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Change for the better at Reuters

Reuters has had its cock-ups and casualties since Stephen Adler became editor-in-chief last year and appointed new editors, many of them from the outside, to shake up the news organisation. Cock-ups are unfortunate and casualties in some cases unfair but they are nothing new to Reuters. They should not mask the reality that the journalism at Reuters today is strong and relevant, true to the independence, integrity and freedom from bias that we hold dear and better overall, in my view, than it was in the dark days before the new team took charge.

Change is hard in any large organisation, particularly one as complex as Reuters. It rarely happens without mistakes because organisations are run by fallible human beings. The acid test is whether change is for the good. None of us on the outside can know what it’s like to be on the inside at today’s Reuters, but from what I read of the news file, Reuters is doing its job more effectively than it was a year or two ago.  

When I left in 2007, Reuters was a place where metrics mattered most. Senior editors were bureaucrats first and journalists a very distant second. The measure - literally - of success was speed above all else. It was about how fast you could report what a company said and, in a lot of cases, what other news outlets had and you didn’t. Meeting targets, some of them unethical like keeping corrections to a tiny fraction of your output (which encouraged reporters to overwrite errors rather than rectify them), determined “performance”. It was a depressing, constricting place and, by all accounts, it got worse.

Adler and his team appear to have changed that. They have encouraged initiative reporting among existing and new hires and liberated journalists from the shackles of metrics. The results are showing on the file. In the United States, Reuters has owned coverage of the corporate malfeasance at Chesapeake Energy Corp, which it has reported in the best Reuters tradition of quality journalism based on building good contacts. It has exposed dubious foreclosure practices among US mortgage lenders, revealed a US Justice Department criminal probe into the fixing of the LIBOR benchmark and broken significant news through its expanded legal reporting service. These are agenda-setting stories that exemplify the best that Reuters stands for - meaningful scoops that others cannot match - not the obsession with timings that had journalists chained to their desks watching PR feeds rather than getting out to talk to people. Because of stories like these, US companies that used to treat Reuters as an afterthought are starting to take the news service seriously.

US companies that used to treat Reuters as an afterthought are starting to take the news service seriously

One could argue, as some have done on The Baron, that Reuters is now an “American” news organisation. It is - but Reuters under any ownership should surely aspire to be a stronger force in the world’s biggest financial and media market and it remains a news organisation with a global mission. Its reporting from the Middle East is as outstanding as ever, its grasp of the European debt crisis is unmatched and its coverage of the power struggles in China’s Communist Party is rivaled only by The Wall Street Journal’s (according to a very respected newspaper journalist in Beijing). The quality of writing on top stories like the Aurora slayings in Colorado and the conflict in Syria is much improved. Instead of leaving it to chance as it did in the recent past, Reuters now appears to assign its most gifted and knowledgeable writers to put together the wraps. That’s a welcome flashback to the “good old days” of Lead Subs and other “old-fashioned” practices that the previous leadership seemed to despise and discourage.

Of course, there never were “good old days” at Reuters. I cannot recall a period without cock-ups or casualties. I fume when I think of the full-time freelance I was finally allowed to offer a job to, and then made by HR to withdraw because she was pregnant (she sued and won, thank goodness). I wince when I remember seeing a casual remark I made to my bureau chief about the outcome of an election show up in his news analysis as a quote from a “diplomatic source” (he went on to scale great heights). I smile when I recall sitting in Jerusalem filling out a spreadsheet to report fulfillment of the bureau’s monthly “interview targets” (I made up the numbers so I could spend more time interviewing people). I have worse tales, as I am sure we all do, but they’re best not aired in public.

Rather than “good old days,” in my 25 years at Reuters there were great editors who inspired you to care about the quality and impact of the journalism that Reuters produced, great correspondents you wanted to be more like and great subs who selflessly made your stories so much better. Sometimes there were more of them around, sometimes fewer. How much they could shine always depended on who ran the place. As people who care about Reuters, we must hope there always will be many great journalists there and that they will be allowed to shine. Adler and his team, cock-ups and casualties aside, seem to want to make sure that happens.

Paul Holmes was a journalist for Reuters from 1982-2007 on a variety of assignments, mainly in Europe and the Middle East, and served for nearly five years as editor for political & general news. He now works in New York as a partner for RLM Finsbury, the global strategic communications consulting firm. ■