees.
Adler is based in New York where Reuters’ editorial headquarters has been located since the 2008 takeover by Thomson. He reports directly to Smith. Come summer, he will report to Rashbass, who will be based in London. Adler’s former deputy Paul Ingrassia recently re-located to London from New York in the role of managing editor. “Moving to London literally puts me at the geographic centre of the Reuters news operation,” Ingrassia said last month. Time will tell whether Reuters’ centre of gravity is shifting back to London.
The new appointment is seen as acknowledgement that Adler’s dual role – directing commercial news strategy as well as editorial operations – is a tactic that hasn’t worked. Adler himself said of Rashbass: “We are both committed to great journalism and his appointment will allow us to continue to do great journalism with a greater likelihood of doing even better commercially.”
“Andrew’s track record as chief executive of the Economist Group speaks for itself,” said Smith. “He brings to us a rare blend of commercial acumen, sensitivity to the best traditions of quality journalism and editorial integrity. And [he] has a proven ability to build and lead great global business teams.”
Rashbass sees Reuters as being well positioned to drive commercial growth. “I am excited to be joining Reuters with its unmatched commitment to reporting with speed, accuracy, integrity and independence,” he said. “As well as being, or in fact because they are, essential to Reuters journalism, these characteristics can also drive huge commercial success.”
The Times describes him as a cheerleader for intelligent journalism and says he argues that there are opportunities for media companies “smarting up, not dumbing down”.
A classicist from Cambridge who studied artificial intelligence for his master’s, Rashbass joined The Economist in December 1997 from Associated Newspapers. Before becoming chief executive he was in charge of The Economist online and was responsible for its website.
“When I was struggling to position the website I made a mistake, which turned out to be a positive mistake. I thought we should do the same online as we did in print, simply transferring from one platform to the other,” he revealed later. “But we carried out research around the world among educated people who didn’t read The Economist and discovered, to our surprise, that it wasn’t what they wanted.”
The team realised there was a distinction between what he called the “lean-back, immersive, ritual pleasure” of reading The Economist in print compared with the “lean-forward, interactive” way people used the site, as he told The Guardian 18 months ago.
It was the difference between “snacking on the net as against the gourmet meal of reading in print”. That convinced him and his team to offer an entirely different experience to website users. Rather than lecturing the audience, they set out to build a community of people eager to participate in discussions with the newspaper’s journalists and with each other.
Then e-readers and tablets like the iPad came along. “We suddenly realised that if we were making a distinction between lean-back and lean-forward, here was lean-back digital or lean-back 2.0. We made a conscious choice to avoid the web-style interactive approach. Instead, we saw the potential of delivering a better lean-back experience than we have ever achieved in print.”
Rashbass added: “You always have to equate your model to the value you can extract compared to the cost of creating that value.”
He takes over Reuters as more competitors crowd into the 24-hour breaking news space once occupied by the agency and a handful of truly global rivals.
News of his appointment coincided with the launch by the Financial Times of a quick-fire, round-the-clock, Monday-to-Friday news service comprising 100-250 word stories for “when 140 characters doesn’t cut it” - a tip to the growing popularity of Twitter as a breaking news tool. The idea behind the new fastFT product - at a time when news is becoming quicker, shorter and more portable – is to offer punchy market-moving news and analysis and thus ensure readers don’t stray from the Financial Times for their business news.
It provides a gateway for the FT to occupy the bite-sized news space with a tool that is a cross between Twitter and a traditional wire. Stories will be published more speedily than a typical news item but provide more context than Twitter. They will not be pitched at traders, but as a companion mobile news source for financial professionals. That’s Reuters territory.
Other vendors are also prowling around, including The Wall Street Journal and a host of new kids on the online block like Circa, Summly, Zite and more - lean, tech-savvy start-ups that are exploring ways to deliver short, easily-digestible summaries of news stories largely originated by more traditional media to mobile devices.
All this comes as Reuters is encouraging its journalists to write more long form articles, as discussed in the latest Baron commentary - Journalism: the long and the short of it.
Which way Reuters goes - the traditional, tightly edited, breaking news wire that fits the new appetite for grab-it-and-run consumption of news or more of the long form articles it has published over the last year or two - will be one of the strategic decisions the new chief executive is likely to face. ■