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A cash mountain, job cuts and the silent Trustees

In October, Thomson Reuters received a windfall of $17 billion after selling off its financial division.

If you were naïve, you might suppose that at least some of such a vast war chest could be used to boost Reuters journalism and reverse a decade of losses to Bloomberg. Instead, a few days after the deal was concluded, the start of the latest in a long series of staff cuts was announced, this one particularly brutal.

I say naïve, because such a logical move would suggest a commitment to competitive news coverage and go against the Thomson organisation’s record since it took over Reuters in 2008. Its only big idea is to cut costs and win journalistic prizes, not find ways to be faster with the kind of agenda-setting breaking news that sells terminals to financial customers who pay the bills.

The editorial management brought in by Thomson has too often dissipated Reuters strengths by pushing an ever-decreasing number of journalists to write glossy magazine style articles while still trying to win timings against Bloomberg and others. The results are easy to see. In the decade since the Thomson takeover, Reuters former dominance in financial markets coverage has disappeared and its market share is more than 10 points behind Bloomberg. Such long-form journalism also involves trying to compete in an overcrowded marketplace with providers who don’t have to worry about breaking news.

...doing both breaking news and longer form journalism requires more resources, not less

There have been some excellent longer investigative articles on Reuters, not least from the two brave Myanmar journalists whose prison sentences were confirmed last week. However, doing both breaking news and longer form journalism requires more resources, not less, while much of the  labour-intensive “enterprise” output has taken a long time to tell us nothing new.   

Bloomberg, with a more hard-headed, better funded and strategic vision, has made major inroads into regions where Reuters was once supreme, like the Middle East and Africa. In South Africa, the most important news centre in sub-Saharan Africa, Bloomberg now outnumbers Reuters 3-1. Regional bureaux in east and west Africa have been sharply cut back. Similar cuts have occurred in the Middle East, where Reuters remaining journalists still produce some fantastic cover, but only by sometimes working themselves to exhaustion.

Foreign language services, painstakingly built up over decades, were particularly badly hit. The company wants to cut a third of the total workforce in Italy and an eighth of the German service. These are countries where local language reporters are often at the spearhead of reporting. Visuals has also suffered. Cuts in Italy removed all the staff photographers. A merger between pictures and video news seems bound to diminish the quality and high reputation of both.

Throughout, the Reuters Trustees have remained silent. The people who Reuters journalists believed for decades would protect the agency’s most hallowed principles waved through the Thomson takeover although it broke the Trust principle banning control by any one interest and ignored that company’s reputation for ruthless cost cutting. They also agreed to mysterious “consequential modifications” to the Trust Principles to allow the Blackstone deal. They have said nothing about the commitment under the Trust Principles to expand rather than shrink coverage to maintain Reuters “leading position in the international news and information business”.

One wonders what would induce the Trustees to spring into action. Otherwise, what is the point of them?

Barry Moody left Reuters at the end of 2013 after a 43-year career all over the world as one of the agency's longest serving correspondents and editors. He was Middle East editor for seven years, including the 2003 Iraq war, African editor for 10 years and his final posting was southern European editor based in Rome. ■